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Is A Long-Tail Keyword Strategy The Best Way to Build Topical Authority?

8 min read

If you know anything about long-tail keywords, you know they were all the rage about six or seven years ago, when they were a really solid way to get your content to rank on SERPs. To this day, marketers still see a lot of value in using long-tail keywords. But more and more, they’re realizing that it’s not as easy to rank using that single strategy alone.

That’s because, in 2013, Google released Hummingbird, a significant overhaul of its search algorithm. A big part of that overhaul was the use of semantics and context to produce better search results for users.

From that point on, while long-tail keywords still helped Google understand what a website’s content was about, it has been important for brands to go beyond their keyword research to provide rich, user-focused content that signals value and domain authority.

Let’s take a look at the original purpose of long-tail keywords, their rise and fall in the SEO world, and how you can move beyond them to deliver content Google and your users will find valuable.

Long-Tail Keywords Defined

In the beginning, there were keywords; those words you included in the title and body of your content to help search engines find you and rank you on their SERPs.

When I began working in the nascent years of content marketing, it was recommended that you use a keyword in the first 40 characters of your title, in the first 25 words of your post, and then about every 100 words after that. Then you had to use it again in your conclusion as well as in your metadata.

This tactic was the best way to rank your content without keyword stuffing, which even back in the earlier part of the decade, was frowned upon.

Keywords were generally one or two words that covered a pretty broad topic: SEO, makeup, cleaning, crafts.

Soon, the internet was flooded with vast swathes of content targeting the same overused search queries. The solution? Long-tail keywords.

Long-tail keywords are keyword phrases with lower search volume. These phrases are more specific and generally three words long or more.

Long tail distribution looks like the graph below.

The head keywords are the popular ones that show higher search numbers at the head of the graph (that spike), while the long-tail keywords constitute the long tail of lower organic traffic results that eventually peter out.

They help you whittle down your topic area to cover a more niche target audience. Instead of crafts, you might use rainy-day crafts for toddlers. Or you might use cleaning your oven safely instead of merely cleaning.

long-tail keyword examples

But in the days before Google and other search engines started recognizing natural speech and search queries in the form of questions, long-tail keywords could cause some readability problems.

Imagine trying to come up with natural ways to insert how to clean your oven safely as many times as the above recommendations. Such was the life of content marketing editors.

Still, using long-tail keywords has a certain appeal for content marketers because it does help you rank on a particular topic where there may not be as much content available for users.

What Is the Long-Tail Keyword Strategy and Why Is It So Popular?

The long-tail keyword strategy gained popularity as a result of too many people chasing after a limited number of broad search queries. Marketing teams discovered that the keyword difficulty for these generic keywords made it impossible to compete.

The long-tail keyword strategy is pretty simple. Your content marketing team does audience and competitor research to determine the types of content they’re going to create. Then, they do their topic research to hone in on some competitive areas.

The next step is to do your keyword research. Many marketers research long-tail keywords using some sort of keyword planner. Just type in a keyword you’re looking to rank on — say, cleaning your oven — and these keyword research tools will give you a list of keyword variations.

Variants supplied by a popular keyword tool

Keep in mind that these keywords are simply variations of the main phrase “cleaning your oven”. You wouldn’t necessarily want to create individual pages targeting every variant.

Now, you may be thinking, “Wait, if I target a keyword with a lower search volume, doesn’t that mean less search traffic?”

Yes and no.

Yes, fewer people are searching for that term. So less organic traffic.

But if you have a great blog post that matches the user intent of a long-tail keyword, you’re more likely to rank on the first page of SERPs. That means a more significant percentage of that smaller audience is going to see your content.

If you take your chances with cleaning your oven, which has a higher search volume, you’re going up against more content that’s already been created and is already ranking. You’re less likely to rank, and fewer people will see your content.

Remember, most users never go past the first page on a search. Would you rather be on the first page of the SERPs for a long-tail keyword or buried at the bottom of the SERPs for a head keyword? Think about it.

Long-Tail Keyword Strategy Disadvantages

At first glance, using long-tail keywords seems like a solid strategy, but it doesn’t really lead to long-term success.

As I mentioned before, long-tail keywords can be tough to use naturally in a post, making your content feel stilted and insincere.

Your audience is looking for reliable content with an authentic voice, so bad grammar and syntax can really hurt your content’s reputation.

There are other disadvantages to a long-tail keyword strategy, as well.

First of all, you can’t do your long-tail keyword research, create your content and call it a day. Your content has to address the intent of the query behind long-tail keywords.

Second, because long-tail keywords have a smaller search volume, it can be hard to balance ranking while pulling in enough traffic. Choose a keyword with a too broad an audience, and you may end up on the second or third page in SERPs. Choose a keyword with too small an audience, and you may rank, but you may not get the page views for which you were hoping.

Finally, pursuing this type of strategy makes it difficult to create a website that has authority. The reason? Instead of building up a resource of topics surrounding a specific subject, you build a patch work of content that has lacks an underlying theme.

How to Improve Your Long-Tail Search Strategy

Ideally you should switch to a topical, intent segmented content strategy. For some that may be a big leap, in which case you need start small.

To improve upon your current approach, you’ll have to do some experimenting and frequent testing to find the right long-tail keywords. Make a list of several long-tail keywords on a particular topic, look at which your competitors are using. Choose a few to create content for and then keep an eye on that content. See how it performs.

Whichever key phrases you choose, make sure you are addressing the intent behind them — and that you’re discussing it fully.

With every piece of content you create, you should follow the entire user journey for a query to understand exactly what the pain points are behind it. Then, answer those pain points. It should cover related sub-topics and demonstrate the expertise, authority, and trustworthiness (EAT) Google is looking for when it assesses the value of your content.

EAT is particularly poignant when you think about voice search. People are talking to their devices more than they’re typing in queries. They may ask several questions to find the answers they’re looking for, and they’re using their own natural speech patterns to do it.

As speech recognition becomes prevalent, creating topic clusters around a particular keyword, while taking into account natural speech, will become critical.

A search engine optimization strategy based on long-tail keywords was an easy way to rank in the early days of content marketing because you weren’t dealing with the volumes of content you are today. It was new, and not everyone had jumped on that bandwagon yet.

If you did get into long-tail keywords early, you’ve probably got some ranking content, and that’s great! But don’t rest on your laurels.

Look at that content and all of your content. Make sure you’re addressing the real user intent behind every keyword. Search competition for some terms is incredibly fierce.

The new way to get an edge is to make sure you have the most comprehensive, authoritative content out there — the kinds of content your users can trust and Google can rank high.

What you should do now

When you’re ready… here are 3 ways we can help you publish better content, faster:

  1. Book time with MarketMuse Schedule a live demo with one of our strategists to see how MarketMuse can help your team reach their content goals.
  2. If you’d like to learn how to create better content faster, visit our blog. It’s full of resources to help scale content.
  3. If you know another marketer who’d enjoy reading this page, share it with them via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook.

Laurie is a freelance writer, editor, and content consultant and adjunct professor at Fisher College.  Her work includes the development and execution of content strategies for B2B and B2C companies, including marketing and audience research, content calendar creation, hiring and managing writers and editors, and SEO optimization. You can connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.