Here at Semify, we’re all about sharing our knowledge in the name of growing together. And although we know a whole lot about SEO, we’d never claim to be the only resource you need to reference when growing your agency or helping your clients.

So we’re ramping up our efforts to host webinars, attend industry conferences, and share what we’ve learned so you can benefit, too.

We recently held a company-wide fireside chat with Eric Enge, multi-award-winning marketer and co-author of “The Art of SEO” (regarded by many as the SEO Bible). We felt his valuable insights – particularly in regard to the importance of long-tail keywords – were well worth sharing with you. They may well change the way you approach your entire SEO strategy.

We’ll hand it over to Eric and let him tell you all about it.

fireside chat eric enge

Start With a Strong SEO Foundation

Before you go deep on long-tail keywords, you need to make sure that your house is in order. After all, you can’t expect to build a million-dollar home on top of a crumbling foundation. In that same vein, you can’t build a successful SEO campaign without doing the website work first.

In other words, you need good technical SEO to rank in SERPs. If your site is hard to crawl, if you fail to add schema, or you don’t consider aspects like web design and user experience, any SEO work you do will be built on shaky ground. Once you have a solid technical foundation, you’re able to explore strategies that can give your sites an edge over their competitors.

I like to say that technical SEO is table stakes. Just like poker, you don’t win just because you put in the initial ante. There’s much more that you need to do to win.

While SEO has changed quite a bit (just look at how many Google algorithm updates have rolled out over the last five years!), the messaging here has been relatively consistent. Even in an age of AI and machine learning, Google is still committed to prioritizing great content for as large a percentage of users as possible.

The biggest way that most organizations fail with their content strategies is that they build out content that focuses only on the high-volume keywords. This leaves as much as two-thirds of users without answers to their questions – and that means Google is less likely to rank you for any of your keywords (even the head terms).

Why the “Messy Middle” Deserves More SEO Attention

In 2020, Think With Google released a white paper detailing the anything-but-linear purchasing journey for many users. Google’s detailed model for user behaviors involves a concept known as “the messy middle,” which essentially refers to a loop of exploration and evaluation that buyers cycle through. Google calls it “a space of abundant information and unlimited choice that shoppers have learned to manage using a range of cognitive shortcuts.”

Many times, leads and potential sales get lost in the messy middle. It’s a vast area that “sits between the twin poles of trigger and purchase,” according to the white paper. It’s complex and iterative – and there’s no guarantee that the user will ever take an action that satisfies their initial need.

So what does this have to do with SEO? By creating great content that addresses a deep array of specific user questions, we can fuel the buyer and provide valuable information that inches them closer to the end of their journey.

With something like paid search, it’s far more likely that someone might navigate to a page of a website and make an immediate purchase. Those users have declared their buying intent and are happy to be sold to. But with those who arrive on a site via an organic query, you should expect a lot of follow-up questions and comparisons.

If you’re able to meet all those users’ needs, you’ll have an easier time getting them out of the messy middle. But that’s tough to do on a single webpage. It’s better to create a “web” of pages across a site that address many variations and subsidiary topics of that original query. SEO isn’t something that happens one page at a time; it’s a full-site experience. And when you have a well-structured and well-designed site that also offers holistic content, you’ll help users through their process of exploring and evaluating during the messy middle stage.

messy middle google whitepaper

Image credit: Think With Google

This allows you to rank for the long-tail related keywords related to that content and for your target head terms. I’ll explain this more below.

Here are four main takeaways from my research.

1. Long-Tail Keywords Lead to Conversions

You’re probably already familiar with long-tail keywords, but you might not realize just how prevalent they are. In 2021, Ahrefs released a study that found that 95% of keywords in their U.S. database are categorized as long-tail, with one-third of all search volume being attributed to long-tail queries. Since around 15% of all daily Google searches are brand new, it’s not shocking that the vast majority of keywords have fewer than 10 searches per month.

search volume keyword distribution

Image credit: Ahrefs

It’s important to note that Ahrefs defines long-tail keywords as “queries that get a small number of searches per month.” While long-tail keywords do tend to be longer and more specific, the term isn’t necessarily limited to a certain number of words. In fact, as Ahrefs points out, there are numerous one-word queries that receive fewer than 100 monthly searches, while many 5-word keywords receive hundreds of thousands of searches each month. You need to consider monthly search volume over length of query here.

With that in mind, why do long-tail (and very long-tail) keywords matter – and what do they have to do with the “messy middle”? Simply put, these terms tend to correlate with higher conversion rates. There are fewer searches for them being performed per month, but they’re highly attuned to specifics like location and user intent. They indicate a narrowing-down of choice. That’s ultimately what gets customers out of the messy middle. If you’re not using long-tail keywords, you’re probably missing out on about half of your conversions.

search demand curve

Image credit: Ahrefs

2. Follow the “Pyramid” of Pages

How do you use this knowledge to your advantage when creating a content strategy for a site? It might help to imagine a pyramid of phrases or queries. At the top, you have the head term – representing the top page for a given category of content you’ve created for your site. That page might satisfy around 11% of the users who come to a website after typing in a query. But that means 89% of users weren’t satisfied with that content.

So then, you implement another “level” – the next section down on the pyramid – that includes 8 more pages of content related to the initial topic or query. Let’s assume that each of those pages satisfies 3% of users. Cumulatively, that adds another 24% of users who are satisfied – totaling about a third of all users.

But you want better results for your site. So you build out another 20 pages centered around long-tail terms. Maybe each one satisfies nine-tenths of a percentage of users. That doesn’t sound like much, but cumulatively, that’s another 18%. All told, you’re up to 53% of users satisfied. If you want to get north of two-thirds, you might build out another 50 pages using very long-tail terms. If each page satisfies three-tenths of a percentage, that’s another 15% of users satisfied; you’ll finally satisfy 68% of users total across all your content.

This doesn’t mean you should create thousands of low-value pages for your sites. Thin pages won’t help them rank. E-commerce sites, for example, would be better off creating a crawlable product selector rather than creating a bunch of similar, low-value pages for every individual t-shirt color. You need to pair quality with quantity when building out that content for long-tail keyword optimization.

The challenge is that so many companies stop with the top page or the second level of content without going further. Not only are they missing out on the huge conversion opportunities that come with using long-tail keywords, but they’re also failing to capitalize on customer satisfaction potential and the chance to build on their perceived authority. At a time when E-E-A-T is becoming more important than ever, I’d argue that long-tail keywords are, too.

pyramid of pages

3. Google Rewards Sites, Not Pages

Here’s the bottom line: Google wants to reward websites (not just individual pages) that satisfy the largest percentage of users. If you concentrate only on the top page and second-level pages – without building out the long-tail and very long-tail pages – Google will want to reward other sites that address the highest number of users. That means that the sites making efforts to build out the long-tail pages are actually more likely to rank for the head terms, too. In other words, you’ll have a better chance of appearing for broader queries if you do a great job of creating content for the ultra-specific versions.

Take the case of WebMD. Before WebMD came along, The Mayo Clinic didn’t have serious competition for SEO traffic. But WebMD essentially came out of nowhere and is now a fierce competitor in terms of traffic.

Although the Mayo Clinic is more naturally authoritative on medical topics, WebMD has invested a lot in establishing their online credibility by bringing on the right resources to create their robust content strategy. WebMD has nearly 400 site pages related to diabetes alone. Even though 35% of their pages have a monthly search volume of “zero” (which just means that keyword research tools aren’t able to accurately measure their traffic), WebMD has succeeded at a level that Google has deemed to be respectable and trustworthy. The Mayo Clinic still has more traffic than WebMD, but it now has a serious competitor.

When you’re coming into a new space with no real authority, it’s harder to catch up when others in your field have already produced in-depth content. But you may still be able to compete if you take a topic subset and narrow its focus to optimize on those very long-tail keywords. If you truly have the best content on that one niche topic, you can promote that, start to see results, and repeat that cycle while maintaining a positive ROI of SEO.

4. Interlink to Boost Your Long-Tail Keyword Power

When you help Google understand the connections between the content on all those long-tail pages, it’s more likely your site will be viewed as an authority. High-relevance, in-context interlinking is one way to illustrate those content relationships while guiding visitors through the messy middle.

While it’s easy to go overboard with this (see: Wikipedia), other websites like NerdWallet and WebMD have mastered the art. Linking to other pages within the given page’s direct hierarchy is usually best, but relevance matters most here. As you build out your site’s content with long-tail keywords, remember to link to those highly relevant pages on their site to help both Google and human users continue the journey they’ve already started.

relevant interlinking

Embrace a Long-Tail Keyword Strategy For Whole-Site SEO

While you shouldn’t stop optimizing for head terms, overlooking long-tail and very long-tail queries will cause your site to leave money on the table.

For best results:

  • Populate your site with plenty of valuable pages that speak to long-tail search queries AND
  • Add relevant interlinking to improve navigation, guide the customer through the “messy middle,” and signal authoritativeness to Google

We all know there’s not really a secret formula to SEO. But by prioritizing a long-tail keyword strategy, you can help your site win for the broader terms, too.