SEO & On-Page Optimization: Aim Wide, Not High, Study Says

Jan 06, 2012

Article ImageWhen your Chief Marketing Officer is breathing down your neck, demanding to know why your company's website still isn't the top hit for the most-searched term in your industry -- and you're trying to figure out the most tactful way to tell him that it'll never happen -- breathe easy. Conductor, the SEO technology provider, has come along with some solid new research demonstrating that you can get as much bang for your SEO buck without nabbing top billing on the highest-volume search terms.

A study by Conductor's Senior Research Analyst, Nathan Safran, takes a look at the numbers behind on-page optimization - the practice of optimizing on-page elements to emphasize the keyword for which you want your page to rank in web searches. The study, titled "The Long Tail of Search: Why the Fastest Path to More Traffic Might Not Be Where You Are Looking," contends that, first and foremost, on-page optimization is about 10 times as effective at improving page-ranking as doing nothing to optimize for search. The message, of course: Don't let your site sit idly by and expect it to improve its rankings in search queries.

Once you've decided to employ SEO tactics, the question becomes: What keywords do you target? And here's where your gut instincts might lead you astray.

The study uses the example of the car insurance industry to illustrate its findings. The search term "car insurance" is a "head term," a very high volume, but also hyper-competitive and over-saturated with companies vying for the top spot in web searches for that term. That top spot is a lucrative but largely unattainable target. If you instead target for a collection of "long tail" lower-volume search terms -- "car insurance for cheap," "cheap car insurance," "car insurance quotes," etc. -- your search volume, when all of those terms are taken together, can reach the same volume of hits as a head term in a far less competitive search environment.

The study's analysis determined that low-volume long-tail terms that were targeted by on-page optimization moved ahead more than one full search page, as compared to a half page for high-volume head terms. Safran, the study's author, doesn't mean to intend to dissuade companies from optimizing high volume terms, but suggests that doing so should be part of a long term strategy that also includes optimizing long-tail terms for broader, more immediate results.

"The idea is to spend more time aiming the arrow than shooting the arrow," says Conductor's Safran.

 In addition to being able to reach your target volume of search inquiries by spreading your keyword targeting over multiple lower-volume search terms, Safran says the work you do to determine what those terms will be will yield a higher rate of conversion -- visitors who click through to your site -- because the terms you'll arrive at will be more specific, and better tailored to connecting what your potential visitors are looking for to what your company provides.

The Conductor study also uses a different set of parameters to define long-tail vs. head terms: the number of words in the term. Short terms of a word or two (e.g, "insurance" or "car insurance") constitute over-saturated, competitive head terms while longer terms of three or more words (e.g., "car insurance for cheap") fall into the easier-to-attain long tail category. By Conductor's analysis, focusing your keyword optimization on search terms of three words or longer yields a conversion rate that's more than twice as high as that for head terms.

Conductor, the sponsor of the study, is a provider of SEO technology based in New York City. The company's flagship product is the enterprise SaaS SEO technology solution Searchlight, which, it says, "helps marketers scale natural search, monitor competitive market share, and boost revenue." Searchlight is in use at, Siemens, Toys R Us, Autodesk, and GE.

Safran says, "Once companies are able to stop being so laser-focused on a handful of competitive search terms and start being savvier and more strategic -- spending a little more time on research -- they'll see tangible results."