This is a guide to using long tail keyword research to make your on-site content go further. By using the techniques that I highlight throughout the post, you’ll be able to more successfully find those longer-tail keywords and phrases whilst crafting content that effectively targets them. The examples I’m using are geared towards long form, in-depth content that is suited to some kind of blog or advice area, but some of the principles and methods could also work for shorter copy that you might find somewhere like an ecommerce category page.

What’s the point?

What are long tail keywords, and why should we put time and effort into targeting them? In short, they are lower volume keyword phrases that are more specific, often being longer than three words. Some of these phrases will be purely transactional, like ‘makerbot replicator 2 desktop 3d printer’, and will need targeted product pages to convert potential customers.

Other searches will be informational, coming from searchers at a much earlier stage in the sales funnel. These are the kinds of phrases that we’re looking at in this blog post. Ranking well for these informational searches is a key part of gaining more exposure for your brand, increasing your chances of converting potential customers as they move further down the funnel.

There is now more potential to rank organically for long tail keywords than ever before. Whether it’s because of RankBrain or lesser covered algorithm updates, Google is now the best it’s ever been at recognising where search queries relate to results that aren’t exact matches, and where natural variations of a query mean essentially the same thing. If you want to find out more, Moz’s Dr Pete has written an extensive blog detailing his research into RankBrain and Google’s growing ability to cast its net wider when seeking to return the best results for search queries.

Well-written content can now rank for countless more long tail searches, even if it is not specifically optimised for them. Recent evidence suggests that long form (1000+ words) content tends to perform well in individual searches, and in-depth content gives you the space to talk around a topic, and cover more potential search topics. The bottom line is that if Google sees your content as high quality and as matching the intent of a particular query, your site has the potential to rank for it.

Whilst it’s true that a lot of this coverage will be in searches that don’t always lead to conversions, you can see the benefits by taking a step back. If people are regularly seeing your content when they search in a particular field, then they will become familiar with your brand. Then, when they are ready to make a transaction, there is a much higher chance that they will turn to your business. Potential customers are much less likely to buy from a business that they’ve never heard of than they are to buy from a business that they are already familiar with.

SERP features

One of the biggest reasons to spend some time on informative concept is the prevalence of SERP features in Google’s search results. SERP features are anything that appears in the search results that isn’t one of the normal ‘10 blue links’, and includes things like paid ads, image cards, and featured snippets. You can find a breakdown of current features here.

There is a trend towards Google offering searchers more and more information in the SERPs themselves. If you look for a stat, like ‘population of London’, you’ll get a SERP feature above the organic results that gives you the number without you having to click anywhere else. While this is great for Google’s usability, it makes content producers’ lives harder. It is becoming increasingly important to factor SERP features into our plans, as obtaining one might be the only way to gain meaningful traffic from a search query.

The quality of your written content will have little or no bearing on some features, like the knowledge graphs that always come from certain Google partners or trusted businesses (these are more closely tied to other factors like Schema and Google My Business profiles). Others, like the ads, are paid for. The features we’re interested in for content are those that can be obtained as if they were an organic result, including:

  • Featured snippets – short answers to searcher questions that are pulled from pages in the organic results. Appears in ‘position 0’ at the top of the organic results.
  • ‘People Also Asked’ (PAA) boxes – a short list of questions related to the search, with answers in the form of dropdown snippets. Usually appears somewhere in the middle of the organic results.
  • Image packs and videos – visual media related to the search query. Appears at the top of the page.

These features are primarily useful as a way to gain unparalleled exposure in the SERPS. If you win a featured snippet, for example, you will jump to the top of the organic results, even if your actual position is lower down the page.

They are also useful for working out what Google sees as the searcher’s intent. Google’s goal is to show searchers relevant sites, which means that if your content does not match the intent (e.g. you try to get a product page to rank for a search where the user is looking for information) you won’t rank.

If there is a featured video, it is a good indication that Google expects searchers to be looking for visual aids. If there is a local pack, then Google expects searchers to want to find a business near them. If there is a featured snippet, then Google expects the searcher to be looking for information, and so on.

As you do your research and plan for detailed content, avoid keywords that are not informational in their intent – SERPs that have features like shopping results or a local pack are unlikely to show your content highly; you should try to optimise something like a category or service page instead.

Gathering ideas

For most of the rest of this guide, I’m going to talk about content creation tools in the context of a fictional project. Let’s say that I’m working with a business that sells 3D printers and 3D printing software, and I’m working on writing some content for them to increase their exposure online.

There are all sorts of ways that you can start to compile long tail keyword ideas that could inspire informative content. I’m going to talk about the three that I like best, but this is not an exhaustive list.

As a quick aside – all of the data was gathered in late December 2016, so some things may have changed slightly if you check them now.

Ahrefs – Content Gap and ideas from your current rankings

Ahrefs has an excellent Keyword Explorer tool, but at this early stage of the process, I prefer the functionality their Site Explorer offers. As my 3D printer business doesn’t actually exist, I’ve used a real site that I have no connection to, 3D Hubs, for the purpose of talking about Ahrefs.

Within Ahrefs’ Site Explorer, there is a tool called Content Gap. This lets you input your website and your competitors to find out what they rank for that you don’t.

As you can see in the screenshot below, I’m comparing 3D Hubs to three competitors, and Ahrefs has found 516 UK keywords that at least one of the competitors ranks in the top 10 for, while 3D Hubs ranks on page 2 or lower.

After manually looking through the results, and sorting through a lot of product pages and random phrases, there are some useful finds, including:

  • 3d printing news
  • How to make a camera
  • 3d printing business ideas

A word of caution for the Content Gap: if you are an ecommerce site and your competitors have slightly different products to you, it will be difficult to find any useful informational phrases among all the product keywords. This tool works best for service oriented sites that tend to have more written copy and less in the way of individual products and categories.

You can also use Site Explorer to have a look at which organic keywords you’re already ranking for, but are way down in the rankings. You can then optimise the existing pages, or use the keywords as content inspiration. Some possible keywords for 3d Hubs might be:

  • 3d printing applications (position 97)
  • 3d printer file format (pos. 87)
  • Useful 3d printed objects (pos. 63)

As we go through different methods of gathering content ideas, it’s well worth having a spreadsheet ready. This allows you to keep all of your ideas in one place, and to gather data for your keywords that will allow you to compare and evaluate them.

Moz Keyword Explorer – idea generation

We’re going to use Moz’s Keyword Explorer fairly extensively during the writing process, but in the research phase, it has a function that is useful for generating new ideas. We’ll set it up like this, targeting the UK:

The key here is to use ‘exclude your query to get broader ideas’, which does what it says on the tin. I’ve looked for keyword ideas similar to 3d printing, but that don’t include either of those terms. Here are some of the useful suggestions that it returned:

  • Additive manufacturing process
  • Additive fabrication technology
  • Direct digital manufacturing
  • Technology life advances
  • Functional prototype manufacturing

These topics show me what a machine learning tool associates with my topic (useful when thinking about RankBrain), and also gives me some ideas for individual content pieces.

Find real questions with Answer the Public

Without a doubt, my favourite idea-generation tool is Answer the Public, which is even better now that we live in a world where featured snippets dominate the SERPs for informational queries.

This free tool could not be simpler to use, simply put in a basic word or phrase, like ‘3d printer’, and watch as it generates questions that real people have searched for. My topic returned me 146 questions, which is a treasure trove of potential content ideas and featured snippets:

  • When was 3d printer made
  • Why is 3d printer important
  • How 3d printer works
  • Where was 3d printer invented
  • What 3d printer can do

Choosing your target phrase

Once you have compiled a list of the phrases that your research has returned, you need to choose one. If you’re making the list as part of a larger content strategy, as I would recommend, then you’ll be returning to it again and again to pick multiple phrases.

A simple way to make a decision is to look at keywords with a bit of search volume that remain broad enough for you to craft long content around them. For my fictional content piece, I’m going to take one of Answer the Public’s suggestions: ‘how 3d printer works’. After making it a bit more natural – ‘how do 3d printers work’ – I have the basic idea for my first blog post.

Writing engaging, well-optimised content

The goal of the content that we’re going to write is two-pronged: it should engage its readers and rank well. The tools that we’ll look at in this section are primarily geared towards SEO, though they can also show you the kinds of things that you should be talking about if you want to cover your topic well.

The key is to be aware of what you’re writing. If you’re not sure how engaging the content is, then ask yourself whether it adds information that isn’t already out there, or puts existing information into a more helpful, accessible format. If you’re still not sure, ask a colleague to read it and see what they think. If they think it’s well written and researched, you’re on the right track.

Ahrefs – setting the scene

Now that we’ve chosen our target phrase (‘how do 3d printers work’), we can get an idea of what we’re up against with the Ahrefs Keyword Explorer.

The above snapshot of the keyword tells me a few useful things as a starting point. I can see that ranking for it won’t be a walk in the park, but it is by no means impossible, that search volume is reasonable for a longer tail keyword, and that all of the clicks are coming through organic search rather than paid. This is all encouraging stuff.

I can also see that the parent topic, 3d printing, has a much weightier search volume, but while this is good to know, it’s unlikely to affect anything of what I do in writing the content. However, it does present an internal linking consideration and could dictate where this piece of content is positioned across my site (presuming I have already written about 3d printing elsewhere).

I should also point out that while these metrics are helpful, they don’t show the whole picture. Thanks to Google’s ability to pull up content that doesn’t exactly match search terms, and the holy grail of the featured snippet, we’re actually looking at getting exposure on many more search terms.

Manually checking the SERPs

Ahrefs and other tools will give you an idea of what the SERPs look like for your keywords, but when I’m checking out my primary target phrase, I prefer to manually look at it in an Incognito window, giving me the most up to date, non-personalised results.

Doing so shows me that the organic results are nowhere to be seen at the top of the page. Instead, I see two paid ads and a featured snippet (currently held by the Independent). Scrolling down, I can see the full complement of 10 blue links, with no rich snippets save a video thumbnail in the YouTube link.

What does all this tell me? It tells me that there are the full 10 slots available for organic ranking, that Google sees this query as informational (no surprise there), and that getting the featured snippet would be a big win. Don’t be deterred by the fact that another site has already claimed that prized “position 0”. Like other organic results, featured snippets are interchangeable, so there’s everything to play for. Just because someone else has already claimed it doesn’t mean you can’t pursue it.

Before writing the content, it is a good idea to come back to these SERPs and read the result that returned the featured snippet, as well as some of the other top ranking results. This will give you an idea of the kind of content that Google sees as relevant to the query.

Moz Keyword Explorer – thinking bigger

We now know what it’s going to take to hit our target keyword, but we still need to flesh out this article a lot more, and work out what we’re going to write about in order to get visibility across a range of queries and, hopefully, featured snippets. For this, we need to plug our phrase into Moz’s Keyword Explorer and click on ‘Keyword Suggestions’.

When we first open the suggestions, we simply have a list of 1000 keywords, a lot of which are similar to each other. That’s not overly helpful. Under the ‘Group Keywords’ menu, we want to choose ‘yes with low lexical similarity’. This sorts our 1000 keywords into fairly broad groups of phrases with similar wording (aka lexical similarity). As you can see in the screenshot above, we now have 92 different groups, rather than 1000 individual keywords.

If you want to be more granular, you can sort them into groups with high similarity, which will give you more groups to work with. You can also filter keywords by volume if you want, but the volume is going to be low for the majority of your long tail keywords. For our purposes we’re sticking with the above configuration. For an idea of what one of the groups might contain, the group titled ‘how do 3d printers work’ contains phrases like these:

  • How do three d printers work
  • 3d printers how do they work
  • 3d printer how do they work
  • 3d printer how they work
  • 3d printers how they work

As you can see, the intent behind the above queries is the same, but the exact language varies. Both the broad group titles and the individual keywords they contain are useful to us. Let’s explore both.

Group titles

The group headings give us an idea of the different topics to touch on in our content, or potentially, other content pieces that we could write in the future. I have picked out a good, natural sounding phrase from 5 of the main groups that I’m targeting to give you an idea of the different topics the content could target:

  • What are 3d printers
  • How do 3d printers work
  • What material do 3d printers use
  • How do powder based 3d printers work
  • How does metal 3d printing work

With these topics in mind, I can start to think of a structure for my content that could help me rank across a number of different searches. I could start with a bit of the history behind the invention and development of 3D printers, then talk in general terms about the science behind them and some of the basic processes. I can then make it clear that there are at least two major types of printer: those that print in metal and those that print in powder. I can then talk about each of these in more detail.

I actually know almost nothing about 3D printing, but thanks to my research, I’m already starting to get a good idea of what would make good content, and when I go to research in some more depth, I will have a very clear idea of what I want to find out.

Individual keywords

One of my favourite functions of the Moz Keyword Explorer is the list building. You can place up to 100 individual keywords into a list, and get a dashboard showing you facts and figures for those queries as a group.

Wait, won’t Google return the same results for queries that are practically the same?

Yes and no. While there will generally be little variation in the organic results for the phrases ‘how do 3d printers work’ and ‘3d printers how do they work’, the SERP features can be different. In the case of those two examples, both have a featured snippet, but different sites provide the information. Collecting the data across a number of variants from your chosen groups, as Keyword Explorer allows you to do, will show you how many featured snippets and other features are up for grabs, as well as more general information.

For the moment, I’m most interested in the SERP features graph. Ignoring paid results, the three most common features are videos, featured snippets, and PAA boxes. The snippets tell me that this is an informational search often phrased in the form of a question, and the PAA boxes tell me that Google sees it as a broad topic that people will want to find out more on.

If you’re writing for a topic that you know comes with a lot of featured snippets (as many now do), you should be conscious of this fact as you write. Featured snippets are phrased as answers to questions, so try making key points in your content readable as self-contained snippets. For example, I might start or finish my introductory section with a sentence that neatly captures the basics of what I’m trying to say about 3D printing that could be taken as a standalone answer to the question. This would increase my chances of obtaining a featured snippet across related searches.

Another point to remember when it comes to featured snippets is that you should think of them like organic results. As I mentioned earlier, they are not fixed. If you get a featured snippet, you might lose it, and if you don’t have a featured snippet, then further optimisation for it might mean that you obtain it in the future. Just as you would for the standard organic results, keep experimenting and iterating your content to give yourself the best chance of grabbing those coveted chunks of text.

The videos are potentially the most interesting feature, because their surprisingly high number tells me that this is a topic that Google associates with visual media. It would be pretty tough to get my own site’s video in that featured video spot, but what I can do is make sure that I include a video element in the content. Even if Google doesn’t show the video, it will still see that my content lines up with what it already recognises as the best way to provide information for this group of queries.

OnPage.org – TF;IDF

TF;IDF stands for term frequency; inverse document frequency, and it’s the principle that keeps me on the straight and narrow when I’m trying to write any well-optimised content, from category pages to long blog posts. TF;IDF, as found in the online tool at OnPage.org, is a way of working out which associated words and phrases frequently appear in the pieces of content that rank on page one around your target keyword. It is important to be aware of these co-occurring words because including them signals to Google that what you are talking about is relevant to the searcher’s query. As an example, here are some of the one- and two-word phrases that OnPage returned for ‘how do 3d printers work’:

  • Additive
  • Filament
  • Sintering
  • Conductive
  • Stereolithography
  • Additive manufacturing
  • Filament fabrication
  • Printer head

This tells me that, in order to show Google that my content covers the range of topics that it sees as relevant to the keywords, I should work the above into my text. They also indicate to me that it’s okay to include some longer words and technical jargon, and that I shouldn’t aim for the most basic, accessible explanation of 3D printing possible.

Writing something that’s worth reading

When I’m reading content online, I don’t want to be reading self-promotional, entry-level content that doesn’t tell me anything new. Why would I, when sites like the Independent and How Stuff Works offer detailed, insightful information? If I know my standards as a reader are high, why should they be lower when I write?

But, as a writer, I know that writing quality content is a real challenge. How can I possibly write something informative for an audience that knows more about the topic than I do? I’m not going to dwell on this for too long so that I don’t stray away from the topic of this blog, but it’s worth mentioning three ‘I’s that I’ve found help me to write engaging, specialist content that people actually want to read

1. Immediate relevancy – is there a news story that you can tie the topic to, or another immediate reason for you to be writing the piece? By commenting on a recent story, you can give your content a unique angle that others won’t have.

2. Insight from experts – whether this is through including up to date scientific research (referencing actual scientific publications), or by including a comment from an industry expert, featuring expert insight will give your content additional authority and increase the chance to gain links and promotion for the content.

3. Innovative presentation – a topic might be saturated with information already, making it hard to say anything new. If this is the case, don’t try. Instead, gather the best information that you can and present it in a way that is more helpful and engaging than anything else out there. You could do this with anything from a slickly animated video, to a well-written blog post that states things more clearly and concisely than the competition.

As good as Google is, the SERPs can often throw out questionable results, especially for long tail searches. By doing your research and applying some creativity, you could not only rank well and obtain featured snippets, but buck the trend and give your audiences something they actually want to read.

Ben Garry

SEO Account Executive

I'm an Account Executive in Impression’s SEO team. This means that I work to make our clients stand out in the crowded online space through on-page optimisation and original, high-quality content.