SEO | July 26, 2011

There’s more to life than “shoes”: why the main ‘head’ keyword isn’t everything

In SEO, the goal for a number of businesses seems to be to rank for their industry’s main keyword. It may be an absolute dream for a small shoe shop to optimise its website for the keyword “shoes” for example, but the reality is that it may be nearly impossible when the competition is made up of big-name brands such as Office, Barratts and Schuh, whose budgets and resources will be far greater in comparison.

This may seem obvious, yet we occasionally meet businesses who think this type of goal is realistically achievable and the best course of action. Beyond that, there are some marketers working for big-name brands who care so much about the ‘head’ term that they risk neglecting other keyword areas and search terms, which could have a potentially damaging effect on their overall SEO efforts.

The head term vs. the long tail

To highlight the difference between the head term and the ‘long tail’ (the rest of the searches related to head term), we used the Google AdWords Keyword Tool to work out the difference in search volume as a percentage.

According to the Keyword Tool, [shoes] on exact match (i.e. Google users typing in the exact phrase “shoes” into Google with nothing before or after it) is searched for 165,000 times per month in the UK. This statistic alone sounds amazing – imagine being on page 1 of Google for that keyword and receiving a share of the visitors! But how many people use Google for any keyword containing or relating to “shoes?” The answer: 9,140,000 UK searches per month!

This is the broad match figure: according to Google’s definition, broad match includes “synonyms, singular/plural forms, relevant variants of your keywords and phrases containing your keywords.”

To give you an idea, this will include other high-volume keywords…

– “wedding shoes” (49,500 UK searches per month)
– “shoes online” (27,100)
– “cheap shoes” (18,100)

…All the way down to the really specific searches:

– “discount womens shoes” (58 UK searches per month)
– “buy ladies shoes online” (22)
– “uk online shoe store” (12)

If you compare the keyword [shoes] on exact match to its broad match version (e.g. the Long Tail), [shoes] occupies only 1.8% of the entire share of searches in the market:

The head term vs the long tail

Therefore, someone chasing [shoes] and nothing else risks missing out on 98% of the market searching for shoes using Google.

The risks of chasing the head

We recently heard of an example of an independent shoe shop that only sells ballerina pumps, whose website coincidentally ranked well organically for “shoes” searches relating to their location (e.g. “shoes london”). Although this sounds great on the surface and would have been great for general exposure, it was actually quite useless to them. Using them as an example, they probably found the head term for their industry & city to be:

– Not specific enough: If someone is searching for shoes, are they looking for tennis shoes, running shoes, kids shoes, ladies shoes, boots, trainers, sandals…? Unless they happen to be looking for ballerina pumps, the site appearing for their search would have been worthless to them, unless they sold all types of shoes imaginable.

– Harder to convert: For the above reason, it is much harder converting this type of traffic into customers, especially if it is not what they are really looking for. Likewise, it would be a surprise if they were unable to convert people searching for “ballerina pumps in london,” for example – the type of product they sell twinned with their location.

– More expensive: In this instance, if the ballerina shoe shop were to use Google AdWords and target national traffic, the approximate CPC (cost per click) for “shoes” is £0.65, according to their Keyword Tool. However, “ballerina shoes” and “ballerina pumps” are £0.47 and £0.36, respectively. The latter two search terms may get fewer people searching for them – due to their specificity – but they are cheaper, more specific and therefore easier to convert for this particular shop/website. They could effectively be spending less money in advertising but earning more back in the sales they receive from this type of traffic.

Grabbing the tail

As the long tail is generally a less competitive sector of the market compared to the head term, it is usually a lot easier to target and chase this type of traffic.

So instead of going all out and aiming for “shoes,” time can be spent building links and writing content that targets the long tail searches, examples of content including advice articles, news stories, top tips and how-to guides. Go for enough of them and combined they might actually thwart the head term in terms of volume. Not only that but they will likely draw in a better quality of traffic to the website, who will be more likely to buy the products or services on offer to them.

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