An Obituary for Generic Keyword Rankings – Long Live the Long-Tail!

An Obituary for Generic Keywords – Long Live the Long-Tail!

We gather here today to mourn the death of…

Ditch that. This is a celebration! Generic keywords are DEAD! We can finally stop chasing our tails (our short-tails anyway – industry humour) and shake off this obsession with obscure, ambiguous keywords and keyword rankings.

If that sounds a bit radical to some die-hards, allow me to explain...

What are “generic keywords”?

They’re “catch-all” keywords that people think they need to rank well for; general phrases that every man, dog and sewer-crawling SEO slime has been cheating and clawing their way to rank for over the last 25 years. A few examples:

  • cheap bed & breakfast”
  •  “garage services”
  • “Florida holiday”
  • “best wedding dresses”
  • free software”
  • "cheapest insurance"

In 2014, this is SEO suicide. Dig yourself a hole right next to that generic ranking grave and go jump right in.

Why generic keyword rankings are a waste of time

Google search resultsLet’s say you ranked at #1 for that phrase, “cheap bed and breakfast”. What does it gain you? A ton of untargeted traffic looking for a cheap B & B anywhere in the UK (or the world). That’s fine if you own a chain of B & Bs across the globe. If you’re a modest businessman with one establishment in Blackpool, it’s a complete waste of time.

That’s the problem with generic keywords – they’re not really targeting the visitors who are most likely to “convert” (i.e. perform a desirable action like buying from you or signing up to your newsletter). 

People don’t search with useless phrases

Where did we get this idea that people search Google using phrases that aren’t actually very helpful to them? Would you search for “cheap bed and breakfast”, without ever specifying the town you’re looking to visit, or the type of room you need (family, single, double, pet-friendly)?

Would you search online for a wedding dress without maybe adding at least one small detail such as colour, size, style or the name of a favourite designer? You might be looking for a shop in a local town; you might be looking to hire rather than buy; perhaps you need a dress for a winter wedding. But really, just “wedding dresses”?

A few probably do. Most won’t and never did.

People search online for all sorts of reasons and in all manner of ways. In reality, users often use 4, 5 or more words in their search queries. I often type in whole questions with very successful results. In the SEO world we call those types of query “long-tail”.

Long-tail keywords

There may not be as many people searching with each of these long-tail variations, but two things are certain when you rank well for a long-tail keyword:

  1. You’re much more likely to have a targeted customer visit your website
  2. The accumulated traffic you get from lots of long-tail queries is nearly always higher than from a few generic keywords.

Long-tail keywords graph

But even now, many of us cling to the idea that our websites must rank for these short, catch-all keywords.

The effect of personalisation on rankings

Here’s another reason why trying to pin down those generic rankings is pointless: very few people ever see the same search results!

Google knows so much about us from the devices we use, the websites we visit and our social media activity; it also knows our location from computer or mobile phone settings. So it’s not that difficult for our search results to be personalised by Google, based on what it thinks our preferences are and what it thinks we want to see – even when we don’t want it to!

You can get "cleaner" results from an anonymous browser like Tor, so you might think the results you see there are the "real" rankings, but what's the point, when most other people's results are being personalised?

Our search results are often similar to other people’s, but sometimes they’re not, which means “getting to number 1” is a bit of a random affair and rather dependent on the individual viewer!

So what about those ranking reports? All we can say with any certainty is that when we trigger the software that runs a report, the rankings it comes back with apply to that software’s search bot at that moment in time. Ranking reports can be useful as a rough guide, but to attach any more meaning to them than that is not a good way to measure your website’s progress.

And here’s another thing about ranking reports…

How many keywords are you tracking in your reports, anyway? 25? 50? 100? 1,000? You can be sure you haven’t thought of all the variations people will type that causes your website to show in search results.  So a ranking report will only give you a snapshot of some of the phrases that are helping to bring traffic to your site.

Why rank for 1 keyword when you can rank for 160? How to rank well for long-tail search queries

Blog post search queries

When we learn not to obsess over individual keyword rankings, we can start to write much better content for our websites.

Believe it or not, if you’re creating great content on your website, it won’t just rank well for one keyword, you could appear in search results for dozens of search queries, if not more! Want proof?

Back in June, Tim published an in-depth article about the “Deep Web”. Naturally, we hoped it would do well in search results for the query “the deep web”. In actual fact, the post was so informative and wide-ranging that in the last three months, Google Webmaster Tools records that it has appeared in search results for around 160 different (but related) search queries. And that’s just for one page of Kontrolit’s website!

What this means in the real world

In practice this means you don’t have to repeat the phrase “cheap holidays” one hundred times on the same page to try and rank for that phrase! It means you can use synonyms like “great value”, “low-cost”, “economy” etc. You can write about “trips”, “breaks”, “long weekends” and “vacations”.

Expand your web page beyond the basics, write decent, interesting and useful copy that provides genuinely useful information for your reader and not only will you be in a better position to rank for your main target keyword, you are likely to show up in search results for many other, related search queries.

So if we’re not measuring keyword rankings, what should we be doing instead?

SEO successThere are plenty of other ways to benchmark your website’s health:

  • Do your web pages have good overall visibility in search results, i.e. how many and how often do pages on your website appear in search results?
  • How many visitors do you get each month and are they viewing your most important pages?
  • Are there critical pages on the site your visitors aren't viewing?  
  • How long do they spend on your site and how many pages do they view?
  • Perhaps most importantly, how often do your visitors pick up the phone, email you, buy from you, sign up for your newsletter etc?

Kontrolit customers have 24/7 access to their website’s stats straight from their admin panels. Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools can also provide answers to these and many other questions.

A test for you!

It’s always good to rank well for a keyword. It’s better to rank well for a keyword that really matters. And the icing on the cake? To rank well for lots of phrases which are relevant to your business.

Test the theory. Imagine you own that bed and breakfast business. It’s near Bournemouth by the way, right on the sea front. You love dogs and children!


I’ll offer you 500 visitors just from the keyword, “cheap bed and breakfast”.



You can have visitors from all of the following keywords:

  • 200 visitors from the keyword “bed & breakfast in Bournemouth”
  • 100 visitors from the keyword “pet-friendly B&B in Bournemouth”
  • 50 visitors from “Bournemouth B&B with family rooms”
  • 50 visitors from “Bournemouth guest house with sea views”
  • 25 visitors from “Seaside B&B for families”
  • 25 visitors from “Sea front guest house, Boscombe, Bournemouth”
  • 25 visitors from “Child-friendly bed and breakfast, Dorset”
  • 25 visitors from “Dog-friendly accommodation, Bournemouth”

Celebrate with champaignBoth options give you the same number of visitors...but which 500 visitors are more valuable to you? Which set of keywords is going to be easier for you to rank well for?

If you chose the second option – congratulations! You have mastered the concept of targeting long-tail keywords!

Better still, look beyond keywords and ranking reports and look at the other measurements we’ve talked about. Altogether, they’ll give you a much better picture of how well your site’s doing.

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