Long tail keywords are widely considered to be fundamental to search marketing success due to the low-cost traffic that they generate, however should this still be the case in 2017?

This article is going to analyze data from case studies conducted by Clicteq and PPC Hero that suggests that long tail keywords are now almost obsolete when it comes to AdWords.

For the sake of this article we are going to classify long tail keywords as being four-words-long or more, though there is some debate with people arguing that keywords that are three or more words long should be classified as long tail.

Search marketers have generally accepted that the key phrase curve looks like the one below.

It shows that a small percentage of traffic comes from 1-3 word phrases and the vast majority of traffic (around 70%) comes from the long tail (keywords that are four or more words in length).

Image Source

However analysis from more recent studies shows that as much as 52% of traffic is generated by single phrase keywords, which is in stark contrast to the 10% depicted by the diagram above.

The two long-tail case studies

This article will make three key arguments about the effectiveness of the long tail:

  1. From a time perspective you are 33% more effective working on the top 20% of keywords as you are working on keywords that contain four or more words.
  2. 90% of your impressions are generated by search terms that are four words long or fewer, therefore the long tail only accounts for 10% of all paid search traffic and not the 70% that the widely accepted key phrase curve depicts.
  3. For keywords that contain four or more words you would need on average to add 200 keywords to generate one click per month. Adding these keywords would be a poor use of your time and make your account hard to manage.

Argument 1. Your time is 33x more effective spent working on the top 20% of keywords as opposed to keywords that are four or more words in length.

Here is the data from PPC Hero’s case study that showed that keywords that are 5+ words in length generated 15 out of 608 conversions, resulting in a tiny 2.4% of the total number of conversions.

These 15 conversions were generated by 138,638 keywords, which is an awful lot to manage considering that they provide such a small return.

Clicteq’s case study delivered similar results when it conducted the same analysis. Here you will see that only 15 conversions came from keywords that were five or more words in length. This accounted for 2.7% of the total number of conversions.

However in this case there were only 533 keywords that were five words in length or longer. The graph below shows the percentage of the total number of conversions versus the length of each search term.

If you were to spend your time optimizing the top 20% of keywords that generate 85% of your conversions, instead of the keywords that are 4+ words in length, your time would be spent much more effectively.

For example if you were to increase your Quality Score from five to seven you would reduce your CPC by 26% according to studies by Wordstream.

If you did this for all of the keywords within your account that are 4+ words in length this would result in a 0.62% decrease in CPC across your account. However if you were instead to do this to your top 20% of keywords you would decrease your CPC across your account by 20.80% which is 33X more effective.

Argument 2: If you swap all of your short tail keywords for long tail keywords you would lose 90% of your impressions and 80% of your conversions.

The table below shows the number of impressions and conversions for keywords depending on the number of words within the search term.

From the search terms report you will see that 434 conversions out of the total 532 were generated by keywords between 1-4 words long, accounting for 81.5% of the total number of conversions.

You should also see that 581 conversions were generated by search terms that were 4+ words long, accounting for 18.5% of the total conversions.

Furthermore 94.9% of all impressions came from search terms that were four words in length or fewer. (Some impressions appeared to be omitted within the SQR as the CTR was not around 20%).

There were similar results when looking at PPC Hero’s data when Sam Owen did the same analysis.

PPC Hero found that 93% of impressions came from search terms that were 1–4 words in length. So if you were to change out your short tail keywords for long tail ones you would loose 93% of your impression share.

PPC Hero’s data also clearly shows that the existing consensus that 30% of impressions come from keywords that are 1-3 words long is inaccurate in 2017. From their data you can see that 74.5% of impressions and 51% of conversions came from search terms that are between 1-3 words in length.

PPC Hero’s and Clicteq’s data would indicate that changing out your short tail keywords for long tail variants will result in a loss in conversions of around 80%. By combining the data from both case studies in 2017 the long tail curve looks like this:

Argument 3. You would need 200 keywords containing 4+ words to generate one click per month, which would be inefficient to manage.

One of the biggest issues with catching long tail search queries with exact keywords is that you will require a lot of keywords, which becomes inefficient to manage.

When Sam Owen from PPC Hero analyzed the number of impressions per keyword he found that search terms that contained 4+ keywords saw a significant drop off in conversions.

For example, to generate one impression you would need an average of 10 keywords that are 4+ words long. Furthermore, to generate one click per month at a 5% CTR you would need 200 keywords on average.

Even if you are able to capture all of these search terms with exact keywords you are unlikely to actually increase the performance of your account.

Once you start using keywords that are 4+ words in length you start to find that you can’t make your ads any more specific due to AdWords character constraints. Furthermore, you can’t really set specific bids for each keyword as you won’t have enough data and therefore will have to use aggregate data to determine the bids.

If your long tail keywords are generating 0.1 impressions per keyword per month then you would have to wait about 100 years to get enough data to make a statistically accurate bid judgment even if the keyword had a 10% CTR.

As you have to use aggregate bids and can’t make your ads more specific, you may as well use shorter tail keywords that utilize the phrase or broad match types to catch these search queries.

If you are interested in running this analysis on your own account follow these instructions.

How long should your keywords be?

Based on the analysis from both Clicteq and PPC Hero the best length for keywords is between 2-4 words long. But it should be noted that in some industries keywords that are one word in length will perform well, as PPC Hero’s analysis showed.

When keywords start to exceed four words in length they generate very few impressions and conversions, and it comes to a point where time spent optimizing them would be much better spent working on your top 20% of keywords.

With regards to distribution, based on the two studies the bulk of your keywords should be between 3-4 words in length as these generally provide the best ROI when considering the amount of time that you are spending optimizing.

Three effective tactics for finding mid-tail keywords

1. Use keyword multiplier tools

If you are a retailer, keyword multipliers are a really smart way to generate a large list of mid tail keywords. Fashion retailers might use keyword multipliers to create keywords for each different size/colour of items.

For example, here is a page on ASOS’s website that has men’s polo shirts.

We want to use the different filters down the side to create keywords for each of the different types of polo shirt.

STEP 1. Open Google’s keyword multiplier tool within AdWords Keyword Planner.

STEP 2. There should be three different fields where you can add lists to be multiplied together. Here you will want to start with the root word “polo shirts” in the first box and then add one set of filter values to the second box, and then another set of filter values to the third box.

For example, I have added the sizes to one box and then the colours in another as shown below.

STEP 3. Once you have done this, click “get forecasts” and then download the keywords that have at least 10 searchers per month to use in your campaigns.

2. Use Ubersuggest keyword tool

Ubersuggest is a very effective tool for finding mid to long tail keywords by scraping results for Google’s autocomplete suggestions.

STEP 1. Go to Ubersuggest.io

STEP 2. Enter your root keyword, in this case “polo shirts”.

STEP 3. You will then see a large number of suggestions. At this point you will want to select relevant keywords and add them to a list, which you can download by checking the radio box next to the keyword.

STEP 4. To find even more relevant keywords, click on the little blue arrow next to relevant keywords and then click to expand this keyword. This will then show you additional relevant suggestions.

STEP 5. Once you are happy and have selected all of the relevant keywords, download them by going to the ‘keywords selected’ tab as shown below.

3. Reviewing your search terms report for long tail variants

Your search terms report can be a holy grail for finding new long tail keyword suggestions.

It shows you all of the different terms that users have typed in to find your ads. Here is a diagram that shows how the process works.

Image source 

STEP 1. Navigate to your search terms report as shown below.

STEP 2. You can now go down the list of search terms and look for relevant mid tail keywords to add to your campaign. Once you have found a relevant search term that you want to add to your campaign check the radio box next to it.

STEP 3. Once you have selected all of the mid to long tail search queries that you want to add as keywords, go to the top of the page and select “Add as keyword”. Once you have done this you will then be prompted to click ‘save’ on the next window.

In conclusion…

When analyzing the data from the Clicteq and PPC Hero case studies, it is apparent that the accepted long tail curve no longer holds true in 2017.

In 2017 around 94% of impressions will come from search terms that are four keywords or fewer, compared to the 30% that was previously accepted, making it virtually impossible to double your revenue by changing out your short tail keywords for longer, more specific ones.

When considering the amount of time that it takes to optimise an account, the long tail is not as effective as it was first thought. The PPC Hero study found that 2.4% of conversions came from keywords that were 4+ words in length, while in the Clicteq study the figure was 2.7%.

When comparing the effectiveness of the time spent optimizing long tail keywords to that of optimizing the top 20% of keywords that generate 80%+ of your conversions, your time is spent 33x more effectively on the latter.

Finally, we found that on average you would need to add 200 keywords that were 4+ words in length to generate one click per month, which would be highly time consuming and a poor use of your time.

By all means these stats will vary slightly from account to account and industry to industry, but we have not yet found an account where the main arguments have not held true.

With this being a controversial topic I am interested in hearing other people’s options on the study and welcome debate.

To learn more on this topic, check out these resources: