By Joe Goldstein, for Edwardsturm.com.
One of the biggest blogging trends in 2014 and 2015 was Brian Dean’s skyscraper technique. In a nutshell, the idea was to pick someone else’s listicle that had already earned links (like “6 lazy ways to drain your dog with a drone”) and develop a version that absolutely towered over it (like “The definitive list of 101 ways to drain your dog with a drone”). With the help of some very thorough outreach and promotion, a skyscraper post could earn an obscene number of links and help put an otherwise unknown site on the map.
The problem with the skyscraper technique is that it took very careful keyword selection, a lot of R&D, a lot of promotion, and more than a little bit of luck. It doesn’t work great with every industry, for every company, or for every blogger. In the most competitive industries, there was always a risk that someone could go out and build a bigger skyscraper.
While skyscraper posts had a good run, in 2016 the pendulum is poised to swing the other way. For a lot of little reasons (and a few big ones), 2016 is on track to be the year of the informational long tail post.
What is an Informational Long Tail Post?
An informational long tail post combines informational queries with traditional long tail keyword targeting.
What does that mean exactly? If your site’s head keyword (the broad, high volume term you ultimately want to rank for) is “Dallas dentist,” your long tail keywords might be “cosmetic dentist in Dallas” or “pediatric dentist in DFW.” By definition, long tail keywords have lower search volume but more specificity than head keywords, which tends to translate to stronger user intent and higher conversion rates. Someone searching for a “dental surgeon in Plano” is typically closer to picking up the phone than someone searching for a “Dallas dentist.”
While most keyword strategies start and stop with transactional queries—ones that express the need to buy something or find a local business—sophisticated bloggers know there is a lot of untapped value in informational queries. Blogging about informational topics like “costs of typical dental procedures in Dallas” or “what’s the difference between a porcelain crown and a veneer?” might not lead directly to conversions, but they do provide lots of other benefits. Informational posts can help expose your brand to customers in the research stage, create opportunities for legitimate link building, and improve user metrics like clickthrough rates and time spent on site. They also help avoid content fatigue (which you’ll quickly run into if you need to draft 400 words on “Dallas dentists who accept Medicare”) and give you a great opportunity to demonstrate your expertise in the industry.
Long Tail Search Volume is On the Rise
Long tail search volume is on the rise in a dramatic way, thanks to a few key changes at Google. The meteoric growth of Google’s Related Questions over this last year, along with very public developments in their Rank Brain and Hummingbird updates, show that Google is getting better at handling longer, more exact, and more abstract queries. A lot of this has to do with the rise of mobile – Google wanted to make their algorithm more flexible so it could handle Siri-style searches in order to protect their search market share from any encroaching apps. It also helps them understand user intent in a much more nuanced way, which helps with sorting search results.
More importantly, even casual users are starting to notice Google’s progress, which is why they’re beginning to expect accurate and exact answers for a greater variety of questions. While the search volume for queries like “water heater repair” remain strong, you should expect volume for searches like “how do I relight the pilot light on an American Standard 40 gallon” to grow at a greater rate.
Google Values Pages That Serve Long Tail Queries
The latest iteration of Google’s Search Quality Rater’s Guidelines makes a strong case for long tail informational posts, too. A lot of weight is put on the new “Needs Met” scale: for any given search, does this page fully meet the user’s needs, does it fail to meet the user’s needs, or is it somewhere in between? It’s a clear signal that Google sees value in specificity and will likely reward pages that serve specific user intents.
To put it bluntly, while you’re probably never going to outrank Amazon for “electric toothbrushes,” creating content for “is it worth spending more than $100 on a Sonicare electric toothbrush?” and “how to replace an Oral-B electric toothbrush battery” is a good way to get on Google’s good side.
Keyword Research Tools are Getting Better
Since Google Analytics started phasing out keyword data, a few players have been scrambling to pick up the slack. Tools like Keywordtool.io and Long Tail Pro have come a long way in just the last year, which means even part time bloggers should have little trouble finding viable long tail keyword topics.
The Case for Mob Metrics is Strong
While the SEO industry debates the influence of mob metrics—those factors like time spent on page, number of pages visited, and click through rates—in rankings, there’s little evidence that they hurt and growing evidence that they help. If people are clicking on your content, taking the time to read it and share it, and not clicking back to look for other results, it only makes sense that Google would assume you produce quality content. It also makes sense that they would deny it—otherwise, everyone would rush out to buy clicks, shares, and “100% natural organic traffic” from some of the internet’s more colorful marketplaces.
Topic Modeling is Getting More Sophisticated
Conventional SEO says, if you’re trying to rank a dentist in one of the U.S.’s 36 Springfields, you need to be really clear which Springfield you’re talking about. You need to plan on putting “Illinois” and “IL” in headings, title tags, alt tags, anchor text, and in your schema markup.
With the maturation of the Knowledge Graph and Google’s “things, not strings” mantra, this strategy can extend to any topic. If you’re tied neck-and-neck with another site trying to rank for “Jeff Goldblum” but only one of you mentions Jurassic Park, you’re going to have a hard time. If the competition doesn’t mention “Geena Davis”, “Law and Order” and “weird laugh” on their page, adding them to your page is a quick way to see rank gains.
While there’s only so much you can fit about Jeff Goldblum on one page, long tail posts can and do make all the difference. Exploring the debate about the correct pronunciation of his name or compiling all the best remixes of his weird laugh is a winning strategy to show that you deserve to be the authority on Jeff Goldblum.
A Rising Tide Lifts All Ships
Where it gets fun is when people start sharing your posts on message boards, social media, and Q&A platforms like Quora. If your long tail posts serve specific intents, and if you’re providing real information that is relevant to your industry, and if no one else has provided a better answer for that exact question, you’re going to get impressions, visits, shares, and maybe even a few links – all without spending a minute on promotion. You can also easily prime the pump by finding a few of those questions and linking to your page pre-emptively, which is always a good idea.
Where it gets even more fun is when you start linking those pages to your most relevant “money pages”—the pages you want to rank for high-converting and valuable terms, like “DUI lawyer Atlanta.” And by “gets fun,” I mean “makes them rank better so you make more money.”
Long Tail Posts in Action
If you’ve never written content for a water damage restoration company’s blog, you don’t even know the meaning of the word “fun.”
I handle SEO for TSC Restoration and while you’ll find plenty of safe, mid-tail content on our blog (like “how to handle a leaking water heater” or “my sewer backed up – can I clean it myself?”), one of our biggest breakout successes to date was completely off the wall.
Less than a week before Christmas, I saw that that the biggest gift this holiday season, based on search volume, was the hoverboard. On a lark, I decided to see what kind of posts were out there for “how to fix a water damaged hoverboard” and found pretty much nothing. Fast forward a couple of days and our newest post, how to fix a water damaged hoverboard, went live. Then something really interesting happened:
Thanks to a little domain authority, a very crawlable site, and maybe a link or two, the post was indexed practically overnight and shot straight to first place for a variety of searches. Today it’s driving about as much organic traffic as the rest of the site combined.
Here’s where it gets tricky again, and where it requires a slight shift in perspective: TSC Restoration doesn’t really repair hoverboards. They repair flooded floors, rooms, and buildings, including the contents—but you can’t just walk up to their office to get a single piece of electronic equipment fixed. The post actually has a large disclaimer near the top that tells visitors who they should contact if they need more help repairing their hoverboards, but TSC still gets a few calls about it anyways.
Some people might say this traffic is wasted, but take another look at the analytics data. If you noticed that the home page’s landing page sessions grew by 42.55% versus the previous month, then good for you. If you realized that publishing a post about “water damage” may have helped a couple of other pages rank better for “water damage,” you might be onto something. And if you think the site might be ranking better overall because people are now spending more time on it, sharing it just a little more often, and linking to it just a little bit more, then maybe you’re right. Maybe the rising tide has lifted all ships.
2016 is the New Dawn of the Long Tail Informational Post
There’s been a strong case for long tail informational posts for a while now, but the case just got stronger. Google has sent clear signals that they can handle long tail searches and value long tail answers. Users have gotten used to expecting quality answers from long tail searches. The knowledge graph has matured. It’s easier to find long tail keywords than it has been for years, and the upsides of creating quality content outside of transactional verticals are coming into focus. Even big brands are starting to rely on how-to guides as cornerstone content, and the direct SEO benefits are clearly powerful.
It’s only a matter of time before the long tail informational post becomes the biggest blogging trend of 2016.