Short head vs long tail keyphrases

If you’re just beginning to learn about SEO, you may have heard the phrase “long tail” come up in conversation and wondered what it meant.  Wonder no more!

First, a little bit about search behavior.  When people search, a common pattern is to go from shorter, more broad based keywords, to longer, more specific phrases.  For example, when searching for allergy medication, a search pattern might be:


“what causes allergies?”

“allergy remedies”

“allergy medication”

“where to buy Claritron2000”

The key here is that the searcher is not ready to make a purchase at the “allergies” stage.  If you sell allergy medication, you really want to show up when they’re making that last, very specific search.  If you sell Claritron2000, a person searching for “where to buy Claritron2000” is clearly showing the most obvious interest in your product, and is far more likely to actually buy than someone searching for “allergies”.  Now, the other interesting thing about this search behavior is that although searches for a specific keyphrase at that last stage are low, when you total them all up across a product category they actually add up to a lot more than the short keyphrases like “allergies”.  So not only are they better qualified, there are also more customers at that level.

You can get an introduction to the long tail as a statistical property at Wikipedia, but in the search world, we can trend graphed search volume by popularity of keyword to come up with a chart that shows a huge long tail of traffic that stretches out incredibly far to the right. On the other side, the high volume “short head” keyphrases sit at the left of the graph.


Out of many of the sites we see, the top 10 keyphrases usually make up 10-30% of the overall traffic. Put another way, if those site owners only focused on their top 10 keyphrases (the ones their competitors know about too, by the way), they’d be ignoring 70-90% of their potential traffic!  This fact brings its own unique set of challenges in reporting and monitoring, but rewards site owners who focus on their long game.

Adriel Michaud


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