The Long Tail Keyword Mastery Guide for 2021: More Traffic, Less Competition

It’s about time we talk about long tail keywords.

This concept is not new…like at all!

It all began back in 2003, when Clay Shirky, internet technologies writer, wrote a piece titled “Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality”. This article discussed how a handful of websites had a lot of backlinks while a lot of websites only had a handful of backlinks.

If you organize the data into a graph—the y axis counting the number of links a website has, the x axis displaying websites (from most popular to least popular)—you will see a trend similar to this.

Long tal graph

Welcome to the long tail!

But that was just the beginning. For this concept to really spark a fire in the marketing world, it took Chris Anderson to publish an article on WIRED, inspired by Clay’s work.

The article made a lot of observations in the entertainment/media space. How large stores like iTunes and Amazon would (at the time) only carry the most popular, profitable, music and TV shows/movies. Many niche companies stood out and benefited from the obscure.

“What’s really amazing about the Long Tail is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits [or keywords in the case of this article] on the Long Tail and you’ve got a market bigger than the hits.”

  • Chris Anderson, 2004

That article led Anderson to write books, do Ted Talks among other speaking engagements, and even run an entire blog dedicated to all the concepts he’s been exploring.

Long tail concepts became widely used by marketers in all sorts of areas. Paid advertising, product creation, sales, service-based businesses, and SEO.

Defining a “Long Tail Keyword”

Long tail

Ok, everyone. There is massive confusion over what a long tail keyword actually is. Less so for you though! Having heard the history of the “long tail” phrase in marketing, you’re at a significant advantage.

Let’s break this down. Let’s make sure we have 100% clarity over what “long tail” actually means. A good dictionary result always helps. I liked Investopedia’s definition the best.

“The long tail is a business strategy that allows companies to realize significant profits by selling low volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers, instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items.”

Make sense? See how that connects to everything we were talking about in the previous section.

Now we have to figure out how to relate this to SEO. More particularly, how we could relate this to keyword research.

And a lot of people have very wrong assumptions over what it means!

Take this poll by Will Critchlow, CEO of Distilled. Over 1,200 SEOs and marketers answered what they believe a long-tail keyword is.

Summary: 51% answered incorrectly. That’s a problem we’re hoping this article will fix.

Why the perplexity?

A more accurate definition of a long tail keyword is:

A low-volume keyword that often enough is very specific, niche-oriented, and has little competition.

When you’re doing your keyword research, you’ll come across plenty of low-volume keywords. Not all of them are great, however.

Here is a three-step checklist that will cover the basics of a good long tail keyword. It must be…

Long Tail Keyword Checklist

Dispelling the myth that long tail keywords have to be…LONG

Like we have covered, many folks assume the key feature of a long tail keyword is its word length. Frankly, a lot of them just so happen to be. The more words you add to a Google search, the more specific it is going to be and the less monthly searches it will have.

“why does my 1994 ford ranger get bad gas mileage”

^A typical long tail keyword.

They don’t have to all be that long though! Heck, just search a broad industry term in your keyword research tool of choice, create a traffic filter of 10-50 as the monthly search volume and see what low-competition terms you could find. Likely a few there that aren’t all that long.

Here are some long tail phrases I quickly came up with that are only a few words:

  • “common lisp jobs” (or “lisp jobs”. Even in the competitive job board industry, there is hardly any competition and 20 searches per month.)
  • “data island”
  • “cheap tervis”
  • “bookbinding software”

For fun, I replied to that poll on Twitter, asking “What’s the shortest long tail keyword you could think of”. The results were interesting.

The shortest long-tail keyword

I was most impressed by ZQV! It’s a 20-searches-per-month keyword. It’s a very niche electronics product. You win, Jon.

Your Turn: What is the shortest long-tail keyword you could think of? Tweet at us @FatJoeWho. Use the hashtag #ShortLongTail

Long Tails in The Wild

We’ve gone over a few. Now, let’s go over a few more in-depth.

Example #1: “how to clean kitchen cabinets before moving in”

It’s quite specific! We’re not just cleaning cabinets. We’re not just cleaning kitchen cabinets. We’re cleaning kitchen cabinets before moving in.

As for search volume, it appears to get around 10 searches per month. Very little.

And there are a ton of other long tail phrases when it comes to cabinets:

  • “how to clean old kitchen cabinets before painting with mineral spirits”
  • “how to clean kitchen cabinets before painting”
  • “how to clean old kitchen cabinets before painting”

The first thing I like to do when inspecting a long tail keyword is to determine how satisfied the user would be after performing the search. Let’s take a look.

Search phrase

As you could see, an Instant Answer result displays first. Does this solve the user’s question?


That is an irrelevant snippet from an article on cleaning a new home. The closest thing to an answer it provided is the sentence “clean the cabinets”. Not helpful!

How about the rest of the results?

Notice  anything about the search results? Most of them are about cleaning a house before moving in. Nothing specifically related to cabinet cleaning. At this point, we need to decide if the best plan of action is to:

  • Follow everyone else. Create a cleaning-your-new-home article that optimizes for our long tail keyword.
  • Create a specific article that talks about nothing except for “how to clean kitchen cabinets before moving in”
  • Create an article all about kitchen cabinet cleaning and having a standalone section about cleaning the cabinets of a new home

Let’s take a look at the biggest keyword our competitors are ranking for. To do this, we’ll use Ahrefs’ SERPs Overview tool and plug in our long tail phrase.

SERPs Overview

I want you to pay special attention to the “Top keyword” column. This gives you an idea of what those other sites are trying to rank for. If you decide to write a large, general guide, this column suggests what your main keyword could be. If you rank for one of those larger topics, you’re likely going to rank for a slew of long tail phrases.

In this specific example, I’m leaning towards the idea of following the pack and writing an article about cleaning your new home. The trick here is to be more mindful of long tail key words than your competition. It should be your goal to provide awesome information for Google to hopefully use an an Instant Answer.

Example #2: “honda accord making a humming noise”

This particular keyword phrase gets around 10 searches a month, according to Ahrefs and SEMRush. One thing I noticed right out of the gate is that it has a large amount of variations that all get around 10 searches per month. All of those add up and you could pull some decent traffic from it.

  • “honda accord making a humming noise”
  • “why is my honda accord making a humming noise”
  • “95 honda accord making a humming noise”
  • “2010 honda accord making a humming noise”
  • “2011 honda accord making a humming noise”
  • “my honda accord is making a humming noise”

Taking a look at this keyword in Ahrefs’ SERP overview

SERPs overview of keyword

In contrast to the last keyword about cleaning kitchen cabinets, there’s a lot that’s different! All of the results are Q&A sites and forums. This is always a good sign.

Another difference can be found in the “Top keyword” column. For the kitchen cabinet keyword, there were a few broad keywords here. In this case, the top keywords are all long tail keywords!

What we should do:

In the list of long tail keyword variations I provided earlier, we should look for common occurrences. All of them revolve around a Honda Accord making some sort of humming noise. The part that varies is the year of the car.

Knowing this, I would then create a guide all about fixing the humming noise in a Honda Accord. It would mention different notes for the different year models.

You don’t have to stop your long tail research just yet! Think about what additional questions could be asked about your long tail keyword. In this automotive example, I know that a strange noise from a car could be many problems. I decided to look into keywords related to humming noises in various locations of the car.

For this, I used Google’s own search suggestions.

As you could see, I’ve got a lot plenty of new potential terms to research.

How to Find Long Tail Keywords

Gearing Up: Top Free & Paid Tools For Long Tail Keyword Research

The best tools for long tail keyword research include:

Those are all you need! All are free except for Ahrefs and SEMRush.

A General Purpose Keyword Research Tool

I recommend Ahrefs over all others for a variety of reasons. First of all, they have the most impressive collection of data.

For example, when I typed the word “cat” into their keyword research tool, it returned 5,673,255 results for me to go through. That’s crazy impressive! SEMRush gave 3,674,338.

If you go for a budget option like Mangools, they only give a maximum of 700. Google Keyword Planner gave me 515 keywords for the term “cat”.

Also worth noting that Ahrefs has really superb filtering options. I could filter out millions of keywords I don’t need within seconds, based on word count, search volume, included/excluded phrases, and more.

You’ve seen me use Ahrefs’ SERP Overview earlier in order to determine the top keyword of particular results. That’s yet another reason to consider it.

Long Tail Idea Generators

All of the long tail idea generation tools I’ve mentioned are free. Their purpose is to help us quickly brainstorm many ideas.

Putting It All Together: How to Conduct Long Tail Keyword Research

It all starts with having a vague topic idea. In this case, let’s look into watches.

Google’s own search suggestions and related searches are an excellent place to get started with your long tail research. Simply start typing.

I began just typing “watches for” and came across the more specific topic of “watches for nurses”, which later became “digital watches for nurses”.

Go ahead and search for this keyword and then scroll to the bottom of the page. Say hello to Google’s related searches.

And now we could go deeper! The first part that popped out at me was the fact that nurses may need a watch that has a second hand. That limits a lot of the digital watches you may recommend. Another interesting one is “speidel scrub watch”, a special analog watch designed for nurses.

Take note of everything of interest, plug it back into Google, going further down the rabbit hole of search suggestions.

Another source of inspiration is the Google Q&A results (aka the “People also ask” section). This special rich snippet is often triggered by both question and broad term related queries. To trigger it, I just searched for “nurse watch”.

Tip: Whenever you click to expand one of these questions, more will show up.

Keep jotting down notes of different questions, topics, and keywords that sound of interest.

To automate the task of looking through search suggestions, you may also use Keyword Sheeter (formerly Keyword Shitter). It’s nothing more than Google’s search suggestions on steroids. You input a seed keyword and hundreds of keywords will rain down on you.

UberSuggest is another tool at your disposal. It’s good to use it in conjunction with Keyword Sheeter in order to maximize your ideas generated.

Finally, take all of the ideas you’ve generated and throw them into Ahrefs. First, check the search volumes of the keywords you’ve chosen to see if any are good.

After that, Ahrefs could help you find even more great ideas. Head on over to the “All keyword ideas” section and apply your own custom filters. I filtered for:

  • Must be searches 30 or less times per month
  • Must include the word “nurse”
  • Must include the word “watch”

And this gave me a fair amount of keywords to look at!

Final Notes

I hope you have enjoyed this article!

You now…

  • Know the marketing history behind the term “long tail”.
  • Have zero confusion over what a long tail keyword actually is.
  • Know the exact tools to golden opportunities of long tail phrases.
  • Know how to analyze the SERPs and create an appropriate piece of content.
  • Have a step-by-step process for finding long tail keywords.

Now back to you: What is the shortest long-tail keyword you could think of? Tweet at us @FatJoeWho. Use the hashtag #ShortLongTail

Daniel Trick

Head of Content

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