May 11, 2010
How To

Lift Long-Tail Search Traffic: 6 Tactics to Find and Test Niche Content Areas


Long-tail search phrases can reveal a lot about what your visitors want -- and creating content to fill those needs can get more visitors to your site.

See how the team at a personal health website finds and tests topics to capture more natural long-tail search traffic. Includes advice on:
o Analyzing referring phrases
o Estimating potential traffic
o Measuring visitor satisfaction

Ted Smith, EVP, Audience Knowledge, HealthCentral, and his team strive to convey health information to consumers in their natural language. Not only is this natural-language approach better for visitors who come looking for information around specific health conditions -- it’s better for their search marketing efforts.

The majority of HealthCentral’s site traffic comes from natural search, thanks to the team’s strategy for identifying long-tail search opportunities and turning them into greater site traffic.

For example, the team focused on developing long-tail opportunities around "chronic pain" in late 2009. While maintaining their placements for primary terms such as "pain medication," they also targeted long-tail, multi-word searches such as "neck, head and shoulder pain from fibromyalgia."

By the end of Q1 2010, natural search traffic to their chronic pain pages surged 40%.

"We saw a monster spike in the number of different pages receiving traffic, and the number of different search strings that land someone on our site," Smith says.

So, how do they do it? Here are seven tactics Smith’s team uses to identify and measure long-tail search opportunities, then make sure they’re delivering the right information.

Tactic #1. Create strong content in your visitors’ language

Satisfying their site’s visitors is the team’s primary concern, Smith says -- not capturing the traffic from search engines.

"Our strategy as a company is not to get found by search engines. Our strategy is to help people [who are] managing and living with disease."

The team hosts professional content on conditions and treatments, but their main focus is on personal information from people Smith calls "advocates" who discuss how conditions impact their lives.

"They don’t speak in clinical language. They speak in natural, sort of human language about their journeys and the kinds of issues and coping strategies," Smith says. "The more conversational, natural language that is in the environment that’s supporting consumers, the more likely that you’re going to be indexed and found in long-tail searches."

Tactic #2. Analyze referring phrases by number of words

Using their website analytics, the team watches the search phrases that bring visitors to their site. They often use a distribution graph showing the traffic volume of search phrases by the number of words in the phrases.

The team looks to the center of this distribution graph -- between the head and the long-tail -- to find opportunities. They read the phrases to get a better sense of what consumers want, such as:
o Information on a condition’s side effects
o Effective management
o Means of support

"There are a lot of dimensions to what you can see, especially when you’re given four-plus-word phrases," Smith says.

Looking at the queries and inferring consumers’ needs helps the team understand:
o How their site meets these needs
o Which areas could be improved
o Which areas they’re missing entirely

For example, they noticed they were receiving more traffic to the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) portion of their website from phrases such as:
o "child acting up in class"
o "trouble in school"

"That isn’t necessarily an explicit mention of a diagnosis, and it’s not an explicit mention of some sort of therapy," Smith says. "What we learned is we’re not at all visible with those kinds of searches."

Tactic #3. Evaluate the traffic potential of topics

Once the team identifies an area for potential long-tail traffic, they research whether building content around the topic is worth the effort.

First, they use a proprietary tool to generate words that have similar meanings to those they’ve identified (There are many free and paid tools you can use to do keyword research. See Useful Links below).

In the ADHD example, they entered "acting up" and found words such as "misbehavior."

- Estimate potential volume

These tools will also report the potential search volume keywords. Some tools only provide relative data, so here are some steps to get a better idea what the numbers mean for your site:

1. Identify a set of keywords for which your site is well-optimized

2. Use the tool to estimate the search volume of those keywords

3. Create a ratio between the actual traffic you received from the words, and the tool’s reported search volume. This ratio will help you gauge how closely the tool’s estimates match your actual site volume.

4. Use the tool to estimate the search volume of your potential keyword list

5. Use the ratio you created to estimate traffic to your site

This rough traffic estimate will help you decide whether a topic is worth pursuing.

- Reach out to partners

Smith’s team also reaches out to their advertising agency partners and clients in the pharmaceutical industry. These clients are generally experts with deep knowledge of specific health conditions, so when the team is considering a new topic they’ll often ask the companies:
o How does your team see these conditions?
o Are the concerns we’ve identified common for these conditions?
o What are typical scenarios in which people with this condition find themselves?

Tactic #4. Create content that targets the topic, not its keywords

Once the team decides a topic is worth pursuing, they do not focus on keywords and developing content to target them. That’s too much like "gaming" the search engines, Smith says, and it’s not a viable long-term strategy.

Instead, they set out to add more general content on the topic.

Rather than trying to generate all the content themselves, the team looks for people already generating topical content in natural, non-clinical language. They search in relevant blogs, and tap their network of more than 3,000 bloggers at Wellsphere, an online health community that HealthCentral acquired.

They then ask writers to contribute content to their site, sometimes regularly, and to simply write about the topic for which they’ve shown interest. The team hosts the content on a page that’s designed to be indexed search engines.

- Don’t micro-manage the content

The team does not steer the content too specifically, and they do not provide bloggers with keyword lists. They strive to broadly cover a topic and avoid focusing on keywords or phrases, Smith says.

This ensures that the team will fully cover the topic, helping them to take advantage of the areas they've identified in their research, as well as other scenarios and sub-topics they might not have identified. These additional areas are especially valuable for capturing long-tail search traffic.

Tactic #5. Gauge visitor satisfaction

Satisfying visitors is more important than increasing website traffic. That’s why the team focuses on adding rich, relevant content on newly identified topics, and not simply repurposing content they already have and optimizing it for certain keywords.

Then, the team gauges their audience’s response to new content in two ways:

- Bounce rates

Measuring the percentage of visitors who land on new content through natural search and immediately leave the page, or who do not click to view additional pages, can help you judge its effectiveness.

Smith’s team often uses their site’s three-month bounce rate average as a benchmark. A Web page with a bounce rate of 10% or greater than the benchmark is reviewed.

- Satisfaction surveys

The team also samples their audience and runs onsite surveys to ask visitors whether their needs have been met.

Tactic #6. Gain more value from search term data

Smith considers long-tail research a form of audience measurement and analysis -- not just a way to identify new phrases to target. The data offers new insights about the type of information visitors want.

The team also uses this search data when discussing their audience with potential advertising partners (the team’s revenue model is advertising-based).

For example, looking at traffic referrals from multiple-word search queries can demonstrate visits from patients who have been through multiple levels of therapy for a particular condition. Sharing this data is a good way to attract advertisers who wish to target such an audience.

Useful links related to this article

Members Library -- Special Report Part 2: Social Media and SEO -- 7 Tactics to Boost Rankings and Generate Links

Members Library -- How to Measure SEO Effectively: 7 Tactics

Free Keyword Research Tools:
Google Adwords
Keyword Discovery


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