One of the first bits of advice I give to those who are new to search engine optimization is to stop trying to rank for highly competitive phrases and to focus on the long tail of search. Hamlet Batista disagrees. In fact, he wrote a post yesterday explaining exactly why he feels the suggestion to aim for less competitive phrases is a bad one. I understand what he's trying to say, but he's missing the point.

Hamlet writes:

It usually took more than a year of link building effort to get to page one or two of the search results for the most competitive ones, but it was definitely a rewarding experience. I had decided to take the risk of working on several sites for so long because I was confident in my ability to reach my goals. The more successes you have under your belt, the more confident you get about your decision-making abilities and the better you are at judging risk.

If I had followed the experts' advice, I would probably still be a work-from-home affiliate, earning a good commission every month and switching links as merchants went out of business or as markets saturated. Fortunately, that was not how I envisioned my future.

But he over simplifies things and he misses the point.

Hamlet seems to think people like myself suggest starting "low" because we either don't believe someone can rank for a highly competitive phrase on their own or because we simply want to stifle the competition. While I'm sure it's possible some SEOs would feed bad information to readers because they don't want to compete again them, I'm fairly certain that's not the goal of most of the folks offering this advice.

I also don't think anyone would tell a site owner they should never go after competitive phrases, they simply suggest not STARTING with the goal of ranking for them. Obviously the idea is to start low and work your way up to aiming high. That's part of why people like myself encourage this progression of competitive targeting. With this in mind, I thought I'd toss out the top five reasons I believe site owners should start low when it comes to targeting keyword phrases.

1. You'll build rankings and traffic faster

There's no denying well trafficked phrases are hard to rank for. Obviously the more traffic a phrase produces, the more sites will want to target it. (Likely because the majority of site owners still think in terms of traffic rather than sales.) The most people there are trying to rank for a phrase, the more likely it is that at least some of them have a lot of search engine optimization experience under their belts. Thus, it can be next to impossible to crack the top ten when you're just learning about things like title tags and anchor text.

By targeting less competitive terms at the start of your campaign, you stand a better chance of ranking and driving traffic to your site quickly. While it's true these rankings will send less traffic than rankings for more competitive phrases would have, the reality is you probably wouldn't be ranking for those more competitive phrases yet anyway. Thus, a little bit of traffic is better than none.

2.) You take advantage of the Search Buying Cycle

I've written about the concept of the search buying cycle in past Search Engine Guide articles.

The basic idea is people tend to conduct multiple searches on a single concept before they make a purchase decision. In fact, studies have shown the average searcher tends to search up to a dozen times over the course of several weeks before they make a purchase (either online or offline.) It's important to understand we're not talking about people running the same search over and over again and then finally buying. We're talking about a user running multiple searches on the same topic before they make their purchase. This process of refining a search over time is what's known as the search buying cycle.

As a general rule, people begin their search in the "interest" phase by searching for fairly generic and general terms. As they begin to learn more about what they're looking for, they fine tune their searches to gather more information. This is what's known as the "research" phase. Finally, they complete the search buying cycle by conducting "purchase" searches that tend to be very specific.

A quick example of this progression might be:

Interest - "car insurance"
Research - "sports car insurance"
Research - "california car insurance"
Research - "best car insurance company"
Purchase - "car insurance instant online quote"

It's fairly easy to see that as people move through the search buying cycle, they often make use of phrases that fall into the keyword long tail. By leveraging these less competitive, but highly relevant phrases, you increase your chances at getting your site in front of them at one (or many) points of this cycle. Choose the right phrases and deliver a good experience, and it's likely the user will bookmark your site and return to it when they're ready to make a purchase decision.

3.) You'll increase conversions and sales faster

Building off the points I made about the keyword buying cycle in point number two, it seems family obvious you'll start to see your wallet fill up sooner if you target long tail phrases. In fact, one of the strongest selling points to targeting long tail keywords no matter what your experience level is that these phrases tend to convert better.

While a phrase like "auto insurance" may get three quarters of a million searches a month, searchers who type that phrase in are likely looking for information about car insurance. In other words, they're not very likely to convert to a buyer. On the other hand, the phrase "oregon car insurance quote" only gets a few hundred searches a month, but probably has a very strong conversion rate.

While there's no doubt high volume, low conversion phrases can ultimately earn you more money, there's also no doubt lower volume, high conversion phrases will help you see profits sooner. For a site just getting started, those quick rewards can mean the difference between feeding the coffers enough to keep going and crashing early on due to lack of sales.

4.) You gain experience

All skilled search engine optimization specialists learned by doing. Trial and error and continual testing is hands down the best way to learn enough to target those highly competitive phrases.

By starting off aiming at lower phrases, you will have the opportunity to do a little bit of tweaking on your site to find out what works and what doesn't work. Since phrases are less competitive, you'll probably also see ranking changes more quickly. This can give you the perfect playground for perfecting your skills and building up your search engine optimization knowledge.

You'll have the chance to see how title tag changes, link text and content structure can impact your rankings and you'll gain a "feel" for what works and what doesn't work. Over time, you'll learn more about what works and you'll be able to apply that knowledge toward more competitive phrases.

5.) Long tail phrases build the foundation for targeting highly competitive phrases

Perhaps the biggest advantage of targeting less competitive phrases is those phrases usually contain more competitive phrases.

Search engines don't view keyword phrases the same way humans do. In fact, they don't think in terms of keyword phrases at all. Google doesn't come visit your web site and count up the number of times you use "phrase x" on your site. Instead, they analyze patterns. Any text on your page could be considered a keyword phrase. (For all Google knows, the text "for all Google knows" is a keyword phrase.)

So, while you may be targeting "oregon car insurance quote," Google can also see the phrases "oregon car insurance," "car insurance quote," "car insurance," and "insurance quote." (Or any other combination of those words.) That means every time you optimize your site for "oregon car insurance quote" you're also actually optimizing it for those other phrases as well. Score a link from a great authority site using the text "oregon car insurance quote?" Guess what? You also just scored a link from a great authority site that uses the phrase "car insurance quote."

If you are building a solid site with good content that attracts quality links, you'll find it becomes easier over time to rank for more competitive phrases because you've actually been optimizing for them all along. Sure, you'll need to do some tweaking down the road to better optimize for those phrases, but the fact remains the work you do now can set the stage for a leap to even better rankings.

Starting Small is Smart

Aiming low may seem like a cop out to those who already have a strong SEO skill set, but for small businesses and site owners just learning the SEO ropes, it's smart. Dave Thomas didn't launch Wendy's by building restaurants in every city in every state and country in the world. He started with one lone store on Broad Street in Columbus, Ohio. As he perfected his skills and built up an audience, he gradually expanded with the goal of conquering bigger and bigger markets. It worked pretty well for him. Why shouldn't starting small and building up steam work for you as well?

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

September 11, 2007

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.


Jennifer - Thanks for your rebuttal post.

Please allow me to quote the paragraph before the one you quoted to provide a broader context.

"... I did not initially target the competitive keywords, I always started from the tail, but the head was the ultimate goal."

"The advantage is that you see some, albeit minimal, results as you improve. You continue with these incremental results as you move your efforts toward more competitive keywords..."

Please pay close attention to the first quote. I think we are more or less giving similar advice. Let me illustrate my point with an analogy.

Lets say that SEO is a marathon race. What I am doing is encouraging my team to aim for the gold medal (the most competitive keywords).

Obviously it would be very dumb for them to run as fast as they can to reach the finish line -- they will burn down after the first few minutes. On the other hand, if they stay close to the front runners, pace themselves and save enough energy until the end, they are more likely to reach their goal. IMHO, that is the smart thing to do. They must remember what the ultimate goal is, and work on the intermediary steps to reach it.


Good to hear, thanks for coming to share your two cents.

It was actually the paragraph you quote that caused me to write this post, mostly because it seemed contradictory of a lot of what you wrote. I figured you were coming at things from the same point of view I am (aim high, but start low).

On the other hand, your post DOES say that folks shouldn't aim low, which sort of contradicts the point.

So, I figured it was a good opportunity to clarify for folks why aiming low (for now) is a good idea. :)

Good advice Jennifer. I think a lot of people expect instant results when it comes to SEO and targeting their keyword phrases. Starting out with longtail phrases really gives someone a realistic perspective on how long it takes to rank for highly competitive phrases.

If a company has a new domain or little Internet presence than starting with the "long-tail" is the only chance you have for organic traffic in a competitive arena.

Great article, Jennifer! Are there any tools you might suggest for getting started with optimizing for the long tail of search ;)

Great article! Thanks Jennifer!

Great post!

You are on-point when you talk about the seach buying cycle's relevance to building web content.

It's really about taking the time to understand who your target customer's are and understanding what it is they search for on the internet.

You must be able to understand their web-search patterns before you can effectively optimize your site and sales.

I tend to agree with Hamlet in this case. Your site should be large enough to target some minor keyword phrases while keeping in mind the long term goal of reaching the sky for the top keywords and phrases. You may be focusing on "California car insurance company" on some pages, but those pages should still be working toward the true goal of the big prize. Anything less is selling yourself short.

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Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Five Reasons to Aim Low When You're Just Learning SEO