A long-tail search phrase is a multi-word search query entered into a web browser. Many search queries, made by average search engine users, will be long-tailed when searching for something specific.

Needle in a haystack

The internet is the biggest marketplace in the world, so phrasing a search query requires some thought. For example, someone looking to buy a new car could just search on the term ‘car’. In this instance, ‘car’ would be a search keyword.

The search results returned results for ‘car’ will likely be in the millions and they won’t just be related to services selling new cars. The results will include any websites with car-related content and this could be anything from car reviews to car cleaning services. More detail is required to get the right search results.

Expanding a search term

Sticking with the same example, the search user could now specify the type of object being sought, in this case it will be a ‘new car’. A search query greater than one word is often referred to as a ‘keyword phrase’. The terms keyword phrase and long-tailed search phrase are often used interchangeably but a long-tailed search phrase is normally longer and consists of a proper phrase. A keyword phrase could be a collection of related keywords that don’t necessarily make up a structured phrase. There will be examples of both these further in the article.

Now the search query has been expanded to ‘new cars’, the search results will be more relevant and should be mostly populated with websites providing content related to new cars. Of course, this could include new car reviews, new car accessories, how to win a new car, etc. To return results relating to ‘buying’ a new car, the search engine needs more information.

Adding purpose to the search

The next step is to tell the search engine what action the user hopes to take. In this case it’s buying. A search phrase of ‘buy a new car’ will increase the filtering done by the search engine and the results should now be far more useful.

Close to home

The next issue is geographic. For some products, it does not matter where a business is located. For example, buying a book from Amazon does not require an Amazon store to be nearby, as a book can be posted to anywhere. However, some items, such as a new car, may be purchased from a physical location and the search user intends to go and look at an item before deciding to make a purchase. In this instance, geographic location will be a factor.

Search engines are getting better at automatically detecting where a user lives and adjusting search results to be geographically relevant. This is referred to as ‘local search’ and how that works is beyond the scope of this article. Even with local search, national results will be included in returned data and therefore it’s best to specify a location, if this is crucial. For the ‘buy a new car’ example, this could be similar to ‘buy a new car in Dallas’. The level of geographic specificity will depend on the size of the area a user lives in and how far he or she is willing to travel.

Long-tailed search phrase vs keyword phrase

The extended search query of ‘buy a new car in Dallas’ is a good example of a long-tailed search phrase. The query involves multiple words and forms a grammatical sentence. This is how most people speak and people often enter proper phrases as search queries.

A keyword phrase would be ‘buy new car Dallas’ or ‘Dallas buy new car’. A keyword phrase typically omits prepositions or ‘joining words’ (and, a, the, in, etc.). Search engines do ignore some ‘unnecessary’ words, for example ‘in’, when retrieving search results, and so a keyword phrase can returns similar results to a long-tailed phrase. This is why the terms long-tailed phrase and keyword phrase are sometimes used interchangeably.

Long-tailed phrase and SEO

One of the important strategies for achieving a high search engine ranking for a website is keyword relevance. This is normally a result of including keywords in backlink anchor text and strategically placing the keywords in the website content.

A new or unestablished website is realistically unlikely to rank for common keywords and short keyword phrases, such as ‘car’, ‘make money’, web design’, ‘mortgages’, etc. There is simply too much competition. Ranking well for a long-tailed search phrase is more practical. A new website should select long-tailed phrases to begin with i.e. ‘fixed rate mortgage for new buyers in Cincinnati’. Once the website becomes more established, and gains a better search weighting and quality score, it can look to rank for the common, competitive search terms.

Cheaper textual advertising

Most search engines offer paid advertising that is featured above or beside the top search results. Even social media sites, such as Facebook, now offer advertising space. While there are some slight differences between each vendor, in how adverts are prepared, they all revolve around choosing keywords and keyword phrases for the advert. Adverts appear in search results when a user inputs a search query matching (or close to) the keywords or keyword phrases specified for the advert.

Long-tailed keywords can be very useful for textual advertising. The popularity of a keyword or phrase will determine its ‘cost-per-click’ (CPC). People buying adverts are charged a set amount each time search users click on their adverts – hence the term ‘cost-per-click’. The more popular the keyword, the more competition, and the higher the CPC. A long-tailed search phrase will have less competition and will therefore have a lower CPC. Additionally, the advert will only be displayed for the targeted search phrase and this means people clicking in the advert are more likely to be looking for exactly what the website is offering., leading to a higher ROI (return-on-investment).

Deciding on a long-tailed search phrase

The use of long-tailed search phrases is a great strategy for establishing a good search engine rank and obtaining cheaper, targeted advertising. New websites need to take the time to decide on the keyword phrase(s) to use. Website keywords are as important as how a website looks.

Some good ways to decide on a long-tailed phrase are: think about what search query a visitor would use to find a specific item, check out the competition and see what phrases they rank, or use Google Adwords and see how many searches are performed each month for a search term.