After 7 years running PPC campaigns, I thought I had it sussed. I thought that people searching for specific long-tail searches were further along in the buying cycle than people searching for shorter, generic phrases, and therefore more likely to convert.

I thought that targeting long-tail keywords provided a great opportunity to segment different types of searchers, and bid differently depending on how much qualification was contained in their search. I thought long-tail keywords provided a great opportunity to respond to the specific needs and preferences of each searcher, and provide tailored and relevant ad messages which solve their unique problems.

It turns out I may be wrong.

A long-tail PPC strategy, consisting of thousands of keywords and thousands of tailored ad messages catering for a wide range of searcher needs and preferences, can indeed lead to higher click through rates, higher Quality Scores, lower CPCs, and higher conversion rates. It’s a methodology I have abided by for 7 years, generally achieving far superior results than more generic PPC strategies which instead target shorter, more generic searches.

The logic of long-tail theory is sound too:

  1. Compared to shorter keywords such as ‘flooring’, people who make long-tail searches such as ’14mm bamboo flooring melbourne’ are generally more knowledgeable about what they want, are further along in the buying cycle, and are therefore more likely to convert.
  2. Because the searcher has provided signals such as ’14mm’, ‘bamboo’, and ‘melbourne’, you can be more confident they are searching for exactly what you offer, allowing you to bid higher for searches which contain those qualifying words, leading to a higher return on investment.
  3. And because the searcher has been very specific, you can show targeted ad messages which are tailored to ’14mm Bamboo Flooring’, take the visitor to a landing page which showcases your 14mm bamboo flooring range, and be confident that your campaigns will generate fantastic results.

It all sounds great. But we are making one big assumption about one important variable – knowledge.

Knowledge Isn’t Always Good

Long-tail theory assumes that people who make specific long-tail searches are generally more knowledgeable, further along in the buying cycle, and more ready to buy than people who make shorter and less-specific searches.

I still believe this is generally true.

However, just because people who make long-tail searches may be more knowledgeable and more likely to buy, does not necessarily mean they are more likely to buy from you.

If the profitable clientele of your business consists of people who are not knowledgeable, not informed, and not aware of the specifics of your products and services, then even though long-tail searches may closely match your products and services, shorted generic keywords may be more effective at achieving the goals of your business.

Even if you sell 14mm bamboo flooring in Melbourne, receiving 100 clicks from a generic search such as ‘flooring’ may be more effective than receiving 100 clicks from the search ’14mm bamboo flooring melbourne’.

Over-Qualified Searchers

Just like you can be over-qualified for that marketing role you’re applying for, searchers can also be over-qualified. If your business specialises in selling to people who are not knowledgeable about the specifics of your industry’s products and services (perhaps because your target market largely consists of an older generation who tend to search for shorter words such as ‘flooring’ and ‘carpets’), then targeting shorter searches can be more effective than targeting long-tail searches. In this scenario, too much knowledge can actually be a bad thing.

It’s All About Your Target Market

Perhaps I’ve only previously worked with businesses who regard knowledgeable and specific searchers as potentially more valuable than less knowledgeable and specific searchers, with the theory that the more the searcher understands about the products and services of your industry, the greater the opportunity for you to demonstrate you can meet the searchers needs, so the greater the potential for targeted long-tail campaigns and a higher return on investment.

Perhaps I’m missing something.

Perhaps there are some people out there who actually enjoy a pushy sales approach and don’t mind businesses taking advantage of their naivety and lack of knowledge. Perhaps there are successful, profitable, and genuinely honest businesses who add real value by educating (and albeit selling to) this relatively unknowledgeable demographic – a demographic which favours face to face communication more so than the best deal – a demographic which might otherwise have struggled to research the difference between bamboo and laminate flooring if left to their own devices.


how not to sell


Perhaps I’ve been looking at keywords all the wrong way, and ignoring the fact that the lack of information is information itself – that the exclusion of signals is a signal itself. Perhaps I’ve been ignoring the fact that less is sometimes more.


Just because long-tail searches may be beneficial for most businesses, doesn’t necessarily mean it will be beneficial to yours. Depending on how your clientele choose to search (or choose not to search), a long-tail strategy may be either more effective or less effective than a generic keyword strategy.

Although it seems obvious to test different types of keywords to determine which performs best for you, remember that the vast majority of people who visit your website won’t ever convert. It therefore makes sense to consider the knowledge level of your target market even before you set your PPC campaigns live, to maximise your chance of profitability.


Alan Mitchell

16 Years Experience. 10,000 Hours Research & Innovation. Exclusive Self-Built Technology. World-Leading PPC Marketing by Alan Mitchell

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Melbourne, Australia