Today’s article is a controversial one, with many PPC marketers believing that long tail keywords are the holy grail of Google Ads and that they are the best way to get cheap high converting traffic.
I am forever hearing from “PPC Experts” that they are able to double a clients profit by taking all of their 2-4 word keywords and turning them into long tail keywords with 4+ word phrases. This is based on the belief that long tail keywords generate lots of cheap high converting traffic because they believe that 70% of searches are 4+ words long.
But in this article I am going to explain to you (using real data from accounts that use our PPC management service and also data from an article written by Sam Owen over at PPC Hero) why long tail keywords are not the holy grail in Google Ads. It is simply not possible to double your profit by taking lots of short tail keywords and turning them into long tail keywords.
Don’t believe me? Think I’m using fixed data? I’ve even included a section explaining how you can run this analysis on your own accounts.
What Are Long Tail Keywords?
Long tail keywords are longer more specific versions of keywords that are likely to appeal to people who are later on in the buying cycle. That is generally why they convert better and receive lower cost per conversions than head terms. Most marketers consider that long tail keywords are 4+ words long.
For example, if you are a mortgage broker your head term might be “mortgages” or “residential mortgage”; however a long tail keyword would be “buy to let mortgage brokers in sheffield”.
Here you will see that the long tail phrase is much more specific and the user knows what type of mortgage that they want and where they want it from. These users are late in the buying cycle and are highly likely to convert compared to people who just typed “mortgages”.
Image source: SEOsitecheckup
It is generally thought that the exact match head terms such as “shoes” account for around 10% of the search volume, with mid length keywords between 2-4 words accounting for around 20-30% of the search volume and the other 60 – 70% coming from long tail phrases.
However, I will actually be showing you the real data from some of our accounts to show you that this is not in fact accurate. In reality, in most of the accounts that we have analysed this is almost the opposite way round, with as much as 52% of the impressions coming from single word phrases.
The long tail keyword myth
There are three arguments that I am going to make backed up by real world data:
- From an optimisation time perspective, your time is spent 33x more effectively by working on your top 20% of keywords as it is working on your long tail keywords that contain 4+ words. Keywords that are over 4 words in length only account for 2.4% of the total number of conversions on the accounts that we analysed, so from an optimisation time perspective it makes more sense to spend your time working on the 10-20% of keywords that generate 80-90% of all of your conversions. For example, if you increase your Quality Score from 5 to 7 on your keywords that are 4+ words in length this would reduce the CPC by 26% for these keywords (according to a study by Wordstream). Overall this would result in a 0.62% decrease in CPC in the account. But, if you spent the same time increasing the Quality Score from 5-7 for your top performing keywords then you would get a 21% decrease in CPC for the account overall. Which would you choose?
- 90%+ of all impressions are generated by search terms that are 4 or less words long, so the long tail only represents 10% of all paid search traffic, not the 70%+ that most search marketers believe. It would be virtually impossible to double your profit by making all of your keywords long tail as you would loose 90% of your impressions and over 80% of your conversions.
- For keywords that contain 5 or more words you would need 200 keywords on average to generate 1 click per month. I think you will agree that would prove very difficult to mange for only a small uplift in performance.
Argument 1: Your time is spent 33x more effectively working on the top 20% of keywords than your long tail keywords.
Here is the data from the study that PPC Hero conducted that showed the performance of keywords based on the length of keyword.
Image source: PPC Hero
One other thing to notice here is that keywords over 5 words in length only generated 15 out of the 608 conversions which amounts of a measly 2.4% of the total conversions, which came from 138,638 keywords.
That is a lot of keywords to manage for just 2.4% of your conversions. It would make a lot more sense to work on optimising the top 20% of your keywords that will be generating 85% of your conversions and making sure that they have a Quality Score between 8-9. This would have a much more drastic effect than adding 136K keywords that generate a few conversions per month.
For example, if you increase your Quality Score from 5 to 7 on your keywords that are 4+ words in length this would reduce the CPC by 26% for these keywords according to a study by Wordstream. Overall, this results in a 0.62% decrease in CPC in the account. However, if you spent the same time increasing the Quality Score from 5-7 for your top performing keywords then you would get a 20.80% decrease in CPC for the account overall. The choice is obvious.
The graph below shows the percentage of the total conversions that were generated by different keywords containing various numbers of words.
Here you will see that only around 2.5% of all of the conversions have come from keywords that are 5 or more words in length, even though there is good long tail keyword coverage with 139,889 keywords that are 4+ words in length.
Argument 2: The next few charts back up the argument that if you change all of your short tail keywords to long tail keywords you will loose 90% of your impressions and 80+% of your conversions. That means you can’t double your profit by relying on a long tail strategy.
The pivot table below shows the performance of search terms by the number of words that each search term contains.
Here is 30 days’ worth of search term data for one of our accounts.
From the search terms report you will see that 434 conversions out of the total 532 were generated by keywords between 1-4 words long accounting for 81.5% of the total number of conversions. You should also see that 581 conversions were generated by search terms that were 4+ keywords long accounting for 18.5% of the total conversions.
Furthermore 94.9% of all impressions came from search terms that were 4 or less words in length.
The graph below shows the total percentage of conversions that have come from search terms by number of words per search query.
The first takeaway from this data: by changing your short tail keywords out for longer tail keywords that are 4+ words in length you will loose 80+% of your conversions. That would make it virtually impossible to double your ROI
Furthermore you will see that 87,018 impressions came from the search terms that are between 1 – 4 keywords long out of the total of 91,716. This equates to 94.8% of impressions.
Here is the data from the study that Sam Owen did over at PPC Hero
Image credit: PPC Hero
Here you will see from PPC Hero’s data that 1,028,543 of their impressions came from search terms that were 1-4 words in length, equating to 93% of impressions. By changing all of key short tail keywords to long tail keywords that are 4 or more words in length here, you would loose out on 93% of your impressions.
This shows that the “experts” that keep telling you that only 30% of impressions come from search terms that are 1-3 words long is in fact completely inaccurate. From PPC Hero’s study they found that in reality 51% of their conversions had come from single word search terms and that 74.5% of impressions came from search terms that were between 1 and 3 words in length.
Furthermore, 1,071 conversions out of the total 1,253 conversions were generated by search terms that were generated by keywords that were between 1 – 4 words long. This equates to a total of 85.4% of the total conversions.
So from our own data and from the data of PPC Hero it is fairly conclusive that by changing out your short tail keywords for 4+ length keywords it is going to be impossible to recuperate to 80+% of conversions that are generated by search terms that are less than 4 words in length.
Argument 3: You would need 200 keywords containing 5 words or more to generate 1 click per month, which will be inefficient to mange.
One of the biggest issues with catching all of these search terms is that you will require a huge number of keywords to do this. If you look at this data that Sam Owen over at PPC Hero put together, you’ll see that with keywords that contain 4 or more keywords the number of impressions per keyword on average drops of significantly.
This results in you needing to add a significant number of keywords to your account to be able to capture them, which is going to be nearly impossible to manage efficiently. For example, to generate one impression you would need on average 10 keywords that are 5 words long; with an average CTR of 5% you would need 200 keywords to generate 1 click per month.
Image Source: PPC Hero
Even if you do succeed in adding all of these search terms as keywords the truth is, as I’ve mentioned before, you are unlikely to actually increase your performance because improved performance with more specific keywords comes from pairing them with more specific ads – but it is virtually impossible to make adverts any more specific than they already are with 4 word keywords because of headline character length restrictions.
When your keywords get to around 4 words in length you are generally limited by the 30 character headline limit and are unable to make your adverts any more specific to the search query. This then results in diminishing returns: even though the cost per acquisition would be lower for long tail keywords, because of the buyers’ intention, you could not reduce it by creating more specific adverts.
There is also the argument that you will be able to bid more accurately if you use long tail keywords. However this is also likely to be inaccurate. To make bidding decisions you need a large amount of data and if your long tail keywords are generating 0.1 impressions per keyword per month the you would have to wait about 100 years to get enough data to make a statistically accurate judgement even if the keyword had a 10% CTR.
So you are going to have to aggregate bids to make a statistically significant decision, just in the same way that using a shorter tail keyword would use the same bid for a large number of longer tail variants.
All in all long tail traffic from search terms that are 5-7 words long is still likely to generate around 10-20% of your conversions and should not be ignored. However by adding huge numbers of long tail keywords to try and capture this traffic is going to be a massive drain on your time.
Instead spend your time on your top 20% of keywords that are going to generate 80% of your conversions, and then build out your account with hundreds of mid to long tail keywords (3-4 words) in BMM or Phrase match to as accurately as possible capture these longer tailed enquires.
How to run long tail keyword analysis and search term length analysis
If you are interested at looking at this analysis for your own account it is fairly straight forward. I would recommend doing it to see if long tail keywords are adding any value to your account.
STEP 1. Go to the keywords tab within your account and then download a report for your keywords or search terms depending on which pivot table that you would like to create. Make sure that you have the columns, clicks, cost, impressions, and conversions included with your download as shown below. One final thing is to set an appropriate lookback window: depending on the volume of your account, I’d recommend 30 days. If your account is not very seasonal, you may be able to get away with setting the window to 90 days to give you more data to analyse.
STEP 2. Open this document in Excel. the fist thing you need to do is delete everything in the keyword status column and change the header to “words per keyword instead”. Now add this formula to the first cell, which should be A3: =LEN(B3)-LEN(SUBSTITUTE(B3,” “,””))+1. This will then calculate the number of words per keyword (the keywords are in column B).
STEP 3. You need to select all of the data within your pivot table excluding the total rows at the bottom as these will skew your results if these are included. Once you have done this go to data in the top menu and then down to pivot table as shown below.
STEP 4. Your pivot table should then be step as follows. In the row labels you should have “words per keyword” and in the values column you should then have “sum of clicks”, “sum of impressions”, “sum of cost”, and finally “sum of conversions”.
STEP 5. Once you have done this you then need to add some calculated fields. You can do this using the formula =sum(number of clicks / impressions) * 100 to calculate our CTR and =sum(number of conversions / clicks) * 100 to calculate your conversion rate. To calculate your cost per conversion you can use the formula =sum(cost / conversions).
You should now have a pivot table that looks like the one below. You can add conditional formatting to make it easier to interpret and create graphs using the data if you want to make things more visual.
This will only take you around 5 minutes and give you a lot of insight into what is working and what is not when it comes to long tail keywords within your account. Every account is different, however most have around 80% of their impressions for keywords within the 2-4 word length range.
One thing to make sure you watch out for is statistical significance. Here keywords that are only one word long only had 14 impressions so you would not be able to include this as part of your study, as there is not enough data to make a statistically accurate decision.
So how long should your keywords be?
Generally speaking between 2-4 words. In some industries keywords that are 1 word in length do perform well.
When keywords become over 4 words in length they tend to generate very few impressions and conversions, and you reach the point where the time spent optimising them would provide a much better ROI if invested into improving the Quality Score of your top 20% of keywords instead.
So, we would suggest building out your keyword list so that the largest proportion of your keywords are in the 3-4 word length zone as that provides the best ROI when taking into account optimisation time.
The 3 most effective ways to do keyword research for mid to long tail keywords
Search query mining to find mid to long tail keywords
Probably the best way to find new long tail keyword suggestions is within your search terms report. The search terms report shows you all of the searchers that users have typed into Google where your adverts have been displayed.
This a gold mine for finding new long tail keywords opportunities. What you need to do is go into your campaigns that have broad match modified keywords or phrase match keywords within them and then view the search terms report (how to do this is explained below).
You should then see lots of potential long tail variants of the keywords that you have within that campaign. For example if you have the keyword +PPC +Management then you you will see search terms like “PPC management services in York” which may be a good long tail keyword for you.
Here is a diagram explaining how the process works.
Image Source: Chad Summerhill
Here are the steps that you need to take to build a comprehensive list of long tail keywords from your search terms report.
STEP 1. Navigate to your search terms with the Google Ads interface. This can be found within the keywords tab and then in the search terms sub tab.
STEP 2. Download your search query report for the last 30 days in excel format as shown below. Make sure that you have the following columns: clicks, conversions, and cost per conversion.
STEP 3. You now need to find good candidates to add as new keywords. There are generally three types of keywords that you will want to add as new keywords.
- Keywords that have converted more than once: add to a single keyword ad group in your top performers campaign.
- Keywords that have converted at least once: add as an exact match keyword in the campaign and ad group that they came from.
- Keywords that are 2-4 words in length and have at least a few clicks: add as an exact and BMM match keyword in the campaign and ad group that they came from.
The first two are fairly simple to do just by ordering your spreadsheet by conversions, but the third one is slightly more complicated so I will run through how to add these mid to long tail keywords.
STEP 4. Select the search terms column and then right click on the search terms column and then go down to insert. From the popup select “shift cells to the right” as shown in the screenshot below. To add an additional column. Name this column “words per keyword”
STEP 5. To calculate the number of words per keyword you need to use the following formula. =LEN(D8)-LEN(SUBSTITUTE(D8,” “,””))+1). Copy and paste this in and change the cells that it is looking at to the one that contents your search query (it is currently looking at D8).
STEP 6. You should now have a column within your Excel spreadsheet that have the number of words that your search terms contain. You need to select this column and then click copy then paste special > values so you can sort the sheet based on the number of words within the keyword.
STEP 7. Sort your spreadsheet based on the number of words per keyword and then delete all of the search terms that have more than 4 words and less than 2. You are left with just the search terms that have between 2 and 4 words within the search term.
STEP 8. Now sort the excel spreadsheet by the number of clicks. The keywords that have a large number of clicks and don’t have a spend that is considerably above your CPA targets will make good candidates for long tail keywords. You can then upload these into Google Ads using the Google Ads interface back into the ad groups that they were in before but in exact and BMM match types.
2. Ubersuggest keyword tool for finding mid to long tail keywords
Ubersuggest is one of my favourite tool for finding mid to long tail keywords. It works by scraping the suggestions that Google makes when you search for something, as shown in the screenshot below.
Here is a step by step guide to building huge list of 3-4 word keywords using Ubersuggest.
STEP 1. Go to ubersuggest.io
STEP 2. Enter the keyword that you want suggestions for into the search box as shown in the screenshot below. Here I have used the word “blue socks” as a example.
STEP 3. The tool will then give you suggestions for each letter of the alphabet as shown in the screen capture below.
At this point if you think that the keyword is relevant and is between 3-5 words long then you can select it by checking the radio box next to it.
STEP 4. When you have found a relevant keyword, you then want to expand it so that it will give you suggestions for keywords that contain that phrase. You can do this by clicking the little arrow next to the keyword and then expand, as shown in the screenshot below.
STEP 5. The tool will then churn out a list of long tail keywords that contain that root keyword as shown below.
Once again select all of the keywords that you think are relevant to what you are advertising.
STEP 6. Now go to the keyword selected tab as shown below.
STEP 7. You now have two choices: you can either download them into a spreadsheet and then upload them into Google Ads, or you can view them as text which then gives you a list online which you can copy and paste into Google Ads directly.
3) Keyword multiplier tools for creating mid to long tail keywords
Keyword multiplier tools are a smart way to very quickly generate very large numbers of long tail keywords and are especially suited to e-commerce websites where you have hundreds of different categories and sub categories.
Let me show you an example of how you would generate a large volume of mid to long tail keyword suggestions for the fashion brand ASOS. Here is there page for polo shirts.
Along the side you can see that there are a number of different filters that can be applied which will refine the search and bring up the most relevant polo shirt. We want to use these values to create lots of long tail keywords using the keyword multiplier. This is how you can do it.
STEP 1. Go to SEOautomatic’s keyword multiplier tool.
STEP 2. There are 4 fields that allow you to multiply different words together. In the first one you want to enter the different root keywords “polo shirts” and then in the others you want to add the values from each different filter that can be applied.
So in the first desired valuable box you may want to add the different sizes from XXXS to XXXL. In the second desired variable you may want to add the colours for example beige, blue and cream as shown in the screenshot below.
STEP 3. Go down to the bottom and click on the blue “create list of keywords” button. It will then generate a list of keywords for you. To save you time, you can set it to add exact and broad match modified keyword parameters to the adverts so you can easily copy and paste them into Google Ads.
It will then generate you a huge list of different variations of your keywords as shown below. Just from the few variations that we added before it has generated 150 new keywords that are potentially a good fit for this account.
At this point it may well be worth copying ad pasting this list into Google Ads keyword planner to see which keywords have at least 1o searches per month. Otherwise you are likely to create a huge number of keywords and adverts that have low search volume and are hardly ever shown.
Overall when analysing data from our own accounts and from the accounts that Sam Owen managed over at PPC Hero, it was very quickly apparent that the long tail curve that most marketers believe to be correct does not hold true for PPC marketing.
We found that around 94% of impressions came from keywords that contained 4 words or less, compared to the 30% that most marketers have been taught. This makes it virtually impossible to double your profits by making your account long tail, as most marketers believed to be possible.
When it came to my second point of argument, we found that 2.4% of conversions were generated by keywords that contained 4+ words in comparison to the 80%+ of conversions that were generated by the top 20% of keywords. So you would be 33X more effective by spending your time optimising these keywords as opposed to working on adding new long tail terms.
Finally, when analysing the data we saw that on average you would need to add 200 keywords of 5+ words in length to generate 1 click per month on average. That would prove very difficult to manage, and would consume a large amount of time for the very small increase in performance that you would see.
By all means theses stats will vary from account to account; however we have not yet found an account where the main arguments that I’ve made don’t hold true. I would invite you to analyse your own account using my short guide and seeing if your long tail keywords are actually contributing to your account or if they are negatively effecting it.
There are hundreds of different guides to finding long tail keywords that cover a huge range of different techniques, but the 3 I have shown you in detail are from my current understanding the 3 fastest ways to generate a comprehensive and effective list of mid to long tail keywords.
If your account is lacking when it comes to mid to long tail keywords then using these tools. The search term report especially is a really good, quick, way to pad out your keyword list with relevant new keywords that you know already perform well with your audience.
With this being such a controversial article I am interested in hearing other peoples views on the study and welcome some debate, though ask members to be respectful in doing so.