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Are We Superstitious about Long Tail?

Published: April 21, 2014

Author: Katie Walton

I grew up in a small place called the Isle of Man. Never heard of it? You’re not alone. It’s a tiny island in between England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales and is where world’s fastest (cycling) sprinter Mark Cavendish and Les Misérables star Samantha Barks both grew up.


Still not heard of it? Never mind, this isn’t a geography lesson. I bring it up because the Isle of Man is a strangely superstitious place. People believe in fairies*. The local breed of black cats born with no tails are incongruously lucky. And local folk have a real problem with the word “rats”; they’re more commonly referred to as R.A.T.S. or long tails.
*think Pan’s Labyrinth, not Disney.
In the 10 years since I left the island, I’ve not once heard anyone whistle, knock on wood, or encourage me to throw salt over my shoulder if I said rats, but I have got used to hearing a lot about long tail. Recently I read this post by Sam Owen and, like Carrie Bradshaw, it got me thinking, like the Manxmen I grew up with, are we superstitious about long tail?
It’s long been established that long-tail keywords are the bee’s knees for PPC. The pinnacle of paid search. A gold mine for great SEM accounts.
And yet, the rumblings of discontent have been heard for a while, the long tail overhead adds to your CPA said Matt Van Wagner in 2012. Eric Couch warned us about diminishing returns for long tail keywords in 2013. And 3Q Digital’s own David Rodnitzky went so far as to declare that long tail is dead in 2012.
I used Sam Owen’s technique to understand how the part long-tail keywords have to play in some of the accounts I manage. I left out any brand keywords, to avoid skewing the data, and what I saw was pretty consistent across the board:

-2- and 3-word keywords dominated conversions and impressions.
-5- and 6-word keywords delivered the best CPA.
-Keywords with more than 6 keywords while not spending much, also failed to deliver any conversions.

In some cases, 2- and 3-word keywords did make up the majority of keywords in the account – making their domination of conversions and impressions seem inevitable. But even when 2-word keywords accounted for as little as 1.48% of the total number of keywords, they still delivered a huge 40.44% of conversions.


All of this seems to be true regardless of what search query length suggests about the optimal number of words per keyword.
So where does that leave account managers? Is long tail dead and in desperate need of a proper burial?
I’d suggest not, but perhaps we shouldn’t waste time on extremely long keywords, at least not from day one. We maybe need to focus on head terms at first and use search query reports to add longer keywords that can help improve ROI over time. Just don’t expect miracles from your 7+ word keywords.

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