This is a really interesting question. As you likely know already, ‘long tail’ keyword phrases are simply phrases with more words, ie 3 – 5 words plus. Many people rave about the long tail keywords, claiming that they are better because they are (a) less competitive / easy to rank for, and (b) more specific, and therefore more likely to lead to a sale. The theory is that the further a searcher gets into the ‘buying cycle’, the more words they will use in their search phrases.
Lets look at why we largely disagree with this approach. Firstly, long tail keyword phrases are less competitive and easier to rank for because they have little to no search volume. Realistically, any keyword phrase that is any good is competitive. True, they do tend to be more specific, and can lead to conversions, but how long do you want to have to wait for your first sale? Ten years? If you are ranking for a phrase that has about 7 searches every 6 months, does it matter if is more specific? Not really. The only people that actually believe that long tail keyword phrases have any significant traffic volume are more than likely using broad match search volume figures – a fatal mistake. Use exact match only during keyword research and you’ll get something approaching the true numbers ( unfortunately, even the exact match figures can be pretty optimistic ). So, long tail keyword phrases, while targeted, have practically zero traffic in most cases.
‘But, wait a second, what if i target loads of little phrases all at once?’ Here is where we examine the term ‘target’. If by targeting, you mean registering an EMD ( trendy speak, meaning an exact match domain – a strategy that we hate, by the way ), and going after one phrase at a time, then it’s pretty simple – you hope that you will rank primarily on the strength of the domain itself, and you also hope that you will get enough traffic from one long tail phrase to cover the cost of the domain ( about £6 ). You’ll also have to get loads of domains – one to target each phrase ( yes – some people actually do this ).
If on the other hand, by targeting, you mean building anchor text links for each phrase ( maybe dozens of phrases per page in some cases ), then here’s a new flash – if you have an authoritative website that you are updating with content on a regular basis, then you will find yourself ranking for all kinds of long tail keyword phrases automatically. You won’t have to build links for them, as you can rank purely on the strength of on page factors. And no, this doesn’t mean focusing a lot on keyword density and all that – if you are an expert in your field, just write naturally and your content will contain relevant keyword phrases right off the bat. Just focus on your page titles and meta descriptions and you’ll be fine.
As for going for more competitive medium length phrases, then you could consider this for deep linking purposes if the phrases have potential. A good place to check is in your own google analytics account, as you will see what longer tail keyword phrases have been sending you a few stray visitors ( phrases that you haven’t had to deliberately set out to rank for! ), and see if you could rank a little bit higher for them by building a few extra links.
Overall, we recommend targeting phrases with a maximum of three words, as anything longer is too obscure and just not worth much effort. Others recommend phrases that have a minimum of three words – our advice for them? Either stop shying away from competition, or see if you can get your old job back.