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Using short- and long-tail keywords online – a beginner’s guide

Writing online but unsure about which keywords to use or where to put them to satisfy search engine requirements? Hopefully this beginner’s guide will help.

Search engines can be your best friends or your worst enemies. If you play by the rules they are easy to please – and you don’t even need to remember their birthdays or buy them flowers.

They are there to reward the sites that people like the most – and they are getting rather good at it. So the ultimate boss is not Google, Bing or Yahoo. It’s you. The user.

Websites that concentrate solely on trying to impress search engines risk neglecting the user. This is likely to annoy your Googles of this world in the long run, which means you lose on both counts.

It goes without saying the best sites keep a very firm eye on search engine requirements but this should never be at the expense of user experience.

The phrases you use in your text are a great example of this – so, as if by magic, that’s what we are going to take a look at now:-

What are keywords and why are they so important?

Keywords are certain crucial words or phrases in your website’s content that tell both the search engine and the user what you are writing about.

You will be using these keywords in various places such as the title tags, meta descriptions and headlines as well – but we’re going to blog about that later. For now we are going to focus on the text that will appear on your page.

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There’s an art to using keywords the right amount and in the right place without compromising the user experience. You mustn’t overdo it – but more on that later.

Let’s pretend we own a shoe shop, for example. Presumably we’ll want prominent mentions of various trainers, boots or sandals that we sell in our copy – where relevant.

Fair enough. But long gone are the days where we could stuff our copy with dozens of mentions of “six-inch stilettos” and con Google into believing we are the world’s foremost authority on the subject.

Not only will search engines see through this and penalise us accordingly but if the writing is stilted, clunky or contrived people will ‘bounce’ away from our site.

A high bounce rate not only means we are losing potential customers in the short term, it will result in our site getting relegated down a search engine’s pecking order for the future. Bad news basically.

So what are short- and long-tail keywords?

Short-tail keywords are one- or two-word words or phrases that are central to what you are talking about.

Taking our shoe shop example, short-tail keywords might include ‘shoes’, ‘trainers’, ‘women’s platforms’ or ‘beige sandals’ to name but a few.

They are broad catch-all terms so it won’t surprise you to learn they are tapped into search engines very frequently.

Hence if your pages are well optimised for short-tail keywords you should attract a fair amount of traffic. All things being equal and all that.

Long-tail keywords are longer, more specific phrases like ‘women’s dark brown quilted lace-up riding boots’ or ‘men’s green suede Adidas Gazelle trainers’.

If they are buying a physical product, users often tap in various adjectives to describe its colour, material, size, style or shape, for example.

If they are thinking of trying before they buy, most will also tap in a location.

It goes without saying there’s a much greater chance someone is going to tap short-tail keywords like ‘green shoes’ into Google than long-tail phrases like ‘men’s green suede Adidas Gazelle trainers’. For example.

So you generally won’t attract as much traffic for long-tail keywords. However, that’s only part of the story, and the following part is far more important…

Why long-tail keywords are more valuable than short-tail keywords

Congratulations if you have already worked this one out but short-tail keywords are so popular because they are so broad.

They are umbrella terms that people often use when they are testing the water towards the start of their search.

Every man, woman and child from Land’s End to John o’ Groats and beyond who wants any kind of shoe from black high heels to beige sandals to men’s driving shoes might still land on your page after tapping in ‘shoes’.

If you are a sports shop that only sells trainers the vast majority of these customers will be of absolutely no use to you – and you are of no use to them. Hence you will lose the vast majority of them in the blink of an eye. And that’s bad news for your bounce rate too.

However, if you are a sports shop that sells men’s green suede Adidas Gazelle trainers then someone who taps in ‘men’s green suede Adidas Gazelle trainers’ is infinitely more valuable to you.

These long-tail customers already have a firm idea of what they want – so assuming you can supply it for a reasonable price you’ve got a great chance of sealing the deal.

In other words, while short-tail keywords are likely to drive more people to your site, long-tail keywords will drive the right people to your site – people who are closer to buying what you are offering. People who are more likely to convert into customers.

A study published by Calculate Marketing backs this up – showing conversion rate improving as the length of search terms increases.

There’s also another reason why long-tail keywords are so valuable: They are less competitive.

It’s much easier to rank at the top of Google for ‘men’s green suede Adidas Gazelle trainers’ than it is for ‘shoes’ because far fewer web pages are trying to do so.

As a result, you are more likely to get to the top of Google’s results pages for specific, relevant long-tail phrases than for broad catch-all short-tail phrases. So there.

What kind of keywords are people likely to tap in when searching?

A study by marketing blog Search Engine Watch found that about 60% of searches were for words and phrases that contained between 11 and 20 characters in total.

However, unsurprisingly they found that longer searches converted the most customers – with searches of between 31 and 35 characters taking the honours in gold medal position. This backs up our theory that these longer phrases are the most valuable.

Research shows that five-eight word searches more than doubled from 2004-2009, for example – so people’s habits might be changing. And that shouldn’t surprise you.

As search engines deliver better searches over time – as is the case – people modify their searches accordingly.

There’s plenty of evidence to suggest people are also getting more chatty with their searches, phrasing their queries more like questions they would ask in everyday speech – see our blog about Google’s Hummingbird algorithm if you’d like to know more.

A growth in the popularity of smartphones and tablets and the general increase in internet usage across the entire population also affect searching habits.

And it goes without saying your online content needs to adapt to reflect people’s searching habits.

Short-tail keywords shouldn’t present too much of a problem – you should be able to squeeze them into your copy relatively seamlessly.

Long-tail phrases, on the other hand, can be harder to squeeze into the right places without making your copy look awkward – and this is one area where an expert copywriter can add a lot of value.

Either way, we’d recommend keywords take up an absolute maximum of 5% of your overall copy – it’s crucial you don’t look like a keyword spammer.

Even 5% can be pushing it and if it feels like you are forcing words in for the sake of it take a step back from the keyboard and start again. Remember rule No.1: If you have to choose, write for the reader – not the search engine.

How long should the copy be on my web pages?

Mmmm. This is a tough one.

Accepted logic says that people have short attention spans when they are on the web and copy should be short accordingly.

But accepted logic isn’t always right.

It’s true people skim read when on the web – it seems most of us only take in about 20% of the words we read online.

And there is certainly a time and a place for keeping your copy minimalist. However, that doesn’t mean shorter copy is necessarily better.

There’s plenty of compelling evidence to suggest that people prefer longer copy – if you believe this guide to increasing blog traffic, posts of over 1500 words receive 68.1% more tweets and 22.6% more Facebook likes.

And there’s more. This analysis of what appears at the top of search engine results pages suggests Google tends to reward pages that contain more than 2000 words – with pages towards the very top often closer to 2500.

As always the user experience is key so it goes without saying waffle is an absolute no-no. However, if those extra words are adding genuine value, don’t be afraid to post entries of 2000 words plus.

Which keywords you choose will of course depend on your business – and which of your products or services are the most valuable to you.

You can certainly guess at which keywords might work best for each and how exactly to phrase them.

However, if you want to maximise your chances of reaching as many paying customers as possible, our advice would be to remain open minded: Do not assume that everyone’s search habits are the same as yours. See below for an example…

Picking the most valuable keywords for your business – a case study

In the last few days we’ve started doing some SEO work for a removals company who are based in London.

We’ve just started our keyword research for them and initial findings suggest that while a paltry 11 people a day search for “London removal company”, the alternative phrase “removal company London” is nearly twice as popular.

That’s still not a lot of people though.

Closer to 80 people search for “London removals” but that is well and truly overshadowed by “removals London”, which averages out at a far more impressive 145 searches a day. Now we’re talking.

However, even that number pales into insignificance when up against “removal companies”, which chalks up nearly 500 searches a day.

But try not to be seduced by that big number because that’s not even half the story – quality is every bit as important as quantity when it comes to search, which means that the most popular phrases aren’t necessarily the best.

You need to determine which phrases are best at converting into customers for your business before you can work out which are the most valuable to you.

For example, because our client only services London and the surrounding area, any phrases that include London are far more likely to convert into customers than any without a geographical bias (eg “removals company”) or with too broad a catchment area (eg “man and van UK”).

As a result, “removal companies” is not that valuable a phrase to him.

Without giving the game away too much, it’s safe to say we’d rather get our client ten high-quality clicks a day than 100 low-quality clicks.

We suggest you do your research so you can be confident about not only which are the most popular phrases, but which are the most valuable to you.

Google’s keyword planner can help – but it is less user-friendly than it used to be so you might need to get an expert on the case. We’ve got a few tricks up our sleeve and we’d be happy to help.

Failing that, one simple option is to use the autocomplete on the search bar. Start typing a relevant word or two and Google will tell you what it thinks you might be looking for.

It’s often a good indication of what is popular but it goes without saying this is in no way tailored for your business so I’d be prepared to take any results with a massive pinch of salt – cue our customary silly picture caption:-

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Finally, after Claire dropped the container 4.8million times, the granules spelt out the word she was looking for

Ok well I hope this helps. There’s a lot to take on board and we’ve only touched the surface so feel free to call us on 0207 100 4562 at any stage if you’d like a no-obligation chat. Failing that, best of luck!

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