The legendary 2004 article “The Longtail” by Chris Anderson explained a stepping stone concept of internet technology: the longtail. The idea is simple: the internet is so vast and easy to search that it has content/products for anyone, no matter their taste or need. The offline can’t replicate that. It needs to serve what most people want because shelf space is limited. [x]
Music writer Ted Gioia recently published a newsletter called “Where Did the Long Tail Go?”, in which he questions whether the longtail has ever become reality. His argument is that most movies these days are sequels and few musicians can make a living from their passion. [x]
As SEOs, we’re very familiar with the longtail because it became reality in Search. As Google advances technologically, it’s able to satisfy long queries more accurately than shorter ones. That, in return, is an opportunity for companies to capture more traffic from the longtail, which is less competitive and more targeted. As the saying goes “if you can’t compete for the shorthead, go for the longtail.”
But is that true?
5 lessons from the SEO Longtail
The top 1,000 queries by search volume bear many interesting facts:
One of them is a power curve: a few keywords have the majority of search volume. Power laws appear everywhere in marketing and Growth. From crawl budget to backlink profile, most distributions are uneven. In the case of this specific set of top 1,000 queries, the top 20% of keywords have 64.4% of the search volume.
To highlight the differences between shorthead and longtail, I pulled 1,000 keywords by search volume for 7 sets of keywords each:
- 1 term
- 2 terms
- 3 terms
- 4 terms
- 5 terms
- 6 terms
- 6+ terms
The keyword “Worlde”, for example, has 1 term. “gas station” is a 2-term word. Et Cetera. The total set is 7,000 keywords.
The goal was to understand how factors like search volume, competitiveness, or clicks per search change as keywords get longer.
Here is what I found:
#1 the shorter the keyword, the higher the search volume
Unsurprisingly, the shortest keywords have the highest search volume. The top 1,000 one-term keywords have 3.5 billion monthly searches. The top 1,000 keywords with more than 6 terms have 48 million in total.
Every SEO knows that shorthead keywords have a higher search volume but why is that? The answer is brands!
7 out of 10 keywords in the top 10 of one-term keywords are brands.
The first non-brand keyword on the one-term list is “weather” with 95 million monthly searches. On the two-word list, it’s “gas station” with 10 million monthly searches on position 20 on the list. For three-word keywords, the first two keywords are “food near me” and “restaurants near me”. As keywords get longer, brands naturally occur less often.
#2 “near me” keywords most often have 4 terms
Keywords containing “near me” have seen a massive increase in searches over the last 5 years. As Google and the capabilities of Google Maps improve, keywords with local intent grow.
#3 The number of average clicks per search flattens slower than search volume
Shorter keywords are inherently more ambiguous because it’s harder to express yourself with fewer words. As a result, Google satisfies several intents with a mix of results and users click around more results.
However, the average number of clicks per search only flattens from 0.73 to 0.54 for longer keywords - not as steep as search volume or competitiveness. The driving factor behind this is query complexity, meaning how easy it is to give an answer. An answer to a complex query needs a lot of nuances and doesn’t have a clear answer. An example would be “how soon is too soon to move in”. “Simple” queries can be answered quickly and don’t need a click to a site - so-called zero-click searches - like “logan paul vs mayweather date and time”.
#4 The longer the keyword, the easier it is to rank and the more you have to pay
Lower competition (represented here by average keyword difficulty) makes it easier to rank for longtail keywords. A big part of this is brand queries: the fewer brands that are present in the top 1,000 keyword set, the less competitive is the keyword.
Shorter keywords are cheaper to bid on. Most of the time, bidding on another brand isn’t fruitful because users want to navigate to that brand’s site anyway. Only direct competitors or marketplaces might bid on another brand but often with limited success. Long(er) tail keywords, on the other hand, often express enough intent to provide good user targeting.
This, amongst a few other factors, made Google the most successful startup in history.
#5 The longtail is fat
The number of keywords in Ahrefs’ index is on an inverse curve to their search volume. In other words, Ahrefs has most keywords for the longtail, which makes a lot of sense. The longtail is much fatter than the shorthead, meaning there are more long keywords (3.9 billion) than short (500 million) ones.
Interestingly, the number of keywords with 4 terms is as high as with +6 terms, but those with 5 or 6 terms are lower.
The key lesson from this data is not that you should go after the longtail because that’s where it’s easier to rank. The lesson is to build such a strong brand that users come straight to you. The longtail is just a path to get there.
Amazon is a great example of that. The brand is so mighty that more than half of shopping searches start on Amazon instead of Google. Another example is Reddit: the number of searches that include “reddit” is growing because users are looking for Reddit threads on Google. Users searching for a brand on Google want to navigate there and already have strong awareness and intent.
Of course, it makes sense to go after the longtail in SEO when you have no other option. But from an Organic Growth perspective, the best search is the one that never happened because customers went straight to a brand they know.
The creator and merchant economy live in the longtail
The longtail, as Ben Thompson already pointed out, is the creator economy. What I would add is the merchant economy. Creating content and starting an online business is easier than ever before. Millions of Shopify, Etsy, and Amazon merchants are the longtail - so are the many Tik Tokkers, Youtubers, bloggers, and Instagrammers.
Where Gioia has a strong point is that the creator middle class is underfunded. Youtube is the only platform that pays creators (based on audience size), but it’s often not enough to make a living.
Tik Tok plans to change that by sharing revenue with the creator middle class and therefore, funding the longtail.
Funny enough, Gioia’s article is a paradox: it’s published on Substack and sent to a small crowd on the internet. The article and the conversation about the longtail itself is… longtail!