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The iceberg effect: Save your SEO from sinking

The iceberg effect: Save your SEO from sinking Wayne Cichanski

Rankings? Up.

Traffic Volume? Up.

Conversions? Static.

That doesn't look right. What's happening, SEO?

This is the most frequent phenomenon plaguing business leaders: the mysterious lack of ROI when it appears their SEO keyword optimization efforts are on track otherwise. Often, what they experience is a result of the "Iceberg effect." Revenue goals are missed because companies focus optimization around keywords that don't provide high conversion rates because of a false belief that all search traffic is equal.

Myth: Traffic is everything

A financial services executive shared their team's experience with traffic. They wanted to rank No. 1 for the most competitive keyword in their industry, and they succeeded in achieving this goal. The higher rank gave them more visibility and increased their site traffic by 20 percent. It sounded like great news, except the bottom line impact was surprisingly minimal. As an acquisition group, the ultimate success factor was conversion volume. I advised them to look into their keyword results, put traffic aside for a moment and reprioritize the keywords by conversion rates. After the exercise, they discovered the new list did not match up to the original keyword prioritization. They took away that, even when it comes to traffic, quality is better than quantity. Instead of just looking at search volume and prioritizing the biggest piece of the pie, it's important to also seize opportunities with lower volume keywords with high conversion rates.

The Iceberg effect

The two layers creating the iceberg effect are the visible tip and the invisible bottom.

The visible tip is composed of keywords for which most companies compete. They are short-tail terms and represent the largest volume of search traffic. However, short-tail terms are typically generic, providing vague search intent. For example, if someone searched for "Olympic Games 2016," there's lack of clarity and confidence in the user's intent. It could be regarding the Olympic Games' schedule, participating countries, game tickets, or even celebrity spokesmen. Imagine you were a ticket vendor and spent a substantial portion of your budget targeting "Olympic Games 2016," and it turned out that only a small percentage of these searches were users looking for tickets. The other percentage goes to your site and jumps off because it doesn't match their interest. Additionally, short-tail terms indicate the user is far up in the purchase funnel. Even if you matched the search intent correctly, there is a slim probability they will convert because they are still researching, exploring, and comparing options. This results in high click-through rates with low conversions for your pages.

Below the iceberg's tip is the invisible bottom, where you'll find the greatest missed opportunities in the SEO space: long-tail terms. While short-tail terms are generic and have a vague search intent, long-tail terms are targeted and have a specific search intent. An example is: "2016 Olympics Games Volleyball tickets under $100." In this case, search intent is clear and makes it easy to create an accurate user experience. Although low-volume, because they are high-converting, business leaders need to look at the opportunity of long-tail terms at an aggregate level as their sum can actually drive more volume, traffic, conversion, and stronger page engagement metrics than short-tail terms.


In a cohesive keyword-targeting strategy, you should have both layers: long-tail terms for hitting conversion goals and short-tail terms for industry authority and brand awareness.

Next steps

Think of your short-tail terms as a theme, and then go deeper to find which long-tail keywords support each theme. Tools like Google Keyword Planner or SEMRush will help your efforts. We use paid search as a platform to test because long-tail keywords have lower CPC and solid conversion based on the converting theme.

After you decide on what long-tail keywords to target, create the supporting content. The content formats can vary from articles to blog posts to visuals, but make sure the content sits on a page that supports the higher hierarchical webpage targeting your short-tail keywords. When your pages targeting long-tail terms gain relevancy, it will help your site's authority, in turn increasing the relevancy of the webpages targeting your short-tail keywords.

To sum it up, get higher return on your SEO efforts by taking a holistic view of your keyword optimization efforts. Don't focus only on the visible opportunities. Look deeper and target the massive opportunity below the surface.

Wayne, a distinguished search expert, is also the senior director leading iQuanti’s search business strategically and tactically. He has helped iQuanti become a top New York digital agency that delivers advanced data driven digital marketing...

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