June 26th, 2020

Understanding the Fat Head and Long Tail of Keyword Research

Author: Laura Lynch
Laura Lynch
Head Content Writer & Brand Strategist

Knowing what keywords to target can help you gain visibility without going after high-energy, low-return targets.

Any good content strategy begins with keyword research. Keywords and phrases are the terms that broadly describe the content on your site. They are the words and phrases users type into their search engines, and they’re the words that most businesses use most frequently when describing their products and services.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is the practice, among other things, of identifying they key terms and incorporating them strategically into site copy and other ranking criteria, such as meta descriptions, alt tags, and URLs. Search Engine Optimists (SEOs—yes, it’s confusing) have several tools at their disposal to identify high-value key terms as they develop their strategy. Broadly speaking, these tools can spot words and phrases with high search volume, can measure how competitive it is to rank for those terms, and can give an overview of the sites currently holding the top spots on various search engines.

When SEOs first start analyzing the data about search terms, they discovered something crucial to how today’s keyword optimization works. What they saw was that the terms getting those millions of searches each month only comprised a small portion of the total volume of individual search terms—some 18.5%. Meanwhile, 70% of searches were comprised of very low-traffic terms, usually long phrases that might only be searched a handful of times a month.

fat head keywords

Many who are new to the realm of SEO take these statistics as an indication that they should target fat head keywords in their strategy. However, as we shall see, that strategy tends to backfire. Let’s take a closer look at key words and phrases, and what the best strategy is for each.

Fat head: Short phrases, with high volume, and low return.

I remember the very first Internet search I ever made. I was probably about ten, and I had just watched an amazing movie about horses—a very specific breed of horse, in fact. Naturally, I wanted to look up some pictures of this horse, so I opened up Yahoo! and typed in the word “mustang.”

As I’m sure you can imagine, I didn’t get the results I was hoping for. Instead of finding pictures of horses, I got a whole bunch of cars. I had to refine my search with several more terms before I found what I actually wanted. This is the problem with fat head keywords: they’re imprecise. It’s very rare that you can type in one word and get any meaningful results.

Another example of this came up in Stephanie Meyer’s YA novel, Twilight, when the protagonist tries to do a search for the keyword “vampire.”

It’s an inadvertent demonstration of exactly how not to search for things on the Internet. If you can’t find good search results with the terms you’re using, search for more specific terms! Something like “characteristics of vampires” or “signs the guy I have a crush on might be a vampire.” It will help you find what you want without having to sift through hundreds of meaningless results!

Of course, the same works in reverse. If you want to attract the right kind of visitor to your site, target more specific phrases. It doesn’t help you to rank #1 for “mustang” if you’re selling paraphernalia about horses and half your visitors are trying to find information about the car.

Here’s another problem with fat head keywords: they’re mostly dominated by a handful of extremely well-ranked URLs—sites like Wikipedia or Dictionary.com. In fact, behold:

Trying to outrank sites like Wikipedia is very difficult. It takes a lot of energy, and there’s no guarantee you’ll succeed. More importantly, there are other keywords offering better ROI.

Long tail: Long phrases with low volume but high return.

You’ll notice that in the above examples, every time we refined our search query it became longer. Sometimes, when I’m searching for something very specific—the source for a quotation, for example—I’ll drop the entire quote into Google to see what I can see. Usually I get my result right away.

Google has also become more intelligent in interpreting searcher intent for more complex queries using their neural matching algorithm. This means that even if someone doesn’t type in an exact phrase, Google’s AI can identify super-synonyms and still deliver useful results.

As a result, search queries are growing longer and longer. In fact, the data used to describe the long-tail curve from a few years ago would probably yield a much more extreme result today.

This is great news for most businesses. While you should still absolutely incorporate key words and phrases in your copy, you also have more flexibility in doing so. It also means you can become more specific and targeted in your content without having to resort to repeating long and unwieldy phrases. Copy can become more natural-sounding, and Google can be trusted to work out what the searcher is intending to find.

Long tail key phrases have another advantage. Because they’re so long and specific, they’re both easier to rank for, and more likely to draw in qualified visitors. If you write a recipe for dairy-free, gluten-free Christmas cookies, you won’t end up with as many frustrated visitors looking for a recipe like their grandma used to make. Instead, you’ll get exactly the crowd you’re looking for.

Chunky middle: Phrases of average length, sizable volume, and variable return.

There’s a third and final area on the keyword spectrum that often gets overlooked: the chunky middle. This is that nebulous 11.5% of keywords then get a moderate amount of traffic but aren’t super specific. While you start ranking for long tail key phrases with relatively low effort, chunky middle terms will take more work. However, there are bound to be some phrases in there where the competition is low and it might be possible for you to jump in and knock the top spot off their pedestal.

This is where keyword research yields its best results. Instead of spending a lot of time ranking for a low-value or high-competition key term, you can focus you’re efforts on an overlooked high-value term and scoop it up. And because some search queries can be very specific in only a few words, these phrases might lend themselves to SEO optimization more readily than more complex long tail phrases.

A good keyword strategy is based on a keen awareness of searcher intent.

The bottom line with keyword research is that searcher intent is everything. We once had a client tell us that he wanted his website to rank #1 for a word that he felt best summed up his company ethos. We had to explain to him that, not only was this very difficult for his company to achieve, but it would also be worthless, as no one searching for that term would have any interest in his product.

This is the false allure of fat head key terms. The trade quality for quantity, to the detriment of the business. Instead, focus on searcher intent, and your keyword strategy will have the kind of ROI you can write home about.

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