Long-Tail Keywords: What They Really Are & How to Use Them

Jonas Sickler SEO Manager
Key Points
  • Long-tail keywords are unpopular phrases that users only search a few times per month.
  • We call them long-tail because they fall in the elongated part of the keyword search volume graph.
  • Individually, long-tail queries don’t drive much traffic, but collectively they can make a difference.

Let’s talk about long-tail keywords. If you read 100 articles, you’ll find 100 different explanations of what they are.

Some folks define long-tail keywords as phrases with more than five words. Others claim they are less competitive. Some say they convert better, and others state they’re more specific than head terms. In fact, in a recent survey on LinkedIn, only 22% of respondents understood the concept of long-tail terms.

The problem with these definitions is they arbitrarily draw lines in the sand to separate long-tail keywords from chunky middle terms. If one keyword falls to the right of that line, it’s long-tail. If it falls to the left, it isn’t. And most folks wrongly use word count as a deciding metric.

This makes it hard to develop a clear SEO strategy that drives meaningful organic search traffic. Even worse, it could steer beginners down the wrong path and harm their search engine optimization efforts for years.

But don’t worry. In this article, I’ll clarify what long-tail keywords really are, and I’ll explain how you should use them in your SEO strategy.

Why we call them long-tail keywords

Unfortunately, most of the keyword graphs you’ll find online are wrong. Images like the ones below are just illustrations that don’t actually plot any real data. And sometimes the axes don’t even make sense.

example of a bad long-tail keyword graph
example of an inaccurate long-tail keyword graph

However, when we plot keyword search volume data on a graph, we actually see an inverse square curve like the example below. This data contains 7,808 keywords related to content strategy which I exported from Semrush.

long-tail keyword graph example

As you can see, two keywords have high volume (fat head), several hundred terms have moderate volume (chunky middle), and more than 7,000 search queries have very few monthly searches (long-tail).

In fact, 6,252 of the terms show zero monthly volume in Semrush. That’s 80.15% of the queries! (Although, if you use Google Search Console, you’ll see there are more than zero monthly searches for many of those queries.)

When you look at the graph above, it’s easy to see why we call those queries long-tail. With that in mind, here’s an appropriate definition for the concept.

What are long-tail keywords?

MARKETING
TERM
DEFINITION

Long-tail Keywords

Long-tail keywords are unpopular phrases that users only search a few times per month. In other words, they include all the terms that live in the elongated section of the keyword graph.

That’s all there is to it. Long-tail has nothing to do with difficulty, specificity, conversions, or the length of the query. Those qualifiers may be correlated, but they don’t define the concept.

Ultimately, it boils down to how many users type the same query into their search bar each month. When we plot real data, it’s much easier to see where each section of the graph begins and ends.

Long-tail searches are usually similar variations of more popular keywords — and there are a lot of them! That means you typically can’t create separate pieces of content for them because you’ll cannibalize your rankings.

So, if long-tail keywords are unpopular queries with insignificant search volume that are synonymous with higher volume terms, then should you ignore them?

In short: No.

However, you should rethink how you use them. Don’t view long-tail keywords as separate pieces of content unless they have a unique search intent. Instead, think of them as part of a broader network of keyword ideas.

In other words, consider the keyword hierarchy.

Don’t view long-tail keywords as separate pieces of content unless they have a unique search intent.”

Jonas Sickler

Terakeet

Understanding keyword hierarchy

Google’s Search algorithm stopped matching keywords long ago. Now, it analyzes topics and entities among many other factors. So an effective way to rank on the first page of Google is to build your content marketing strategy around topic clusters.

Topic clusters are groups of related keywords organized into a hierarchy of blog posts, content clusters, and categories.

Topic clusters are critical to digital marketing because they help you reach your target audience at each stage of the funnel. They also support your SEO strategy by amplifying your website’s topical authority and boosting your right to rank.

Here’s how all the pieces fit together from the top down.

  • Categories are very broad, high-level themes
  • Topic clusters are groups of topics within a category
  • Head terms are blog posts that address a specific subtopic within a cluster
  • Long-tail keywords are related keywords that support a head term

The graphic below illustrates how long-tail searches usually fit into the topic cluster framework.

keyword hierarchy

SEO benefits of long-tail keywords

Even though searchers rarely use specific long-tail keywords, they can still play a role in your SEO strategy. Individually, low volume keyword variations don’t drive much traffic. However, collectively they can make a difference.

Let’s dive into some of their benefits.

They lead to more comprehensive content

If you create a list of long-tail keywords before you draft your content, then you can use those search terms to inform the depth of your copy.

For example, you might discover several additional angles to include that initially seemed out of scope but are actually part of the broader topic. Or you could find that one particular group of variations is collectively larger than other groups, indicating it may be more important.

Long-tail keywords provide additional context for Google

Some search terms are incredibly broad, especially those with definitional search intent. Take a short-tail keyword like “content strategy,” for example. If someone searches that query, they might just want a simple definition. Or perhaps they want a more in-depth overview of the concept. Or maybe they want to learn how to develop a content strategy. They may even need a template.

The truth is, if you want to rank for a competitive term like that, then you need to create very comprehensive content. Furthermore, adding more specific keywords into your copy gives search engines more context than if you repeat the same broad term throughout the page.

Here are some examples of long-tail keywords related to content strategy that have fewer than 10 monthly searches:

  • content plan vs content strategy
  • how to plan your content strategy
  • the importance of content strategy
  • building your content strategy
  • do i need a content strategy

Strategically adding these terms to your page will help you rank better for the long-tail variations as well as the broader head term.

They satisfy more diverse search queries

One of the advantages of long-tail keywords is they match how consumers search across other mediums. Most folks use Google when they want answers. However, there are many different ways to search, including voice search, image search, text search, and Google’s Multi Search.

It’s important to know how your audience searches for information when you create your content. If they use voice search more often, then they probably use more long-tail keywords. For example, I recently asked Siri, “who was the computer programmer in Jurassic Park who stole the dinosaur DNA?”

But if I typed that query into a search bar, I probably would have written, “programmer from Jurassic Park.”

Long-tail searches are less competitive

Keywords with high search volume are incredibly hard to rank for. On the other hand, marketers often ignore low-competition keywords with less volume. As a result, they’re generally easier to rank for.

So if you add long-tail keywords to your content, then you can often get traffic even if you don’t rank for the main head term. That traffic may lead to natural backlinks, which can help you rank better for your target search terms.

How to find long-tail keywords

Most articles that explain how to do long-tail keyword research actually show you how to find chunky middle terms with several hundred monthly searches. Obviously, those aren’t long-tail keywords.

So I won’t discuss methods that pull keyword suggestions from Google Keyword Planner, Quora, social media, Answer the Public, People Also Ask, Google autocomplete, and related searches at the bottom of the page in the SERP.

These sources, especially PPC-based tools like Google Adwords, return popular keywords. Instead, I prefer to use more traditional SEO tools that include keywords with lower search volume.

To be clear, the terms in the chunky middle are incredibly valuable. In some ways they can be more important than fat head keywords because they’re easier to rank for, more specific, and generally have better conversion rates.

But if you just want to find long-tail queries, I’ll walk you through two methods below.

Competitive analysis method

This is the best way to uncover long-tail keywords before you write your own content. However, I want to emphasize that you shouldn’t limit yourself to just the long-tail. Look for every query your page should rank for — especially those in the chunky middle — or you’ll miss out on valuable search traffic.

Here’s a simple strategy to reveal every keyword your page should rank for.

  1. Google your keyword
  2. Paste the top ranking URL into a keyword research tool like Ahrefs or Semrush
  3. Filter to the top three ranking positions to reveal the most relevant related keywords
  4. Export the keywords to a spreadsheet
  5. Repeat the process for URLs ranking in positions two and three
  6. Combine the keyword lists and deduplicate

The process above ensures you only get the most relevant terms capable of ranking on the first page of Google. If you don’t see enough keywords in the top three, adjust the filter to show terms that rank in the top 10.

Google Search Console (GSC) method

Use this method to find long-tail keywords to add to existing content on your website. In addition to optimizing for a few more keyphrases, you might uncover more topics to include your content.

  1. Go to the Search Results tab in Google Search Console
  2. Set the period to last 30 days
  3. Add a URL filter for a specific page
  4. Export all keywords to a spreadsheet
  5. Filter ranking positions to show values less than 20
  6. Filter impressions to show a value less than 10

To be clear, the above set of rules will give you a list of long-tail keyword phrases. However, I ignore the last step because I want to see all search terms ranking on the first two pages, not just the low-volume queries. We want to maximize traffic, so it doesn’t make sense to ignore terms in the sweet spot of low difficulty and higher volume.

How to use long-tail keywords

I’ll be completely honest, I rarely use true long-tail keywords in SEO.

In most cases, they’re just variations of more popular keywords. That means you can’t create separate pieces of content to target each one. Furthermore, there’s usually a better, more popular version that’s easier to use in your copy. Most importantly, it’s impossible to optimize a single piece of content for thousands of long-tail variations — and you don’t have to. Google understands alternative phrasing very well.

Instead, I prefer to optimize pages for phrases within the chunky middle of the keyword graph. These are more specific and less competitive than the main keyword, but they’re still easy to optimize for.

In fact, these are the terms most SEOs erroneously call long-tail keywords.

To get started, group your long-tail keywords into similar variants to see which phrases are collectively more popular. Then, identify the highest volume phrases within each group.

Finally, use these terms in your page copy, internal links, and backlinks to help search engines understand your pages better. In the case with backlinks, you’ll provide richer detail about your page while also reducing over-optimized anchor text.

Keyword cannibalism warning

One of the biggest mistakes folks make when using long-tail keywords is creating separate pages for similar keyword variations that all have the same intent. That was how Google worked decades ago. Now, that approach will cause you to fight yourself for rankings.

To avoid cannibalising your rankings and wasting time creating redundant content, learn to group your keywords.

It isn’t very efficient to manually group keywords, but I do it anyway. There are many SEO tools that automate the process, but few get it right. In the end, it doesn’t take much time to manually search and group keywords yourself. If you plan to invest 5 – 10 hours writing a page, why not spend 10 minutes grouping long-tail keywords first?

Bottom line: If two keywords return very similar URLs on the first page of Google, then group them into one piece of content. If they have a different search intent, then create separate pages.

Summary

As you can see, long-tail keywords aren’t the massive, traffic-driving unicorns that many SEOs claim. You can’t create hundreds of blog posts or pages for them without hurting your organic search performance.

However, they do have a place in your SEO strategy. Long-tail keywords can help improve Google’s understanding of your content and drive incremental traffic through micro-optimization.

As always, put your user first. Don’t over-optimize content with awkwardly-phrased keywords or repeat too many similar variations in your content that could harm user experience.

Instead, use keywords to enhance search intent, amplify relevance, and connect with your target audience.

Long-tail keywords FAQs

What are long-tail keywords?

Long-tail keywords are unpopular phrases that users only search a few times per month.

How do you use long-tail keywords to improve SEO?

The best way to use long-tail keywords is to group them into clusters that all have the same search intent. Then, write one blog post that’s optimized for the group because they’re too similar to target with separate pieces of content.