What is the Long Tail of Search?

If you’re relatively new to the business of search engine optimization, you may have heard the term “long tail” being bandied about, often without much of an explanation. You may even have heard people talking about making money on the long tail of search. What is it, and how can it help you?

This term “long tail” actually has a little history behind it. While the earliest use of similar terms dates to March 2003, it really began to strike a chord with SEOs and SEMs in October 2004 with one of those paradigm-changing articles that alters the way everyone looks at things – in this case, the entertainment business (and other businesses by extension, as you’ll see in a moment). The article was written by Chris Anderson, published by Wired, and called “The Long Tail.” Naturally, it has implications way beyond that business, but for our purposes, it works well enough to start there.

After giving an introduction in which he demonstrated how an obscure book that had nearly gone out of print rode to popularity on the coattails of another book that covered a similar topic, Anderson explained the difference between selling physical goods and digital goods that makes the long tail possible. You see, if you own a brick-and-mortar business, there must be enough people living within the appropriate radius of your store who are interested in your goods to keep you in business. So everything you stock must justify its position. That half-inch of shelf space has a price, and if what you’re putting in that space isn’t selling a certain number of copies, you’ll have to put something else there if you want to pay your bills and stay in business.

When you’re in a situation where there’s “not enough room to carry everything for everybody,” as Anderson put it, you end up with “hit-driven economics.” The idea is to attract big, broad audiences to justify the cost. If we want to apply this idea to search, think about those three or four keywords that you figure are going to attract the most traffic to your website. They are usually very broad terms with wide appeal (think of how many sites turn up for the word “dogs,” for example). And think about your chances of getting to the top of that heap.

Now let’s look at a store that is truly online, where all the goods are digital (or at least don’t take up any significant physical space for which you have to pay a fee). If it costs the same to stock one movie as it does to stock thousands of different movies, and you make your money from renting movies, which will you do? Ask Netflix. The company proudly boasts of carrying 60,000 titles, “five times the selection of a typical video store,” according to its web site.

If you wonder how a company can make money carrying such a huge selection, you’re still thinking in brick-and-mortar terms. Here’s a question that Anderson mentioned in his article that might take your mind out of the store. It’s actually asked by Robbie Vann-Adib, who makes his money with a digital jukebox player that offers 150,000 selections. “What percentage of the top 10,000 titles in any online media store (Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, or any other) will rent or sell at least once a month?”

Most people asked that question will answer 20 percent, based on the old 80-20 rule. Known as Pareto’s principle, it was devised in 1906, and seems to apply everywhere: 20 percent of your wardrobe gets worn 80 percent of the time; 20 percent of Hollywood movies become hits; and so on. But, as Anderson points out, that’s just for hits, not sales of any sort.

The correct answer to the question is that 99 percent of the top 10,000 titles will rent or sell at least once a month. It’s not just the hits, but the “misses” that make the money. After all, there are a lot more of them! Anderson uses books to illustrate another example. The average Barnes & Noble carries around 130,000 titles. But more than half of the books that Amazon sells are not within its top 130,000 titles. Anderson asks us to “Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are.”

It is that market – the people who are looking for something very obscure, or very specific, that just aren’t served by the “mass market” – that is meant by the long tail. If you think about Anderson’s implication, you can see how people might make money off of it. But what does this mean for SEO, SEM, and your web site?

Many businesses that specifically take advantage of what the Internet can do are long tail businesses. Amazon is an obvious example. So is eBay, with its assortment of niche, wacky, and one-of-a-kind items for sale. But the most obvious example of a long tail business is the company with which most SEOs seem to have a love-hate relationship.

I’m talking about Google, of course. Most of the advertising revenue that Google receives is from small retailers. In true long tail fashion, each retailer’s advertising, by itself, doesn’t add much to Google’s revenue. But taken together, it makes the search engine a very wealthy company indeed.

But this isn’t the only way the long tail plays a role in search, of course. For example, plenty of people search for “shoes” or even “boots” online. But how many search for “black leather spike heel boots”? Actually, there are two things I want you to notice about this key phrase. The obvious one is that it’s not as commonly used as “shoes” or “boots.” But the second point is that someone using this phrase is looking for something very specific; they know exactly what they want. And people who know exactly what they want are much more likely to convert.

Danny Sullivan made this point early last year in an article talking about the long tail of search. Obviously, you don’t want to neglect the “head” – those three or four top key phrases that will draw the most traffic. But you don’t want to miss the tail. “Tap into the tail,” Danny explained, “and you’ve got sizable traffic, as well as traffic that often is reported to convert better than less general terms.”

So how do you reach that long tail and make it wag right for your business? There are a couple of easy things to keep in mind. First, if you’re doing sponsored links, go with broad matching on both Google and Yahoo, since that will automatically tap into both the broad and the specific queries. If you’re doing organic SEO (and who isn’t?), make sure that you have lots of good, quality content that naturally pops up when long tail queries are made.

Let’s go back to the example of those boots. If you have a website and you sell that kind of boot, how will someone searching for it know? You need to have a good description of your products on your site. This way, when the spiders come by for indexing, and someone puts in those terms, your site will show up in the SERPs as highly relevant. And that’s how people make money off the long tail.

This isn’t the only way the long tail is used; not by a long shot! A little less than a year ago, Matt Bailey wrote an article that specifically covered keyword strategies and the long tail. In it, he pointed out that “the terms that refer 1-3 visits during the month…will add up to more total visitors than the top terms.” He then talked about his company’s clients fitting the long tail principle, and gave a particularly vivid example of this.

One of his clients wanted to rank very highly for only two terms, and believed that all of his customers came to him from searching on those two terms. While it was true that the client’s top 10 terms brought in over half his search traffic, actual sales told another story. Bailey said that “when looking at sales generated by search terms, 18.6% of conversions were from top 10 keywords. Conversely, 81.2% percent of the conversions were from hundreds of other search terms outside of the top 10. The 80/20 rule works in reverse, providing a ‘sweet spot’ of opportunity.”

This suggests, at the very least, that you should be tracking the sales your site is generating by keyword. If you aren’t, there are good stats programs that will do it for you. You may find that the long tail of search is already working for you — and get some clues as to how to make it work even better.

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