By  at Search Engine Watch

On-page optimization for long-tail keywords can result in ranking more than a page higher in search results, compared to half a page optimizing with head terms, according to a study by New York-based SEO & SaaS company Conductor. They also found that long-tail keywords converted 2.5 times better than head terms.

You may remember the uproar from last fall, when SEOMoz purported there was a higher correlation between LDA scores and high rankings than any other factor. Some took this to mean that on-page optimization didn’t matter. It’s a topic that still pops up now and again; my on-page optimization isn’t working, I don’t know if it’s worth it… on-page optimization must be dead.

Not so, says Conductor. In their research study The Long Tail of Search, Conductor examined the effects of on-page auditing and optimization for long-tail keywords, versus optimizing for head terms or failing to optimize on-page at all. Not surprisingly, they saw a downward movement of more than two positions for keywords with no on-page optimization.

“Even in 2011 – often at executive prodding – many marketers are still singularly focused on the most searched terms in their industry that are also the most competitive and difficult to move up the search rankings,” Conductor CEO Seth Besmertnik told Search Engine Watch. “As our study shows, we think there is huge opportunity in the long tail of search for the savvy search marketer to move up the search rankings more rapidly and convert at a rate that is 2.5 times greater than for head terms.”

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Conductor’s research involved thousands of keywords studied over a period of nine months, using the data collection and on-page recommendations of their SEO platform, Searchlight. They first segmented keywords into three groups:

  1. Keywords with shrinking on-page issues (being resolved by SEO).
  2. Keywords with growing on-page issues (not being resolved by SEO).
  3. Keywords with no on-page issues.

On-Page Optimization Crucial for SEO


Optimizing on-page elements for the keywords marketers want to rank for is critical, according to Conductor’s research. On-page optimization for keywords identified by Searchlight as having on-page issues consistently resulted in rankings increases, by an average of 11.24 positions.

Websites with identified issues but no on-page optimization saw a two position drop. Keywords with no identified issues saw a less than one position increase.

Long-Tail Keywords Show Greatest Rankings Increases


Recognizing that there are two ways marketers commonly use the word “long-tail,” they looked at query volumes and the number of keywords in a phrase as separate issues and tested twice.

First, they excluded medium-volume keywords for the purpose of this study, focusing on those with either high (head) or low (long-tail) query volumes. In this breakdown, they found that long-tail terms were “significantly” more impacted by on-page optimization, with an 11 position increase, compared to six positions for higher volume, head keywords.


For the second part, they separated keywords according to the number of words in the term; head keywords were one to two word queries, while long-tail terms had three or more words. Again, they found that on-page optimization increased long-term rankings more, but by a smaller margin. With this segmentation, long-tail terms rose an average of six positions and head terms an average of four.

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Long-Tail Terms Convert 2.5 Times More


The final part of their study looked at conversion rates, examining more than 7 million visits to three major retailers. Long-tail terms – those with three words or more – converted two and a half times more than head terms. Conductor said this is a great opportunity for marketers who may be disproportionately focusing on higher volume, one- to two-word search terms.

On-page optimization is one of many strategies SEOs and marketers can use to increase rankings and conversions. It’s also just good practice to make sure your page addresses the issues that brought visitors to the site in the first place.