Using long-tail keywords lets you focus on millions of markets of dozens, rather than dozens of markets of millions.

For sales success, make your keywords like this salamander: long-tail.

Selecting the right keywords for your SEO campaign is as critical as choosing what to wear each morning — your keywords set the stage for your entire tone and content. As we well know, SEO is a crazy-competitive landscape these days, which increases the challenge of keyword selection. Many marketers believe that going after the obvious — and thus the most sought-after — keywords is the smart way to proceed. These are called head keywords. They’re short and popular, but if you use them it’s very difficult to achieve high rankings. While using head keywords is an option, it’s an insanely difficult hill to climb. Instead, we suggest a more brilliant option: Long-tail keywords.

Long-Tail Keywords: A Lengthy Definition

The overall long-tail strategy has been prevalent in marketing for about a decade. Chris Anderson, author of “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More,” sums up the core thinking behind this approach thusly:

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of ‘hits’ (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. … As the costs of production and distribution fall, especially online, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers.

The keyword space is no different. Long-tail keywords are to head keywords what an ellipsis is to a period. They are — you guessed it — longer (three to five words versus one or two) and far more specialized, therefore less used. Head keywords are guilty of violating Anderson’s “one-size-fits-all container” warning, which is why they are still so darn appealing: who doesn’t want to reach everyone? You don’t. Seriously, it’s actually not profitable for your business.

Let’s use a test case to prove this point. Imagine you run an online business that sells lots and lots of fancy-pants shoes — we’ll call it “” In conjuring a keyword strategy, it may feel instinctive to go for the gold and try to rank high for the word “shoes.” If your strategy is purely focused on increasing the volume of traffic to your site, this isn’t a bad tactic. “Shoes” is a head keyword. These are most valuable when used to funnel lots of folks in your general direction, or to at least create brand awareness in search engine results. But for most of us, keyword strategies are about increasing the bottom line. If that isn’t your focus, it surely will show in your results.

Bear in mind that attempting to rank on page 1 with a head keyword this popular is a mighty task indeed. The amount of effort required to succeed in such a behemoth of a task would be far, far better vectored in the direction of long-tails. Long-tail keywords are statistically shown to drive more targeted traffic that actually raises conversions to your site. In other words, long-tails won’t bring the volume that head keywords do, but you’re far more likely to see a sale at FancyPantsShoes from this more targeted approach.

How would that look for your shoe site? First, you’d want to thoughtfully analyze your current sales to see which items are most popular. It’s the holidays right now, so suppose your sale on fuzzy bunny slippers is showing some serious traction. “Fuzzy bunny slippers” would qualify as a long-tail keyword. So would “sexy red stilettos” and “Hello Kitty shoes.” If those are products you know are your sweet spot, an SEO campaign is warranted.

Why Long-Tail Keywords are Better at Raising Profits

It’s understandable if the math isn’t quite adding up for you yet. For many, the idea of generating far more traffic from head keywords has too great an allure.

Consider it this way: Users searching for “shoes” are likely in the first stage of their purchasing decision. They may be testing the Internet waters to determine a selection of sites that sell shoes, or they may be window shopping for more specific ideas. Even if they land on FancyPantsShoes, these customers are not ready to plunk down their payment info. Those searching for “fuzzy bunny slippers,” however, know what they want. If they are led to your bunny slipper page — which offers a great deal and an easy checkout process, or even lowered shipping costs — you are much more likely to have a sale. Furthermore, if your site is well designed, you may lure a fuzzy slippers guy into buying those slick high heels for his wife and nabbing a pair of Hello Kitty cuties for his little girl. See the power of being specific? Give the people what they want.

Joe Krause, CEO of Google-acquired JotSpot, brilliantly expressed the long-tail strategy like this:

Up until now, the focus has been on dozens of markets of millions, instead of millions of markets of dozens.

Stop trying to be all things to all people. Chances are it’s not working. Focusing on long-tail keywords is a simpler, cheaper, and more effective approach.

Image by Mary Huebner

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