Reprinted with permission from the Lyris.com blog archives.
By: Dane Christensen

By now, everyone in the online marketing world is familiar with the concept of “long-tail keywords” — the theory that human behavior naturally spreads out across a curve, with the bulk of activity clustered around the most common behaviors and the rest gradually declining along a long-tail of progressively less frequent behaviors. Since the term was coined by Chris Anderson in 2004 it has become a fundamental concept at the core of virtually every Web marketers’ strategy.

Or has it?

As pretty much anyone who has ever set up a Google AdWords account knows, the initial experience goes something like this:

1) Do some keyword research and choose a bunch of phrases that can send you a lot of traffic

2) Create a campaign and ad groups based on those keywords

3) Write some slick ads to go with them

4) Turn the campaigns on

5) Freak out when you see how much the clicks cost

Why did you pay so much per click? You wanted the shortest and fastest route to accomplish your goal of getting more visitors, so you bid on the high-volume keywords that the people search for the most – just like all the other pay-per-click advertisers did. In other words, the “big-head” of Web searchers attracts a big-head of advertisers, just as surely as seagulls flock to fishing boats.

The interesting thing about the long-tail keywords is that while everyone is talking about how important it is – especially online marketers who are supposedly steeped in the concept – few advertisers are putting their money where their mouths are. If advertisers were actually taking advantage of the long-tail keywords, we would see PPC bid management behavior more evenly distributed across the spectrum of keywords from the most popular to the least. But a cursory glance at any keyword spy tool quickly reveals that PPC advertisers and bidding activity always cluster around the high-profile keywords. It seems that PPC advertisers are drawn to the big-head keywords just as much as anyone else.

Resisting the Temptation of the Big-Head Keywords Yields Higher-Quality Leads

There have been countless articles and posts about the importance of tapping into long-tail keywords. But the fact that there remains a big-head in terms of keyword bidding strategy means that most marketers are still finding that natural pull to the big-head too powerful to resist. And that’s where your opportunity is. If you can overcome that temptation to go for the low-hanging fruit of the big juicy keywords, and instead find an efficient way to manage a myriad of lower volume keywords, you’ll avoid competition and get a lot more bang for your buck.

And if that’s not enough incentive, consider this: We have found that not only do long-tail keywords produce a significantly lower cost per conversion, but the quality of the leads we capture are also better for the long-tail keywords than for the big-head keywords. At Lyris, we did an extensive analysis in which we compared the quality of leads that came from our long-tail versus our big-head keywords in terms of the visitors’ self-assessed interest level. We found that the long-tail searchers were much more likely to describe themselves as “very interested” as opposed to “just researching”.

It makes sense. As soon as a Web surfer gets the notion they might be interested in something, the first thing they do is go to a search engine and type in a short, obvious (read: expensive) keyword. They’ll click on a few of the top ads they see and then many will decide they aren’t that interested after all, while some will refine their search, adding a little more detail to their query (i.e. long-tail keywords). Those are the people who are really interested. So if you think about it, all those advertisers bidding on expensive big-head keywords are just priming the visitors for the advertisers bidding on the long-tail words.

Why Advertisers Choose Big-Head Keywords

Knowing all this, why would any PPC advertiser consciously choose to compete for top position for an expensive, poor-performing big-head keyword? Well, as noted above, more often than not it probably isn’t that conscious of a decision – it’s default behavior. But to the extent that it is a conscious choice, it probably has something to do with branding. The marketer may be trying to establish their company as a player in a given space. They believe that appearing in the top three positions for the industry’s marquee search term makes a statement about their credibility.

That’s valid. Perhaps that brand awareness is worth all the costly, lower-quality clicks they’ll receive. But if branding is really the objective, then the cost of appearing in that premier location should be compared to the cost of building brand through other marketing channels. That analysis may show that PPC advertising really isn’t the right tool for this particular job.

But again, all too often these decisions aren’t made consciously. The decision to go for high-cost, high-visibility placements is not the product of considered cost/benefit analysis, but is rather based on more instinctive motivations, like pride. In that sense, it gives a whole new meaning to the term big-head keywords.

Long-Tail Keywords Offer a Sensible Alternative

If you have an unlimited PPC budget then it might make sense for you to focus on both long-tail and big-head keywords. But if you are like most marketers and have to decide how to most efficiently allocate your limited PPC budget, consider starting with long-tail keywords.