The Secret to My Long Tail SEO Success
This strategy has worked for me time and again
Be good to Google, and Google will be good to you.
Seriously, that’s my secret!
Of course, this needs interpretation — which is what I’ll cover in this post.
I saw that statement in a Google slide presentation about 10 years ago. And strangely, it wasn’t even a presentation on search engine optimization.
Instead, it was about energy efficiency in their data centers and how tiny improvements, multiplied by billions per day, add up to extraordinary savings over time.
The presentation continued, mentioning things like how much harder it is for Google to process web pages with invalid HTML vs. pages with correctly-formed syntax; and how the good pages are fast-tracked through the system because Google doesn’t have to waste CPU cycles trying to decipher your bad typing and guess at your true meaning.
Google’s point — make good pages and you will be rewarded.
Imagine that, Google said they’d reward me for saving them electricity. I wonder what else they’ll reward me for?
And that simple question became the foundation for every material strategy I’ve implemented on my websites for the past decade.
This post covers a combination of specific long tail SEO strategies that I’ve successfully used at Inside Stores, a multimillion-dollar e-commerce company I co-founded a few years back which specializes in upholstery fabric and indoor wallcovering.
What is Long Tail SEO?
To me, and for the purpose of this post, long tail search engine optimization (SEO) is a combination of:
- Getting ranked in Google for multiword phrases; typically comprised of three or more words (ex. blue stripe cotton fabric).
- Purposely, but meaningfully, getting thousands of pages ranked in Google based upon the multiword phrases you’ve identified as being important.
Let me be real clear — long tail does not mean stuffing thousands of spammy pages into Google. Your pages must be meaningful or you’ll be penalized.
Personally, I tend to gravitate toward online opportunities which are well-suited to long tail concepts — I’ve always found this to be my competitive edge.
Where do these pages come from?
Pages can come from just about anywhere. The key is to find natural groups which lend themselves to large page counts.
- Pages for individual products. These get the most action from Google if you’re fortunate enough to have thousands of products listed on your website. The content on these pages is critical.
- Top level category pages (manufacturers, colors, fabric styles, designers, etc.). Although these pages might typically only represent two-word phrases (blue fabric, or cotton fabric), they can still undoubtedly boost your overall SEO footprint.
- Narrowly-focused galleries of curated products (Kravet blue cotton fabric) which are machine generated using creative programming algorithms.
- Human-curated sets of products which naturally fit together, like fabric patterns for pillows that would go nicely together on a sofa.
I prefer pages and collections of pages which can be machine generated through innovative programming. This is the only sane way to create thousands of pages with substantial content.
What are the benefits?
If you’ve got an e-commerce site with thousands of pages, the benefits can be enormous. Here are some of the biggies:
- If you’ve got lazy competitors, you could have a much bigger footprint (more pages) in Google than they do.
- Even if your competitors aren’t lazy, with a bit of creative thinking, you can still find ways to place many more pages into Google than they have.
- With thousands of ranking pages, if some of them are suddenly knocked down by an aggressive competitor, the overall impact on your traffic will be minimal, since those problematic pages will only represent a small fraction of your total.
- You’d be surprised at what people type into Google. Going after longer multiword phrases not only lets you fish with a giant net rather than a single pole, it presents an opportunity to outthink your competitors in regard to what word combinations to go after. Be a smarter fisherman.
- You’ll get tons of free traffic from Google that you could never afford to pay for with click campaigns.
- Once in place, the traffic keeps coming, even when you’re on vacation.
- Most importantly, in competitive markets, having a solid long tail strategy may be the difference between being in business and, well, not.
What does all this mean for revenue?
For our upholstery fabric web store, 80% of revenue originates from long tail pages in Google, even though we also rank exceptionally well on two-word combinations.
Bottom line — long tail rocks!
What About Great Content?
Duh! But seriously, if you don’t have great content — go home. There are simply too many people who have already mastered the content game.
To succeed against these established players, you’ll need to have a strategy that assumes great content from the start, and then builds upon that using techniques which level up from there — such as the long tail SEO strategies outlined in this post.
Think Like a Google Programmer
The next pillar of my SEO secret sauce is to constantly keep asking myself critical questions, like:
What would be my reaction if I worked for Google and I saw whatever on some website?
Would I think that would improve the overall experience for Google’s users, or would they hate me for allowing those pages to rank high in the results?
For example, somebody I respect in the SEO community once told me that repeating boilerplate shipping and return policies on every single product page on my e-commerce sites would be considered duplicate content by Google — and consequently, my pages would be penalized.
I thought about that for about a minute (because of my respect for this advisor), and then responded with: I disagree. And here’s why:
Google surely knows all about e-commerce websites, and they also must know that customers want the shipping and return policies right there on the page where they’re easy to find — they don’t want to have to hunt them down. The customer experience is greatly improved by duplicating this text on every page as long as it’s kept brief.
If I were a programmer at Google, I would exclude repeated shipping and return policies on e-commerce websites from being penalized as duplicate content.
It seems so obvious, but I’ve seen this very situation debated over and over again by so-called experts. Let me assure you, I’ve got the same policy paragraphs repeated over 500,000 times on one of my sites and these pages generate millions of dollars in revenue — there is no penalty.
In fact, I’d even argue that a bright programmer at Google would, or at least should, choose to give product pages with complete policy information a slight boost over competing pages for that same product.
This is just one simple example of how I make decisions by thinking like a Google programmer on the ranking team, and this concept can be applied to dozens of decisions you’ll need to make along the way as you build out your website.
Pay Attention to Meta Content
There are thousands of posts available all over the Internet on how to write good H1 titles and craft HTML meta titles and descriptions, so I won’t go deep on this topic, except to say, all of this is incredibly important.
One technique I’ve found to work exceptionally well over time is to use the same word phrases in the H1, meta title, page URL and primary product image URL. It appears this really pounds it home for Google, and my site traffic doubled within two weeks after I tried this for the first time across the board several years ago.
I also craft my meta descriptions, which are shown by Google in search results, to let searchers know that our website offers many more products in whatever style, color, brand or designer they searched for — just go for the click. Think of it as an introduction to your entire website; not just information about a single page or product.
And finally, don’t forget to include some of the newer invisible hinting techniques like JSON-LD. This is especially important for e-commerce sites.
Help Google Make Google Better
There’s a famous scene in the movie, Jerry Maguire, where Tom Cruise begs Cuba Gooding, Jr., “Help me, help you.”
Take that to heart, because this is exactly what Google is asking of you.
Google has a simple mission for search. To make it the best experience possible for their users. And if you help them do that, you will be handsomely rewarded with free traffic, and lots of it — it’s that simple.
Sure, they give out free traffic to pretty much anyone with a pulse who’s not a spammer. But if you want more than just “pretty much anyone” levels of traffic, you need to earn it with great pages, and anything else you can conjure up to help Google understand that your site shines above the rest.
The easy place to start funneling hints to Google is through your on-page meta data (meta tags, JSON-LD, etc.).
Next, make sure all of your images have descriptive URLs and alt tags. And links to product pages are as descriptive as possible.
Your job is to “spell it out” for Google so they don’t have to waste time guessing at what makes your site so great.
Remember my opening anecdote about saving electricity and getting your pages fast tracked? Put your thinking cap on and write down ten things you can do to help Google quickly understand that your site is better than your competitions’ sites. Then do it!
And one more thing to remember — searchers type all kinds of strange things into Google. Some of these phrases may seem outright wacky to you, but not so much to the person doing the typing.
Google is going to do their best to show some decent results. Make sure your pages are included — that’s the whole point of long tail.
If you’ve done your job right, your pages will simply float to the top of the search results as the only obvious choices. This is the magic of long tail, because with long tail, you’re not battling a bunch of external market dynamics that are outside of your control, or luck.
They’re Sending You Free Money — Don’t Cheap Out
Give some respect.
In my case, the organic traffic Google sends me would cost well over $1,000,000 per year if I had to pay for clicks— and they’ve been doing that for years.
This topic goes hand-in-hand with the one above, but I wanted to make sure the headline stood out, because in my experience, website operators tend to take Google for granted — DON’T!
If Google is kind enough to send you free bags of cash, the least you can do is make sure you’re delivering on the promise of good and engaging content.
Not only is it the right thing to do, they will reward you for it.
Google surely knows when your visitors immediately hit the back button. It’s an easy tell that your content isn’t so great. If this happens too frequently, your pages will be downgraded.
Conversely, if visitors hang around for a while, Google knows you’ve captured their attention with great content, and your pages will be upgraded — that’s the reward.
Don’t skimp on content just to save a few dollars. The extra effort it takes up front to create great pages will turn into a traffic annuity for years to come.
Please, value the traffic Google sends you, and be grateful.
View Google as a Magnet for Attracting Customers
Don’t assume what users originally type into Google to begin shopping is what they’ll eventually purchase. Sure, it’s a strong hint toward intent, but visitors are just one click away from going down an entirely different rabbit hole.
Take advantage of that.
Give visitors lots of opportunities to keep clicking, because if you don’t, they’ve already got one eye on the back button, and they’ll be gone in a heartbeat.
My personal experience with upholstery fabric is that visitors rarely purchase a pattern which is similar to their original search — unless they searched for a specific item number, which typically means they’re comparing prices.
This is why it’s so important to get lots of pages into Google. No matter what people search for, you want at least one of your long tail pages to show in the results, so you have an opportunity to introduce them to your site.
I make sure that all of my landing pages show the expected content, but I also craft them in ways that make browsing fun — an experience with countless rabbit holes with interesting twists and turns along the way.
Most shoppers are naturally curious — play to that.
Google is Smarter than You, Leverage That
You’ll never outfox Google. Trying is both a waste of time and damaging to your site’s reputation. No matter how smart you think you are, you’ll never outsmart the combined intelligence of thousands of PhDs.
I’m old enough to remember the days when we could manipulate Google’s results with simple techniques like tracking keyword densities and using a thesaurus to make sure every synonym in the book was included on our pages. Those days are long gone.
Instead, leverage Google’s brilliance.
The sport of Judo teaches students that you don’t need to be bigger and stronger than your competitor. If you master the techniques, you can use their momentum and body weight against them.
Google has the advantage of machine learning, amazing programmers and access to every nugget of information on the Internet. This is golden if you can learn how to creatively harness that energy. Use it to your competitive advantage.
Leverage Google’s knowledge and behaviors to work for you, not against you — like Judo.
This is actually a blessing, because we can now author content and craft pages without the awkwardness of stuffing words into the copy or arranging page layouts to conform to some artificial standards.
Google’s latest machine learning ranking algorithms are awesome. Make your pages however you want to showcase your best work. Their algorithms will automatically know if your pages are good or bad.
Do Inbound Links Matter?
Google built its business on inbound links. They’ll always matter.
However, when you generate thousands of long tail pages, it’s rare that any more than a few outliers will ever get more than one or two external inbound links, if any at all.
That’s okay. Your competitors will be in the same boat, and Google simply uses whatever information is available to them — your own page content.
Of course, external inbound links are still immensely important to your site; just not so much on your long tail pages.
Internal Cross Linking
I believe in a strong internal cross linking strategy. Cross linking is where pages link to other pages on your own site using link text which is strategically chosen to give better hints to Google.
For example, one link to a given page may reference a common SKU or UPC code (for price comparison shoppers), whereas other links to the same page might reference blue stripes fabric, or some famous designer’s name.
I do this programmatically, for efficiency, and it has to fit naturally on pages so it actually improves my visitor’s experience, and isn’t just taking up page space for some abstract optimization purpose my visitors would never begin to understand — or worse, find to be annoying.
Maturity Counts — Keep Your Pages Around
Google loves “good” web pages that have withstood the test of time. This can either be a blessing, or a curse, depending upon if you’re the legacy player or the new kid on the block.
Page maturity is a fantastic competitive moat for long tail pages once you’re the legacy site. These kinds of pages rarely have lots of inbound links, so your ranking is based mostly on your page content and overall site authority. New kids will spend months trying to catch up; even if they have nearly identical content (like a product page for a popular item).
Once you’ve worked hard to get potentially thousands of long-tail pages ranking in Google, you want to make sure you keep them there.
My final pillar — do no harm.
Be careful about making big changes to your overall page templates without first testing a few pages in Google to make sure the changes won’t adversely affect your ranking.
Don’t delete ranking pages, ever!
This may seem sensible, but inevitably, you may have pages for products which are later discontinued. What then?
Be creative, and see if there’s any non-spammy reasoning for keeping these pages around.
In my case, for upholstery fabric, patterns come and go, and people are always searching for discontinued products — perhaps to replace a damaged cushion.
It makes total sense for me to keep these older pages around; with a few changes of course, and show our customers reasonable alternatives using machine learning to find matching images.
20% of my long tail pages are for discontinued products, and my customers truly appreciate being able to find substitutes. It’s all a matter of perspective and creative thinking.
Not Quite Free — The True Cost of Long Tail
Compared to pay per click, organic long tail traffic may seem to be free, but creating and implementing these strategies certainly has a cost — for example, developers’ salaries.
My perspective is to evaluate these costs and rewards the same way as you might do for any other marketing or click campaign.
Here are some of the the primary costs for long tail I try to take into account whenever I start a new project:
- Developing, testing and tuning the overall strategy
- Maintaining the page content and any related cross linking between pages
- The extra server resources consumed by Googlebot, Google’s friendly bot which visits websites regularly to look for changes
Googlebot’s Impact on Server Resources
The charts below show Google’s bot hitting insidefabric.com, in grey, vs. all the requests from human visitors.
At first, it may seem odd that Googlebot uses ten times more server resources than that of our warm-blooded friends; but that’s okay, it’s a reasonable price to pay for knowing that Google is keen on keeping our pages fresh in their index — especially since the resulting organic traffic is free.
I like to say, this is how Google shows their love. And I’m feeling very loved!
Given that this website has around 750,000 pages, some quick math shows that Google is scanning the entire site every day. Think about that — Google thinks my content is important enough to scan every page, every day.
How awesome is that!
I must be doing something right; otherwise, Google would fall back to cherry picking the daily scans to include only the subset of pages it deems to be important.
And how do I know this? By thinking like a Google programmer, and understanding their judicious use of electricity (and bandwidth, storage and CPUs).
Requests per Hour
The grey is Googlebot. The yellow represents long tail pages for individual products, and the purple is for long tail gallery pages (collections of very specific products, like Kravet blue stripe cotton drapery fabric).
Requests per Second
This chart shows one minute in time on a Friday evening. Again, most of the page requests are scans by Google’s bot — frequently hitting 12 per second.
Sometimes, after midnight, I’ve observed rates as high as 25 requests per second.
Dealing with Changes to Google’s Ranking Algorithms
The strategies I outline in this post have proven over many years to be generally immune to negative hits as Google continues to refine their ranking algorithms. Why — because everything I do is based on that first pillar of being good to Google, so they’ll be good back to me.
Of course, you still need to follow all of Google’s common sense core guidance to rank well, such as using HTTPS and optimizing your pages for mobile.
If you’ve got the right kind and quantity of web content, the long tail strategies I’ve outlined in this post can be insanely profitable — especially if you don’t mind doing a little bit of development to up your page counts.
For me, the upholstery fabric business I referenced in this article would never have been possible if I had to pay for traffic with click campaigns. The PPC cost for this genre starts at around $1.00 per click, and goes way up from there.
The indecisive “I’ll know it when I see it” perspective of my finicky fabric shoppers tilts the math against me for PPC, but totally works in my favor for long tail, because I no longer need to fight the math on ROI.
And best of all, once you’ve nailed the formula for your specific situation, long tail is the gift that keeps on giving — with comparatively-little extra effort.
Google just keeps on sending you bags of cash, even when you’re on vacation 😉
So remember my opening line —
Be good to Google, and Google will be good to you.
You can count on it; like gravity.
Man, I just love long tail, and so will you.
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