When it comes to keyword search volume, bigger is not always better

True or false: All things being equal, a website is better off being optimized for the search term with the largest monthly search volume.

This is a trick question because rarely if ever are all things equal. When choosing the right search terms to optimize for, there are many considerations.

  • What is the search intent of the term?
  • What do we offer in terms of information, services, or goods, and does it match that intent?
  • How big is the audience we’re targeting and where are they? 

So why do so many SEOs and their clients insist on automatically optimizing for terms that, according to keyword research tools, have tens of thousands of searches per month?

I think much of it is due to how we measure succes

More traffic isn’t necessarily better traffic

Many SEOs promise to increase traffic to clients’ websites, and nearly every time a page or site is optimized the traffic does indeed increase. Sometimes exponentially.

But what good is all that traffic if the visitors aren’t converting by either downloading a pdf, filling out a contact form, visiting other pages of the site, placing a call, or putting items in a virtual shopping cart?

What happens if most of the people searching that term are not at all in the market for what you’re offering?

Be one with your target audience

I once had a client who offered high-quality and expensive custom-tailored men’s clothing. It was a small brick-and-mortar boutique in a large metropolis that had a decent amount of well-heeled regular customers, but the client was looking to expand online sales. 

As we were discussing which terms to target for their different products, we recommended ones like “bespoke men’s shirts” and “custom suits”.

The client asked, “Won’t we get a lot more traffic by optimizing ‘men’s shirts’ and ‘black suits’?”

A quick Google search for those terms pulled up large retail chains and mass-produced designer brands like Macy’s, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and of course Amazon. My client was clearly not going to answer the search intent since Google told us that those searchers were looking for less expensive off-the-rack men’s clothing that they could buy in small, medium, and large sizes. 

Too much traffic from high-volume keywords can backfire

Had we been able to compete with these retail giants for the more general search terms, I have no doubt that most people would’ve landed on my clients’ page, seen the prices and processes for ordering an item, and quickly clicked back to the search results to find another, less expensive brand. This low average time-on-site metric tells Google that the page does not answer the search intent, after which it gets pushed out of the rankings by companies that do.

In this case, high traffic numbers would’ve hurt the page by bringing down the time-on-site metric because it attracted people who were not in the market for bespoke menswear.

Here’s how to determine the right long-tail keywords for you

This is easy. Ask yourself, what would people search for to find this page? Ask other people as well. What questions are we answering here? What intent are we paying off with our content?

Google will also give you some terms right there in the search results under the “people also ask” heading. For instance, these are the ones that pop up under “bespoke men’s shirts”.

If I was selling these types of shirts, I would be sure to answer these questions on the page.

The many benefits of focusing on zero-volume search terms

Optimizing for zero-volume search terms can help your site and business in many ways. 

There’s less competition

In the menswear example above, it would take a lot more than optimizing the content for the client to show up anywhere near the first page for “men’s shirts”. We’d probably have to raise the site’s authority score by 30 points at least, which would require a very robust and expensive link-building campaign that would take years to achieve.

Optimizing for long-tail keywords would deliver much more immediate results.

There’s more intentional traffic

Ranking for long-tail keyword searches will increase the overall traffic to your site, just not as much as the terms with huge search volumes. But what you get in return is a higher percentage of users intentionally looking for exactly what you offer. This means a higher percentage of visitors will go to your site and engage with it, which in turn will tell search engines that you are answering the search intent.

Of course, it’s always better to target search terms with the highest volume when it makes sense. But. if you own a niche business, or your target audience is small (potential donors to your nonprofit, perhaps?), targeting smaller volume terms can bring traffic that is more likely to result in conversions.

And, really, wouldn’t you rather have 800 out of 1,000 people engage with your site than 10 out of 5,000? I mean, what good does it do to attract a bunch of people who are not in the market for your offerings?

Hint: these are not trick questions.