PPC tips: Managing head terms versus long-tail keywords

One of the key challenges for a PPC manager is how they go about managing their head terms and long-tail keywords. Get this right and your paid search accounts will be effective, efficient and have the ability to evolve progressively over time. However get this wrong and you will be missing out on high quality traffic, paying inflated cost-per-clicks (CPCs) and will not be streamlining the performance of the account over time.

While this is important for all PPC accounts, this is particularly important for large retail accounts due to the huge product ranges (particularly in sectors such as DIY) and massive amounts of potential long-tail terms.

What are they and how do they differ from each other?

When marketers refer to head and long-tail terms, what are they actually referring to?

  • Head terms are those terms that are significant traffic drivers to an account (>5%), such as ‘Power Drill’
  • Long-tail keywords get their name from the graph shown below, and are generally longer, more specific terms, e.g ‘Bosch GSR 1800-LI Professional 18V Drill’ or ‘where can I buy a Bosch power drill’

The graph shows how the head terms (short-tail) are very small in number; however they drive huge amounts of traffic (keyword popularity).

Head Terms vs Long-Tail Terms

So with this in mind, how do you actually manage these very different segments?

Account set-up

The importance of account set-up can’t be understated – if this is set up in line with best practice, the ongoing management and development will be much more efficient and effective.

In order to create the ideal structure, you first need to carry out a significant amount of keyword research (including leveraging tools such as Keywords Everywhere). This is easier to do with a more established account where this can be more of a reorganising/filling in the gaps process.

Managing the Head Terms – Identifying and Isolating Core Terms

Identifying and isolating the core terms for the account is the best way to keep head terms under control and operating in the most profitable way. Core terms should be the head terms, as well as any longer tail terms that are significant traffic/conversion drivers for the account.

The method for identifying these terms is by running a ‘Core Term Analysis’, whereby you first pull a search query report (SQR) for the last 90 days. This data should include the usual PPC metrics as well as conversion data. Sorting the data by traffic, then impression, spend and finally conversions, you should be able to a gather a list of 10-15 of the most important keywords for the account.

These should all be set to exact match and isolated into their own ad groups for a number of reasons…

  • Ad copy and landing page testing can take place for these terms to maximise the quality score, reducing average CPCs significantly
  • This will also allow for the full range of bid optimisation tactics available at ad group level and apply these independently to each of the single keyword ad groups (demographics, remarketing lists for search ads, and device)
  • Simplified budget management and reporting on the performance of these terms

Managing the Longer Tail – Match Type Segmentation

The greatest tool you have at your disposal to manage the longer tail keywords is the different match types available within the engines. There is little question when it comes to the performance of a keyword in a given auction – exact match is king! This is due to the tighter control over what you are matching out to, allowing you to tailor the most relevant ads and landing pages, ultimately getting a much higher quality score, which results in much lower CPCs for this traffic.

So it’s important that every relevant keyword is covered in the account on exact match, with bids applied independently to be able to optimise at the most granular level.

If your keyword research was sufficient, this will cover the head terms. However, no matter how good your research was, this will never be able to fully cover the longer-tail terms. This is due to the huge number of terms and sequences of those terms available for any given account. Especially given the fact that even as recently as 2017, Google stated that 15% of all searches are completely unique (never been searched for before).

So we need either phrase and/or broad match modifier coverage to ensure these new/rising queries are picked up, as well as anything the current account is missing. The aim is to use the broader match types to further develop the account, while still trying to drive as much of the traffic through the exact match coverage as possible to take advantage of the higher quality score, lower CPCs, and more.

To do this it’s important to ensure…

  1. Match types are split out at either campaign or ad group level and clear naming conventions are applied
  2. Cross-match negatives are in place and kept up to date

With newer accounts, the percentage spend through broad/phrase terms should decrease rapidly as SQR analysis and keyword/negative keyword development is taking place. If mature accounts have been managed effectively, they should already be spending the majority of their budget through exact match.

Dynamic Search Ads

Dynamic search ads (DSA) can be used as a final ‘catch-all’ to fill in any gaps missed out by the keyword coverage build. This tool uses your website’s content to target and tailor ads to relevant searches.

This is ideal for advertisers with large inventories, as it will avoid the downtime of building new ads when new products appear on the site, as well as filling any gaps in the vast coverage needed to cover the huge product range. Another amazing benefit of using DSA campaigns is the relevant, dynamically generated headlines with your ads.

Just like the broader match types, it’s important to apply negatives to cross match from your keywords (at the very least all of your core exact terms). This should also be segmented out by category of the website to allow for a more granular approach to optimisation.

Ongoing management/development

Once these elements of an account structure are set up, the management and the development of them is fairly straightforward. However, this does require a consistent process to develop the account.

Search Query Review & Implementation

It’s important to run regular SQR analysis – how regular will depend on the traffic being driven, as well as the maturity of the account.

This analysis will involve a full search query download (from the last time you completed the analysis) across search, shopping and DSA campaigns. This will need to be sorted so that it’s only those terms that are not currently being bid on directly (exact match).

The ones you want to be appearing for will need to be categorised into the account (or if they don’t fit into any ad groups, new ones will need to be created) under exact match. You will also need to create the crossmatch negatives of these terms to ensure that all the traffic for these terms will be pushed through the exact coverage.

Other considerations

Voice Search

The rise in voice search has highlighted the importance of having an effective catch-all process in place where exact match keyword coverage will not be appropriate.


It’s important to note when optimising bids across head and longer tails terms that these searches are more likely to happen at different points in the path to purchase. For example, the user is more likely to start by searching with head terms while they are gathering information and, as they get closer to the point of purchase, their searches will become much more specific. If you are optimising on a last click basis, too much weight will be given to longer tail terms.

This data can be analysed using the top conversions path report in either Google Analytics or AdWords.

RLSA, Customer Match & Similar Audiences

In order to manage long-tail terms effectively, you are having to open up the targeting to a wide range of searches. To minimise the risk of irrelevant traffic and ensure you are appearing for the correct users, measures such as RLSA, Customer Match and Similar Audiences overlay, combined with aggressive bidding, are a must!

Contact us to find out more about how you can effectively manage head terms versus long-tail keywords in your paid search accounts.

by Warren Harding
11 April 2018



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