The Long Tail is Dead. Long Live the Long Tail!

Kevin Madden / 9th June 2017 / Comment

You’ve no doubt heard the tired cliché “content is king,” but on today’s tailor fitted search engine results pages (SERPs), a less often used and more accurate maxim may be that “context is king.” The context of a search query provides insight into a searcher’s intent, which has always directly correlated with the conversion probability of traffic generated by certain queries. As Google’s search ranking algorithm advances, searchers become more likely to unwittingly espouse their intentions long before getting results.

The user data Google collects feeds a search algorithm that is constantly fine tuning its ability to provide context for a greater number of search queries. For example, it’s no longer necessary to declare your location when looking for a brewery, comic book store, or emergency room. Whether you’re meandering around your own neighborhood or rambling abroad, Google can easily determine your location. Even if you have location services turned off on your phone, they can use data collected from all the Google services you interact with to determine what local results to serve up. Google says they “tailor your search results based on interests you’ve expressed in Google+, GMAIL, and YouTube.”

Basically, every search is nuanced by past queries, interactions, historical locations, device info, and other data.

So what does this all mean for the long tail? For users, this inadvertent divulgence of your intent as a searcher means you no longer need to type out long tail queries. This doesn’t mean websites can ignore long-tail optimization, however. Whether a user types it or Google infers it from data, it’s still imperative to fully optimize for those long tail queries to be competitive, especially on local SERPs.

Anatomy of The Contextual Long Tail

A long tail keyword query is a phrase, usually containing three or more keywords, that is extremely specific in its intent. Because of this specificity, the searcher is considered far more likely to convert (since they already know exactly what they’re looking for).

Take, for example, the long tail phrase “knee replacement seattle.” Notice that within the phrase, the need is clearly defined. The searcher is not looking for a list of doctors or hospitals in Seattle, but is instead looking for more information about doctors or hospitals that specialize in a specific service (knee replacements, in this case).

There is declared context in addition to the implied context. The searcher has felt it necessary to include “seattle” in their query, suggesting they are either 1) not actually located in Seattle, and know they’ll need to narrow down the results in this way, or 2) are beyond the research stage and want to find a healthcare provider that provides knee replacements. The implied context in this case would be the searchers actual location, search history, and previous interactions, all of which may alter the results.

The Evolving Search Paradigm

The Old Search Paradigm

There used to be three primary buckets for search queries. The examples below are in line with the “knee replacement seattle” phrase used above:

  • The Fat Head: These are the highest volume keywords with the highest cost per click, but very unlikely to lead to a conversion. They are general phrases often including brands and single words. e.g. doctor’s office, hospital, swedish hospital, swedish medical group, etc.
  • Chunky Middle: These are Fat Head+ phrases that provide a bit more context, most often a location, with the next highest volume and greatly improved conversion probability. e.g. doctor’s office seattle, hospital seattle, swedish hospital first hill, etc.
  • The Long Tail: Search queries made up of three or more words, likely unbranded, and including a location. Their likely intent is research or securing a location to purchase a product or service. e.g. knee replacement seattle, primary care physicians seattle, etc.

The New Search Paradigm

Thanks to mobile devices overtaking computers in volume of searches in recent years, Google has had to rely more heavily upon context as a ranking signal. In this way, Google’s Hummingbird algorithm, with its local Pigeon updates and RankBrain, has given birth to the contextual query. The contextual query is easiest to understand from the perspective of a searcher.

  • Need: You’re looking for a hospital and Google “hospital”
  • Need + Implied Context: You’re in Seattle Washington. Google knows this and so they provide you with a local map pack and only local hospital listings on the first page. You don’t have to change the query “hospital” to get this result.
  • Need + Implied & Declared Context (The New Long Tail): You’re still searching for a hospital and looking for the best hospitals for cancer patients in the area. You type in “best cancer hospitals” but find that the SERP has not been tailored to your location so you try “best cancer hospitals in seattle.” Now you’re served up local results, along with a map pack and a very helpful featured answer with a list of the best hospitals in Seattle. Like the long tails of old, these queries run three or more words. They are search phrases with the lowest search volume but the highest conversion probability.

Optimizing for the New Long Tail

Becoming even a top 5 result for long tail keywords can be extraordinarily beneficial for any business attempting to overtake a competitor in the SERPs. Not only do long tail keywords drive relevant traffic, but they also have the potential to build brand awareness and loyalty by providing answers and services to highly converting new searchers.

Fortunately, these extremely valuable Need + Implied + Declared Context keyword phrases are often much easier to rank for. Long tail keywords are likely to be ignored by competitors who are enjoying top results in the SERPs for Need and Need + Implied keyword phrases, which means low volume and competition will keep the keyword difficulty to a minimum. Here are just few questions to ask before formulating a long tail keyword strategy.

You want to make sure your site is a good answer to the long tail query. So, ask yourself:

  1. Do your landing experiences satisfy the context of long tail queries?
  2. Is your site an appropriate result for the implied context?
    • Are you close enough to the searcher?
    • What does the current local SERP look like? Are you within striking distance?
  3. Is your site or local listing an appropriate result given the declared context of the query?

Finding these long tail keywords can be difficult. Google’s search volume data has become more and more useless over the years. However, a combination of impression data from Search Console, GMB Insights, and a good keyword tracking tool is a great place to start.

By Kevin Madden