Chasing the Long Tail: How Long Should Your Keywords Be?

By , Senior Account Manager at Hanapin Marketing

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A great long tail keyword is one of the prized possessions in PPC. If you’ve found an awesome keyword that no one else is using, you can make a lot of profit in running unopposed. But there’s a question I’ve always wondered: just how long should you let your keywords get?

To help you understand what I’m talking about, this is a common graphical representation of long tail keywords:

Long Tail Image

Either a graph, or a hockey stick. Open to interpretation.

In this case, the green is representative of your key terms. They’re comprised of shorter, generic keywords that are highly relevant to your industry, or branded keywords that are highly specific to your business. The yellow represents your long tail keywords – longer keywords with many words and/or characters, with less competition the longer they get.

Once you get past the obvious head terms for your account and industry, expanding that long tail is one of the last great frontiers for account expansion. But just how long of a tail should you pursue?

To help answer that question, I compiled a little bit of data for you from one of my accounts. It’s a very high volume account, and the numbers were taken from a 30-day snapshot. For our purposes today, the CPA goal in this account is $50.

To start, I’ve broken down my keyword data over 30 days by the count of words in each keyword.

Keyword Word Count

Account statistics broken down by the count of words in each keyword.

There’s an even proportion of broad, phrase, and exact match throughout the entire account, hence the total keyword values being slightly high. However, the important thing to note in this example is the amount of volume found on those 4+ keyword terms. Roughly 1/3rd of our conversions came from those longer terms – exactly in line with the graph you saw earlier. The efficiency is actually slightly lower than the core terms, but that’s due to many conversions in the 1 and 2-word keyword group coming from branded product terms.

The other important thing to note is that even with 3,006 5-word keywords (many of those even broad match terms), impression volume sharply drops once your keywords get that long. It’s all about diminishing returns. The longer your keywords get, the more difficult it is to find clicks and impressions on those terms. It’s akin to searching for a needle in a haystack.

Now, it’s one thing to actually target those keywords in your account – it’s quite another to examine what queries people are searching for. To that end, here are the corresponding results for the Search Query Report for the same account, over the same time span:

Query Word Count

Note: The data discrepancies are due to the dreaded “Other Search Terms”.

In this case, we still see the same loss of efficiency the longer the queries get. Ironically, this also starts at that same 4 and 5-word mark. But is that due entirely to the query length, or is there another factor in play?

(There is.)

Query by word count AND match type.

Query by word count AND match type.

Here we see some of the difficulties in working with longer queries and keywords. When you get to these longer queries, it becomes more difficult to match them with any keywords outside of the usual broad match terms. In many cases, these queries will be low search volume terms with impressions in the single digits – they just happened to convert in that singular instance. However, in the rare cases that they were able to convert on a phrase or exact match keyword, they did so at a Conversion Rate and Cost Per Conversion far better than that of their broad match counterparts. For those queries, it might behoove you to do some more research and add them in.

On the other hand, optimizing those queries with 7+ words or more in them would only have a marginal impact on overall performance. So in the end, it’s all about time management – and it depends entirely on just how far down this long tail rabbit hole you want to go.

I’m not quite done though. In doing my research for this post, I came across quite a lot of people discussing character length as well as word count. This is doubly important in an Enhanced Campaigns world, as typing a query on a mobile device can be quite painful. So let’s examine the same tables above, instead broken down by character count. Here are the keyword statistics:

Keywords broken down by character length.

Keywords broken down by character count.

We see again the same breakdown as before – 26-40 character keywords account for roughly 1/3rd of the conversion volume in the account, with impression volume severely dropping at the 40+ mark.

And what about the queries?

Queries broken down by character count.

Queries broken down by character count.

We see the exact same breakdown in terms of performance on the query side of things. Meaning that there’s a severe case of diminishing returns as your keywords grow longer in terms of both word length and character length – and that’s reflected in the queries as well.

Here’s the main takeaway: the point of diminishing returns for a long tail keyword (in this account) comes after roughly six words to a keyword, and above 40 characters. That means you have lot of room to maneuver when it comes to long tail keyword expansion. Just don’t go crazy with the 8-word, 50-character keywords.  Do the same analysis on your own accounts, and learn where your own diminishing returns kick in!

What about you, PPC Heroes and Heroines? Any favorite methods to find those hidden long tails that have served you so well? Have any of you, like me, thought you’d find success with a ten-word keyword? Have you actually found success with a ten-word keyword? Let us know in the comments and, as always, thanks for reading!

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  • jlevey

    Great article, Eric! How do you count words in a cell using Excel?

    • EricCouch

      It’s a little LEN function we’ve been using around the office. Just enter in this formula, changing the A1 reference to whichever cell you’re looking to measure:

      =IF(LEN(TRIM(A1))=0,0,LEN(TRIM(A1))-LEN(SUBSTITUTE(A1,” “,””))+1)

      Thanks for reading!

      • jlevey

        Thank you, Eric!

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504110551 Thomas Kay

        Very useful, thanks!

  • Scott Ensign

    Great article. I’m just wondering what your experience has been with Google shutting down terms for low search volume. That gets in our way a lot with these longer-tail campaigns.

    • EricCouch

      There’s a definite correlation between these longer terms and the “low search volume” designation. Examining the data from the above article, there’s a dramatic increase in low search volume terms as you get in to the 4 and 5-word keyword territory. It’s mostly a function of match type – some of these longer exact and phrase match queries just won’t get enough impressions to escape that label.

      Thanks for reading!

      • Brett W

        We have noticed painful Quality Score penalties lately for low volume phrases, despite being hyper relevant. I’ve seen no way around this other than broadening our targeting to spread the net wider and avoid the low volume stigma.

        • EricCouch

          We’ve noticed the same, and you’ve hit the nail on the head regarding the broadened targeting, unfortunately. Thanks for reading!

  • Aixa Vilar

    Hey Eric, I was wondering a few things…

    How many long tail keyword combinations do you think we should be using?

    For example, if we have 10-15 main head keyword terms we try to rank for
    and from those main 15, a combined 100+ long tail terms can be created,
    how many actual long tail terms should we be focusing our efforts on?

    Also how long is too long? Are 6-10 words per long tail keyword combination OK?

    Is it possible to spread yourself thin with long tail search terms? I
    could come up with a million combinations, so I’m not sure if I should
    focus on a handful like we used to with head keyword terms, or if it’s
    ok to spread them out amongst all the infinite possible combinations of
    long tail terms.

    Thanks!!

  • John Carter

    It’s really a useless conversation to go into the specifics of to fix any particular elements in PPC or landing pages etc…there are so many ins and outs to online marketing nowadays that the most important thing you can do as a business owner is start working with a company that really knows what they are doing, has solid communication, and is able to work with you to make sure key metrics are being measured and more customers are being sold your products at the end of the day. Honestly, this stuff changes every day. Also, are you willing to work hours every day to block the bad keywords, block the bad sites, create and experiment new display banners, and research new keywords? Most business owners burn out trying, I tried to keep up with it for a while, but i ended up calling Simon after one of my friends referred me to have his team setup some remarketing for my shopify store. Doubled my sales in under 90 days. Simon’s number is 219-733-4687, I’m always willing to pass along a referral to someone who takes pride in what they do.