Choosing Keywords for SEO: Heads or Tails?

Keywords for SEO are no longer the primary ranking factor. Google is more intelligent than ever, it understands if the content is relevant to the search query.

The old way of doing keywords for SEO was straightforward: people searched using keywords, and the more of those keywords were found on your page, the greater the chances it would rank well. The problem is, it was a race to the bottom.

Competitors were adding more keywords to their pages, trying to one-up each other. Over time, their content would be stuffed with so many keywords, it would become unreadable and create a poor user experience.

Then, black-hat SEOs (people trying to game the system) would hide keywords or create redirects from keyword-stuffed pages to the better ones.

Thankfully, Google caught on, and after a while killed off those surreptitious techniques. But keywords are still the main focus for SEOs. They are still important, but not in the same way we think they are.

Keywords are no longer the primary ranking factor. Google is more intelligent than ever, and it understands what the content is about, even when the content doesn’t contain the exact keywords being searched for.

Things like topics, context, related keywords, and the connection between them are now far more important than just keywords.

Are Long-Tail Keywords Better?

To give you an example of how topics are more important than keywords, take long-tail keywords, i.e., keywords with little search volume that fall within the long end of the search demand curve.

image 20 | Choosing Keywords for SEO: Heads or Tails? | Visibility. Marketing. Advisory.

They may seem like worthless keywords because they have little demand, but they can actually be quite powerful. By being more specific, they’re also highly targeted. Plus, bounce rates will be lower and conversion rates will be higher.

Take “facelift,” for example:

  • “Facelift” (short head, 10,000 monthly searches)
  • “Facelift surgeon” (wide middle, 600 searches)
  • “Best facelift surgeon” (long tail, 150 searches)
  • “Best facelift surgeon NYC” (longer tail, 40 searches)

Ranking for a broad term like “facelift” may be an attractive goal for a plastic surgeon, but it is an audacious one. It will be incredibly tough. Plus, out of those 10,000 searches, you may get people who are interested in something else.

For example, they may be interested in a non-surgical facelift, a “vampire” facelift (i.e., microneedling), the history of facelifts, facelift creams, giving a facelift in the remodeling sense (e.g., “how to give my yard a facelift), etc.

But with a more specific keyword, like “best facelift surgeon in New York,” the chances are high that the little traffic you get from that longer phrase will be quite targeted and highly motivated.

Long-Tail Derivatives

However, a common misconception is that all long-tail keywords are longer (they have multiple words). Or that long-tail keywords are highly targeted or that ranking for long-tail keywords is easy. Not quite.

For example, take the keyword “rhytidectomy” (80 searches per month), the medical term for facelift. Or “threadlift” (60), the less invasive facelift alternative. Both are short and broad, but both are also long-tail (low demand) and both serve two completely different search intents.

Here’s the issue: if a doctor in New York ranks well for “best facelift surgeon NYC,” chances are she may also rank high for “facelift surgeon” or even just “facelift.” In other words, if you try to rank for the longer tail keyword, you might still lose to the more topic-focused competitor.

Called “derivative keywords,” they’re basically variations that derive from or closely match a parent topic. Since Google is smart at understanding content and relevance, going after derivatives or variations of an existing parent topic that a competitor ranks well for may be just as tough.

For example, a plastic surgeon may rank for “best facelift surgeon NYC,” but they may also rank well for “best facelift surgeon” and even “facelift surgeon.” In other words, the surgeon is ranking for both the parent topic, “facelift surgeon,” and for multiple derivatives, which may make it hard to rank.

Not all long-tail keywords are created equal.

The Tale of Many Tails

What I recommend is doing a SERP analysis.

Taking the same example, when you do a search for “facelift,” the top three results include two results from (i.e., ASPS, or the American Society of Plastic Surgeons) and one from Mayo Clinic. The rest is pretty similar.

Therefore, this tells you two things: the search intent, according to Google, is informational. People are looking to learn about the procedure. They may not be in the market for a facelift and just doing research.

Next, if you search for “facelift surgeon,” you get a mix:

The first result is still, but now it’s followed by a few plastic surgeons and private clinics. So either Google isn’t sure about the search intent, or the ASPS is ranking for both the parent topic and its close derivative.

Now, taking a step further, when you do the same thing for “best facelift surgeon NYC,” ASPS ( doesn’t appear in the results at all. This means that “best facelift surgeon NYC” is not a derivative of “facelift” and considered its own topic. It’s a subtopic. This may be an opportunity.

Long-Tail Subtopics

Also called “topical long-tail keywords,” these are specific long-tail keywords that are considered as topics in and of themselves. They may be better and easier to rank for, too, than derivatives.

When I visit the topmost result,, it’s not an informative piece of content. I get a press release about the doctor who was mentioned in a magazine and voted “best plastic surgeon in New York City,” which clearly highlights the keywords and several variations:

image 18 | Choosing Keywords for SEO: Heads or Tails? | Visibility. Marketing. Advisory.

Now, you might think this site is ranking because of keyword density. But I bet you that, if you wrote a helpful piece that provided a list of criteria that go into choosing the best facelift doctor for a user’s goals, titled “How to Choose The Best Plastic Surgeon in New York For You,” it would probably outrank this one.

(By the way, in most verticals, a better piece would be a comparison between multiple leading competitors. But that’s not ethically allowed as doctors are prohibited from claiming superiority. So providing users with helpful tools to determine their goals may be the next best thing.)

My reasoning is, Google may feel the content is more relevant and helpful, and seemingly less self-serving than an award-winning mention in a press release.

Plus, you might still rank better if you had content addressing variations of the same long-tail keyword, such as: “What makes a plastic surgeon become the best in NYC?” “Best facelift NYC surgeon before and after photos.” “What are the best facelift questions to ask a plastic surgeon?” And so on.

Stop Chasing Tails

Don’t go chasing long-tail keywords without first understanding search intent, learning who your competitors are, and discovering if the long-tail keyword is either a derivative or a subtopic. Because if you don’t, you will be like a dog chasing its own tail, going nowhere fast.

So go for subtopics, but don’t discount all derivatives, either. It might take time, but if you rank well with a recognized, authoritative piece of quality content for a derivative long-tail keyword that matches the search intent better than your competitors, you might eventually rank for its parent topic, too.

Avatar of Michel Fortin

By Michel Fortin

Michel Fortin is a digital marketing advisor specializing in SEO, communications, and strategy. For over 30 years, he helped hundreds of thousands of clients increase their visibility and their revenue. He is also the VP of Digital Marketing at Musora, the company behind award-winning platforms Drumeo and Pianote. He is the author of the More Traffic Memo™ SEO email newsletter.