Mid-tail Keyword Domination

Author: John McElborough

This is a guest post by John McElborough, who runs an SEO consultancy and Brighton web design company in the UK

In my last post here I shared some tactics for how you can cash in on long tail keywords using various content generation strategies. There’s no doubt that the long tail is where the traffic’s at but today I want to talk about the mid-tail which in many sectors is where the moneys at!

What’s this mid-tail then?

Well basically it’s the bit between the head and the long tail or to bastardise a graph from SEOmoz

Mid-tail's where the money's at!

Mid-tail keywords are those terms which you want to rank for, you pro-actively optimise for but which don’t usually get your boss or clients all hot under the collar like a head term does. They’re the unsung hero’s of many SEO campaigns. Here are a few examples…


Head: “Car insurance”

Mid tail: “Compare car insurance quotes”

Long tail: “What’s the best car insurance for a green Ford Mondeo 2002”


Head: “Hotels”

Mid tail: “Brighton hotel deals”

Long tail: “Best price on Kings hotel Brighton in June 2011”


Head: “SEO”

Mid tail: “SEO agency brighton”

Long tail: “Best brighton SEO agency under 500 pounds per month”


Why target the mid-tail?

There’s a few reasons I think the mid-tail should be where you’re spending most of your SEO time…

The mid-tail converts in most cases far higher than the head or long-tail. Most purchase decision keywords like ‘compare’ or ‘buy’ keywords fall into the mid-tail category and most mid-tail phrases will be made up of 3-4 keywords, which statistically convert the best- again this SEOmoz graph paints the picture nicely

Conversion rate by keyword length graph from seomoz.org

Mid-tail keywords are far, far easier to optimise for than head terms and more practical for small sites to target than the long tail. Just look at the drop in the sort of link numbers required to rank from head to mid-tail:

“Hotels” – about 2000 linking domains

“Brighton hotel deals” – about 70 linking domains

This puts these terms within the grasp of SME’s, new websites and local businesses who don’t have the budget to take on the big players for head terms.

[Ed: Check out my advanced SEO book for some chapters on converting homepage [e.g. head] traffic better and likewise for the long tail.]

Optimising for the mid-tail

There’s a few tactics and techniques which I use to optimise for these mid-tail terms beyond the standard SEO stuff which you already know about.

Clustering keywords

When you target head terms there’s usually very few keyword variations you can use but when you move down to mid-tail terms you can take on 5-10 variations of each keyword in what I like to call a cluster which might look like:

  • Brighton hotel deals
  • Hotel deals brighton
  • Cheap brighton hotel deals
  • Find brighton hotel deals
  • Deals on brighton hotels

To manage these keywords I tag up each of these clusters in Raven or Advanced Web Ranking so I can look at ranking reports across a whole cluster rather than just for individual keywords. The thing about the mid-tail is the traffic on individual keywords often isn’t that impressive, but when you look at the total traffic for a cluster of 5 or 10 related keywords the total can often be greater than what you’d get off a single head term. It also makes sense to look at your rankings in aggregate across the cluster of mid-tail terms rather than looking at the rankings of individual keywords, which will fluctuate from month to month. here’s the type of reporting view I look at in Raven to analyse the performance of each cluster.

Here's an example of an aggregate traffic and ranking report for a cluster of keywords. The cool thing about Raven is it will also display your competitors average rank for the same cluster head to head.

Onpage optimisation

I try to take on one mid-tail keyword cluster per page with the main term from the cluster being the page name then the different variations scattered through the page title, H1 and body. In most cases it doesn’t matter if the exact keyword variation is written on the page or not because these keywords are very closely related and hopefully not uber-competitive.

Internal linking

This is absolutely the key to succeeding with the mid-tail for me. The trick here is to vary the anchor text used to link to your mid-tail targeting pages rather than using a fixed anchor in the navigation across the whole site.

The traditional internal linking model- all internal links use the same anchor text

The traditional internal linking model- all internal links use the same anchor text

The dynamic internal linking model- internal links use alternating anchor text from across a keyword cluster

The dynamic internal linking model- internal links use alternating anchor text from across a keyword cluster

By mixing the anchor text and cycling through the different keyword variations from the cluster your internal linking will be helping that page to rank for 5 variations instead of one. You can either dynamically vary the link anchor text in your menu system or if you’re using a CMS like WordPress or Joomla you can use a plugin like Gab’s excellent wordpress internal linking plugin or JV content links for Joomla. You may also enjoy this post on anchor text variation.

Link building

Assuming your mid-tail keywords are likely to be moderately competitive you’re going to need some external link building to these pages to get them to rank.

What I like about optimizing for mid-tail keywords is that you can accurately predict the amount of link building effort, number and quality of links required to rank; something which is hard to do with very competitive head terms these days. Factors like brand strength and domain trust are less of an issue at this level of keyword and most of the time you’ll find the pages with the most anchor text links and best PageRank occupying the top few positions.

Therefore the best strategy for link building to these pages is to be quite methodical about your link building and work to a number target. Just like your internal links cycle through your cluster to vary the anchor text you use to link back to the page. Again I’ll reference Raven Tools here as it makes tracking your clusters of links really easy using tags (Buzzstream also does this just as well)

link tagging in raven tools link manager

Assign a tag for each of your clusters and tag each link to that cluster page with it.

I won’t go into details about how to actually get these links as that will vary from industry to industry but to me it makes sense that a mid-tail term should have a medium quality link, one which is permanent and not rented- so you might want to check out the SEO ROI link building services 🙂

I hope this post will make you rethink your keyword strategy and question whether going after those fat head terms is really the best use of your time and money. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments.

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  1. Amazing article, thank you. In fact the whole blog is great and I really have learned a lot. I will be trying to do some more mid tail keyword ranking to capture this more targeted and higher converting traffic.

    Comment by Dan - December 3, 2010 @ 4:23pm
  2. The good article with a lot of put forward arguments which convince me that mid-tail can be crucial during first few months. Do you think the idea to focus on the long-tail and simultaneously on mid-tail concerning fresh side is good??

    Comment by matrus - December 8, 2010 @ 11:46am
  3. What do you mean saying: "the main term from the cluster being the page name" I thouht that the title of page could be called as name, becouse it is the most important marker.

    Comment by matrus - December 8, 2010 @ 8:07pm
  4. Yes if you have the resources to go after long tail traffic without neglecting your mid tail money terms certainly work on both but ultimately you need to devote most energy to optimising for the sort of terms which will deliver you the best conversion rate.

    Comment by John McElborough - December 21, 2010 @ 7:45pm
  5. I mean like if you take the example I've used above say on a page you're going after 5 mid tail keywords: * Brighton hotel deals * Hotel deals brighton * Cheap brighton hotel deals * Find brighton hotel deals * Deals on brighton hotels And 'brighton hotel deals' has the highest traffic or is the best converting keyword in that cluster make this your priority so use it in the url, the page title, H1 etc, then try to introduce the other variations throughout the page where you can.

    Comment by John McElborough - December 21, 2010 @ 7:48pm

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