The problem with the longtail keyword strategy

Here's why the longtail keyword strategy may be facing new challenges.

I’m a long-tail content publisher.

Every month, my team publishes 900+ articles targeting long-tail queries.

Going after longtail keywords is a viable strategy, but it has its drawbacks. If you’re in the process of committing to this strategy, you should keep them in mind. I need to be reminded of them every once in a while.

What’s more, I think that as our industry matures, the longtail keywords strategy may be facing new challenges. Let me try and explain why.

Table of Contents

What does “long tail keywords” mean in SEO

If you already know what longtail means, feel free to skip to the next section. I just wanted to put the basics out there for those who aren’t sure.

I’ve seen people who think that “long tail” means very long queries.

While there can be some correlation between the number of words in a query and whether or not it’s long tail, this isn’t about the length of the search phrase.

Here’s the idea behind the term “longtail keywords.”

Let’s say you put all of the Google search terms on a chart. A small number of phrases gets a high search volume. As you keep exploring terms with lower search volume, you’ll find that the number of terms increases.

In terms of sites, a niche could look something like this –

  • 20 search terms with 20-50K searches per month each
  • 50 search terms with 10-20K searches per month
  • 200 search terms with 5-10K searches per month
  • 1,000 search terms with 1-5K searches per month
  • 5,000 search terms with 100-1000 searches per month
  • 20,000 search terms with 20-100 searches per month
  • 100,000 search terms with 1-20 searches per month

If you placed them all on a chart, you’d have a high spike at the beginning, gradually flattening out to a very long “tail” of additional queries with low search volume.

Ahrefs created a nice infographic about this –

Credit: Ahrefs

Longtail keyword examples

Let’s say you’re an affiliate of a furniture brand.

You could try and rank for terms such as –

  • Couch
  • Dining chair
  • Coffee table

Tens of thousands of people search for these every month.

Good luck ranking for them, though. The competition would be super high.

You could go after phrases that are more specific and unique, such as –

  • Black leather couches
  • A set of wood dining chairs
  • Midcentury modern coffee tables

There should be fewer pages out there competing after these exact terms, so your chances of ranking are higher. But they’re still not very high.

So you could go even more longtail than this, and look for queries that fewer people search for –

  • black leather couch with pull-out bed
  • cherry wood dining chairs set of 4
  • mid-century modern round coffee table with storage

It may seem strange to pursue phrases with less traffic, but you would have fewer pages competing over these exact terms, increasing your chances of winning the SERPs.

I’m not an affiliate marketer, so let me switch to examples of longtail queries for informational websites, aka content sites, niche sites, or blogs.

Let’s look at the dog niche, for example.

High traffic/high competition search terms could be –

  • What to feed my dog
  • How to train a dog
  • What dog breed should I get

Each of these would probably get you tens of thousands of visitors per month – if you were to rank high on Google.

Of course, you’re not likely to rank high on Google for any of these questions. Not unless you have an established site with huge authority.

So you might think you could try these queries instead –

  • how much food to feed a dog
  • How to trim my dog’s nails
  • How often should I take my dog to the vet

Unfortunately, these are not longtail queries at all. The search volume is still high, and more importantly, the competition is very high.

Unless you have a beast of a site in terms of authority, or you’re willing to invest a large amount in promotion (including link building), you’ll have to dig in much further into the longtail.

Examples of longtail queries in the dog niche could be –

  • How often should you bathe a dog with dry skin
  • Can you feed your dog raw meat right after thawing
  • how to wash a poodle with dawn dish soap

(Note that I am not in the dog niche. The above examples are based on my hunches about potential search volumes and competition for these queries.)

The longtail search term strategy

The longtail strategy is about ignoring those lucrative high-volume/high-competition phrases. Instead, you look for those very specific queries that have fewer searches, but also less competition.

The longtail SEO approach is based on several assumptions –

  1. There is enough traffic in a longtail query to make publishing a post around it profitable
  2. Other publishers are more likely to go after more lucrative phrases so longtail queries are easier to rank for
  3. There are so many longtail queries (hence why the tail is long), again meaning less competition for each query – simply because there’s “more to go around”.

This is the strategy that I employ with my sites. It’s working well so far.

It’s also the strategy taught in several courses, including the ones I recommend on my resources page.

Long tail keywords benefits

Clearly, the main advantage of following the longtail strategy is that you can find queries with little competition.

Sometimes zero competition. I.e. no other site has targeted the same question (in terms of user intent).

When Google can’t find another page that addresses the same search intent, it’s very likely to rank your page. Even if your site has little authority. There’s just nothing better to serve the people.

That’s why longtail is such an appealing strategy for people who are just starting out.

All you have to do is find those low-competition queries. And I mean really low competition. As in: no one has answered the question before.

If you find those, then all you have to do is right a semi-decent post. No need to build links. No need to come up with a unique angle. Your post is very likely to rank up high there anyway.

You can now move on and create a page around the next longtail query and win that over too.

Eventually, your site ranks for multiple longtail queries and the accumulated traction takes its effect. People link to some of the pages, your site authority begins to grow, and you can start competing over more lucrative keywords.

Bonus points: “longtail” queries aren’t really that long tail

I’ve seen supposedly longtail queries bring in thousands of monthly pageviews. Even tens of thousands.

These queries are so specific that people assume the traffic will be low. Which again, means low competition. In that sense, they are still longtail.

The problem with the longtail approach

Nothing is ever simple, is it? And may I also add, nothing lasts forever.

There are a couple of problems with the longtail keywords strategy.

The competition is getting worse

As time goes on, more and more people enter the web publishing industry. Many of those already within the industry are scaling up (yup, that includes me).

More longtail content is being published every day.

What’s more – publishers generally use the same techniques to find longtail queries. They either employ online tools or use the Google auto-complete method. The same crowd going after the same queries…

The bottom line is –

Finding underserved low-competition longtail queries is getting harder by the day.

Going too far into the long tail

When you’re going after hyper-specific queries, you run into a new risk:

After ranking at number one on Google… you find that only 5-10 people search for this term every month.

You end up with a dud.

Too many of those and your site won’t be getting enough traffic to be profitable.

Of course, the two problems are related.

The more competition out there, the more likely will you be to try hyper-longtail queries with a new site. Otherwise, your chances of ranking are very slim.

I’m seeing this with the new sites we create.

Finding decent queries (very low competition yet enough potential traffic) is getting harder. Still doable – the queries are out there – but I have to spend more time looking for them.

What’s the future of the longtail strategy?

Growing competition is neither bad nor is it good. It’s just the natural progression of this industry.

This industry (still) has very high-profit margins.

High-profit margins attract more people. In turn, the increased competition lowers profit margins.

I’m not an economist but I think that’s normal market behavior as the industry matures.

In other words –

The longtail strategy is becoming less lucrative

You have to spend more time finding low-competition (or zero competition) queries.

These queries will likely have lower search volume, as we’re digging deeper into the barrel (even if we’re not scratching the bottom just yet).

Also, once you find a good zero-competition query, it won’t last for long.

Three, four, or five years ago, I could count on the low competition for a few years. Nowadays? we’re lucky if we get six months of zero competition. Sooner or later someone will track down “our” query using an online tool. Typically, more than one site would do that.

Here’s an example: A couple of years ago I found a juicy longtail query with zero competition. We ranked #1 on Google and it brought in thousands of pageviews. Two years later, there are 20 sites going after the same search term. My site is stuck at #4 and no amount of content improvement helps push it back up.

Crunching some numbers

The formula that I’ve been using for the longtail strategy looks like this –

300 monthly pageviews per post X $30 RPM = Monthly revenue per post: $9

Months of revenue: 60

$9 monthly revenue X 60 months = $540

Cost to produce a post = $100

Profit per post (over time) = $440

That’s an extremely high-profit margin but it worked out well so far.

Future numbers

I don’t have a crystal ball, but following the line of thought in this post, I think we’ll see a decrease in average pageviews per post with the longtail strategy. We could also see a decline in the number of months of revenue.

It’s going to take a long while before longtail becomes unprofitable, but I can see the profit margins going down.

Within a few years, the formula might look like this –

100 monthly pageviews per post X $30 RPM = Monthly revenue per post: $3

Months of revenue: 45

$3 monthly revenue X 45 months = $135

Cost to produce a post = $100

Profit per post (over time) = $35

Ouch!

When will this happen? I have no idea. If it’s even going to happen.

Oh, no! Is the Sky Falling?

Absolutely not.

This is not meant to be a “doom and gloom” post by any stretch.

All I’m doing is pointing out a trend that is already affecting publishers – such as myself – who rely mostly on longtail search traffic.

I’m pursuing my longtail publishing efforts. For two reasons –

1. As shown above, the profit margin is high right now. I think it’s going to take a few more years before going after longtail becomes significantly less profitable.

2. As the world around us changes and evolves, people search for new things. Those new topics have their longtail questions. There will always be more and more longtail queries to pursue.

If anything, I’m doubling down on longtail content production.

Exploring other strategies

While continuing our large-scale longtail publishing, I’m also exploring additional traffic strategies.

I consider this a form of hedging strategy.

Should longtail traffic dwindle faster than I thought, I want to have a solid stream of traffic from other sources.

Staying mean, lean and effective

As long as the profit margins are very high, businesses can get away with being inefficient.

In our industry, this could take on one of two forms –

  1. A huge company that throws away money on frills, thus pushing up the overall cost per article
  2. A small publisher that gets into a rut, allowing a site to deteriorate in scope as the competitors take over

With just over 50 full-time employees and about a hundred freelancers, I think our web publishing business currently counts as a medium-size company.

I’m hoping that we can avoid the pitfalls listed above. We try very hard to stay efficient and effective. It’s an ongoing challenge.

I hope you found my ramblings to be of some interest.

I’d love to hear what others think about the future of the longtail publishing strategy. Leave me a comment and let me know your thoughts!

24 Comments

    • That’s a very good question, Greg. I’m on the fence on the importance of topical relevance. I’ve seen articles that did very well with no silo-level topical relevance. Just the general niche. My guess is that – as with most other things in the algorithm – it’s complicated.

      • Thanks for writing a great content for us. However, do you think focusing on a single niche like pet>birds; 200 articles about only birds, will help to make a good topical authority for a new site?

        Or do you think focusing on multiple categories would be a wise decision? Like under a pet niche on the birds category has 200 articles, dogs 200 articles, and cats 300 articles actually I’m talking about a giant site like https://a-z-animals.com/ or should we focus on a micro niche like https://coffeeaffection.com/ (though you and me on John’s forum. So we have opportunity to talk more) Happy summer!

        • Hi Rahul,

          I think both strategies could work. The key will be to figure out what longtail queries are out there with a decent search volume and low competition. If you find enough such queries about dogs, cats, birds, and horses – and you have the budget and infrastructure to get 1000+ articles out within a few months, then a large pet site would be the way to go.

          Otherwise, if you’re an expert on a micro-niche, find opportunities there, and know how to create great content on that niche, then 200 articles about love birds specifically, could work very well too. You could branch out into social media traffic and maybe monetize with an info product too.
          There’s more than one way to cook this egg. I tend to go with the first of the two strategies because I have the budget and setup for that. But I believe the second strategy could work very well too.

          Happy summer to you too and yeah, I’ll definitely see you on the forums!

  1. Anne, once again you published such an insightful article. I agree it’s getting more competitive in the long-tail arena precisely because it’s been so profitable for so long. Equilibrium is the nature of our economic playing field.

    Like you, many long tails I enjoyed top rankings for years are getting nipped at by other publishers eating away at ranking for existing articles.

    I think too with the onslaught of better SEO software, it’s easier for the competition to figure out other sites.

    Every few years this business faces new challenges, not only from Google updates but also changing landscapes such as you point out in this article. I’ve had to adapt many times. Sometimes I’ve been lucky and been forward thinking getting out ahead of the changes. Other times I’ve been late to the party forced to react.

    Regardless, even with these changes IMO, there are great opportunities in content publishing.

    • Thank you for that comment, Jon. It’s great to get validation from someone who’s been doing this for so long!

  2. I really hope that I will be able to establish an publishing company like you. With the ideal size I want is 7-10 full time employees. I’m on the way to flip my first site for ~50k-60k at the end of August & will use that capital for the upfront budget to hire employee. I live in Vietnam so maybe the cost can be reduce :).

    I want to learn alot from you about the business administration perspective in publishing site model. You’re my role model in this industry 🙂

    • Hi Trang,
      Thank you for your kind words! While I hope others find inspiration in this blog, I’m sure there’s a lot that could be done differently and probably better than how I do things. Good luck with selling your site and scaling your business! Sounds like you’re on the right track!

  3. i have been making similar estimates. It’s a little scary if your rpm/epmv is under 15 going after keywords with 50-100 traffic you may just be breaking even. Also googles push to forcefeed us videos keeps lowering text results

    • Yup, I think there are multiple potential threats out there. Low RPM is definitely one of them – and it could happen over the loss of the cookie too. And yes, Google is taking over a lot of the search traffic. Video results is just one way.

  4. I fully agree. Finding these long tail queries has become a lot harder. Every new site ion web is targeting those searches. Even after using Google Autosuggest, SEMrush and Searchesponse, it takes me considerable amount of time to get queries for which almost no one is ranking. And once you target those queries, you will see other sites ranking for those within few months. The reason: tools like SEMrush and Ahrefs has made it easier for other publishers to steal competitors keywords.

    I think that’s a nature of this business. As more and more people are jumping in, competition is going to get more tight.

    On the flip side, I think as the competition will get intense only those publishers will survive who can recover their costs. Rest all will die a slow death.

    • Thanks for your comment, Rinkesh. I think anyone who’s creating a large number of topics and checking them manually should be able to notice the change.

  5. Hi Anne,

    Great article.

    If revenue drops, publishers will be forced to reduce cost per article. AI is an obvious candidate particularly as the technology improves.

    I think you are being somewhat alarmist. Search is not a zero-sum game in aggregate. The pie is growing, 15 to 20% of all queries annually have never been searched before.

    Best, Pax.

    • Hi Pax,
      I was trying to avoid an alarmist tone because I don’t think it’s all doom-and-gloom. On the other hand, I don’t buy the “15-20% more queries” claim at face value either. For several reasons –
      1. Google does not reveal the actual numbers or stats
      2. While Google reports a massive increase between now and 2012, that is for Worldwide numbers. Not the US market.
      Within the US market, I am sure there are new searches every year, pertaining to news events, new trends etc. Some of them may come at the expense of the previous year’s searches. With evergreen longtail searches, I highly doubt there’s a 15%-20% increase year by year. And whatever increase there is, competition has been growing much faster.
      Again, I’m not being an alarmist – I’m happy to continue with to my longtail strategy. I’m just noting how the industry has been changing, especially over the last year or two.

  6. Hi Anne

    If you have sites that cover similar topics do you link from one to another, or is this something you avoid altogether between your sites?

    If you do interlink ink between your own sites, how do you keep track of this across your portfolio, and would it be a factor when it comes to selling a site?

    (I would imagine it makes sense in some instances to link to related content on another site, e.g a powerful dog site linking to a page on a site about a specific breed).

    • I don’t deliberately interlink our sites. Even when they’re in a similar niche. That would go against Google’s best practices and could trigger a penalty. Too close to a PBN got comfort.
      I’m sure we have such links out there simply because writers might come across one of our other sites when researching and link to them organically. Not all of the writers would even know that this was a site by the same publisher. I’m ok with that – as long as it happens naturally. I don’t track that, though.

  7. Hi Anne, TY for your info and insights!
    As noted, RPM is part of the equation; and remains a constant in the post examples…

    How can we get a feel for the $$ range of the RPM before we commit to the niche?

    Peace, Todd

    • Hi Todd,
      Great question and I wish I had a way to tell in advance. I typically try to assess a niche’s RPM range by looking at the “money” around it. For example, gossip/entertainment could possibly generate a lot of traffic but I have a feeling the RPM would be low because not too many people spend money on following their favorite celebrities. Travel or cars would probably have high RPM rates because of the amount of money people spend on those.
      In the end though, there’s high RPM and low RPM within each niche too. So I don’t think there’s a good way to figure this out other than actually trying. Sorry I don’t have a better answer.

  8. Wonderful insights Anne!

    I’m curious, would you consider link building and site authority a way to hedge your investment? I know you (and I as well) build the majority of our sites with zero link building, but building a moat around a niche site by building its authority could solve this issue.

    When doing competitive analysis, if I see a lower authority site, I write that content to compete and more times than not i outrank or at least get some clicks in the top 3.

    This strategy of going after lower authority sites essentially supplies an infinite number of content ideas as your authority grows, more site you will surpass opening up new keywords until you become a mega site.

    Just curious what you think…

    • Hi Chris,
      I don’t think Google plays along with that very well. It’s a risky moat to build IMHO. It’s expensive, and time-consuming and it’s something that Google is telling you outright not to do. I’ve seen too many people invest tons into link building only to have the sites’ legs cut from underneath it on a Google update. No one knows for sure what these updates are about, I have a sneaking suspicion that unnatural patterns of incoming links may come into play here.

      I get your point about deterring competitors by establishing a high DA. At some level, it probably works. However, that’s because these people rely too heavily on tools an numbers. It doesn’t really work like that. I’m seeing low-DA sites outranking high-DA sites all the time – and now more than ever. I think the last Google update somehow devalued DA, or maybe they’re calculating it differently than most online tools do.

      Don’t get me wrong – I think link building is a legitimate strategy. Personally, I don’t think it’s as helpful as it seems, and considering the risk and costs, I prefer not to follow that one. Just my opinion.

  9. Hi, very interesting way to tackle keyword research! This is the most solid tip i got so far and ive been reading loads.

    You say you post 900+ articles a month? How long would you typically make them?

    Thanks for great content.
    -Robin

    • Hi Robin,
      Right now our articles are typically 1200-1500 words long but it varies over time. I think anything that’s 800+ words could probably work in terms of SEO.
      Going beyond SEO, longer content probably generates higher RPM because you have more ads on a page. There’s a point of diminishing returns with that. For us, the 1200-1500 range seems to work well for now.

      • Hi Anne,

        Thank you so much for your honest answers and I really appreciate that you take time and answer every question with a thought-true answer, which is rare nowadays. 🙂

        I noticed that you work with multiple sights and what I can see is that you sell them after a while right?

        A thought that came to mind and maybe you have answered that before but I couldn’t find it.
        Are you / why aren’t you putting all the power into building one super site?

        With that amount of articles generated, why not put all that content you are making into one site and make it a big authority site in the niche you are in?

        My newbie head thinks that you could easily establish your site as a media site after a while and with your name on top with the bigger site you could probably earn loads with affiliate marketing, e-courses etc when you reach the heights of the bigger sites and bigger search volume keywords?

        I think that was my plan when I started this year in march 2022. I’m still a newbie and I my view on building a homepage and earn money might be wrong because of all the “youtube/google influencers”. I think that’s why I ask because your way to approach the industry feels like a better alternative for me and something that I could try to tackle instead of competing with the big sites.

        Interested in your view on that, maybe it can be a future blogpost on your page even.

        Have a great day.
        -Robin

        • Hi Robin,

          Thanks for stopping by and I’m glad you like Yeys! You raise a good question. While I can see how a larger site has many advantages (I wrote about it here), I also think it’s a risky strategy. Any one of the things that can bring down a site, could mean your entire business is wiped out. The diversification of a larger portfolio helps mitigate the risk – at least to some extent.

          We actually haven’t sold any of the sites yet, but we may do that in the future. That’s another reason for creating a larger portfolio. Hopefully, it should allow us to sell some sites down the road (which should also help mitigate some of the long-term risks to the industry as a whole).

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