Measuring Long-Tail SEO Traffic

When measuring a site’s long-tail traffic, you’re interested in getting answers to questions like these: How much of my site’s SEO traffic comes from phrases that are five words or more in length? How much SEO traffic do I get from one- and two-word key phrases?

The good news is that it’s surprisingly easy to measure a website’s long-tail traffic if your site uses Google Analytics. Here’s how it’s done.

How to Determine a Site’s Short-Tail Traffic Versus Long-Tail Traffic

There’s no universal definition of what constitutes short-tail traffic versus long-tail traffic, but for purposes of this exercise, let’s say that four or more words in length is a long-tail search and any search with fewer than four words is a short-tail search.

To isolate the organic SEO traffic for your site, start by drilling down to Acquisitions > Keywords > Organic within Google Analytics. That brings up the Organic Search Traffic report which shows you all the traffic you got from search engines and which phrases drove the traffic.

Now, one thing you need to know is that you can’t see all the keywords that drive traffic to your site. Google and other search engines started to make it harder to see that info a while back – ostensibly to protect the privacy of their users. So, the first thing you want to do is to exclude all Not Provided traffic.

Google analytics screenshot showing the Organic Search Traffic report with a filter set to exclude sessions where keywords were not provided, leaving 19,236 sessions to display.

So, this particular site had 19,236 sessions for which we know what keywords drove the traffic.

Next, we need to find out how many of those 19,236 sessions resulted from key phrases comprising three or few words. To do this, we need to add another dimension to our filter, one that includes any key phrases matching this regular expression:


That looks like gibberish to most people, but essentially it will match any text that consists of three words or less. When I plug in that additional dimension to my filter, here’s what I get.

Google Analytics screenshot showing the same Organic Search Traffic report as above, with an additional filter to include keywords matching the formula ^\s*[^\s]+(\s+[^\s]+){0,2}\s*$

At this point, I’m done with my analysis. Of the 19,236 sessions that I have keyword information for, 12,633 of them came from short-tail searches (i.e. one-word, two-word or three-word key phrases), so the balance must have come from long-tail searches (i.e. key phrases with four or more words).

Doing the math, the long-tail phrases account for 6,603 sessions.

In terms of percentages, 65.7 percent of site traffic is short-tail and 34.3 percent is long-tail.

Assuming that the Not Found traffic (i.e. no keywords provided) follows this same ratio, I can now tell my client, boss or whomever that 34.3 percent of their organic SEO traffic comes from long-tail traffic.

What About Branded Versus Non-Branded Traffic?

Yes, there’s one thing I didn’t consider that I probably should have taken into account and that’s branded traffic. If the company name is Acme, it’s likely that lots of folks are searching for the company name “Acme” in search engines, and that’s going to increase the short-tail SEO traffic statistics at the expense of the long-tail traffic statistics.

So, just as I excluded Not Found traffic before I entered in those regular expression filters, I should also have excluded any traffic that included the company name. In other words, when conducting a long-tail traffic analysis, you should only consider non-branded SEO traffic and you should ignore branded SEO traffic.

Using Regular Expressions for Additional Long-Tail and Short-Tail Analysis

By the way, if I wanted to make sure that the long-tail SEO traffic accounted for 6,603 sessions, rather than just doing the subtraction, I would use this regex filter instead of the previous one:


That regular expression will match phrases that have for or more words. You can also modify this regular expression to find one-word, two-word, or n-word matches simply by changing what’s between the curly brackets. Here are some examples:

Regex to match exactly one word: ^\s*[^\s]+(\s+[^\s]+){0}\s*$

Regex to match exactly two words: ^\s*[^\s]+(\s+[^\s]+){1}\s*$

Regex to match exactly three words: ^\s*[^\s]+(\s+[^\s]+){2}\s*$

If you’re not comfortable with regular expressions, these are pretty easy to test. In the Organic Search Traffic report, Google will show you what keyphrases it finds to match your regex expression so you can easily make sure you’ve got it right and are getting the results you want. To learn about regex expressions, I highly recommend this site and their products RegexBuddy and Edit Pad Pro.

Interpreting Your Long-Tail Versus Short-Tail SEO Analysis

It’s easy to look at the stats derived above and think that you can conclude that the owners of this site should not obsess about ranking well for short-term phrases. For example, if you are their SEO agency, you might want to say “You keep grilling me about why you are not ranking #1 for a few two-word phrases, but do you realize that more than a third of your traffic comes from phrases with four or more words. Your SEO program should be focusing on the long tail, not the short tail.”

That’s a fair conclusion in some respects, but I don’t think an SEO agency should use the percentage of long-tail traffic to a site as an excuse for not getting rankings for shorter keyphrases. You can educate the client on the value of long-tail searches and let them know that 20% of searches in Google are for key phrases that have never been searched for previously, but you may still want to actively try to get them to rank well for those shorter phrases.

It’s always been my belief that you need a ton of long-tail content to rank well for short-tail keyphrases. If I want to rank well for “website design,” for example, I’d do well to first rank for “evaluating a web design firm” and hundreds of other such long-tail phrases. If I have enough long-tail content that is really good, slowly but surely my site will rise up in the rankings for short-tail SEO phrases like “web design.” Of course, that SEO truism is driving a big uptick in the demand for marketing content, as I’ve discussed before. It’s a content arms race out there right now.

There is one other important thing you can do with this long-tail versus short-tail analysis technique that I’ve outlined above. By creating segments in Google Analytics, you can easily see how you are tracking on short-tail versus long-tail SEO. Once those segments are setup, you can see whether long-tail searches perform better for you than short-tail searches. Which traffic results in more conversions? Which has a lower bounce rate? Which traffic views more pages? Which spends more time on your website?

What Are You Waiting For?

Now you know how to measure short-tail SEO traffic and how to measure long-tail SEO traffic. Login to your Google Analytics now and see how your SEO traffic breaks down for various search keyphrase lengths. It’ll take you ten minutes max, so why not give it a try now?

If you run the short-tail versus long-tail analysis I’ve outlined above on your own site, I’d be interested to hear what you discover about how your long-tail SEO traffic performs versus your short-tail SEO traffic.

Feel free to share your results by commenting below, and of course if you have any questions about SEO, Google Analytics or anything else, let us know! We’re here to help you.

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