The Head, the Tail, and Everything in Between

In the world of SEO you’ll hear a lot about Head Terms and the Long Tail. Sometimes you’ll hear talk about the in between, called torso terms, and sometimes called the chubby middle (fat head, chubby middle, long tail).

The concept of head and tail terms is very important for SEOs to understand, as it has huge implications for how best to optimize a site.

  • Head Terms: the keywords that drive a hugely disproportionate amount of traffic. “iphone” is a head term with over a million searches per month, while “how to get my iphone to flush down a toilet” is a long tail term that maybe has one search a month. There is no hard definition of what makes a head term, other than they are the very top 5-10% of your keywords. How much search volume they have depends on your industry: for BestBuy.com head terms might have a search volume of over 100,000 per month. AwesomeDice.com’s head terms have a search volume of over 500 searches per month.
  • Long tail: These are the keywords with very, very little search volume. If you looked up the search volume for these keywords Google would report < 10 or 0 searches for most of them. In most sites these are keywords that drive no more than 5 visits a month, and often only 1 or 2 visits a year.
  • Torso Terms: These are just everything in between. Torso terms are usually those keywords that would be a head term to someone smaller than you. At BestBuy.com or Wayfair.com there were thousands of keywords with a few hundred searches per month that weren’t worth my time to chase down, but that might be worthwhile for a smaller niche site to focus on (since they don’t have a chance at what I considered head terms).

When people do their keyword research, they are usually focusing on head terms — and this makes perfect sense. After all, why would you spend time researching terms that show up as having no search volume at all?

But here’s the thing: The long tail is larger than all of the head terms combined. Much larger.

For most sites, the long tail represents up to 75% of the traffic — all that from keywords that are driving only a few visits per month. While the head terms drive huge amounts of visits, the long tail overcomes the head by having a massive number of different keywords — many of which are slight variations.

Head Terms vs Long Tail Keywords

Head terms drive big chunks of traffic alone — but this graph is truncated at the end. If you continued it to include every keyword it would stretch to the right for page after page. The total surface area of the entire tail is around four times the surface area of the head.

The reason for this is that everyone searches differently, and more and more people are searching Google for increasingly specific things. Instead of searching for “iphone” people might be searching for “where can i buy an iphone that my kids won’t destroy in a week.” The first is a head term; the second is a long tail search query.

In fact, Google reports that a whopping 16% – 20% of all searches made each year are for a keyword phrase that has never been searched before. That means nearly a quarter of all searches made will never show up in any keyword tool… because they haven’t been searched for yet.

The long tail is very important. Happily, pursuing the head is one part of a strategy to pursue that long tail.

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