Clearing The Air On "The Long Tail?"

In a post last week, I discussed a certain Internet Marketer’s use of "straw man" arguments to debunk the "myth" of the long tail. Well, we have a bit more clarity this week.Since they apparently didn’t get my emails about this last week, you can imagine my surprise when they thought enough of li’l old me, to fire back with a new video.

Now in this video, while ignoring most of what I said last week (controversy sells!), Nancy is kind enough to clear up what she means when she talks about long tail keyword strategy. The straw man looks pretty much like I thought it did – the strategy that Nancy is debunking goes something like this:

  1. Identify thousands of search terms that generate as little targeted traffic as possible
  2. Build thousands of web pages to "target" these low-volume search terms

Nancy says that this kind of strategy is really dumb, and a terrible waste of time. Well, once again, I just have to say: "DUH!" Who in the world would tell you to go and do something like that? What kind of crazy "strategy" is that?? I mean, you’d have to be a complete…

Oh, wait! Actually, there are plenty of Internet Marketers who have promoted that very idea. In fact, there are a bunch of them selling software that will automatically generate thousands of pages of "content" to "target long tail searches."

They deserve every insult that Nancy fired at them. You go, girl! But can we please stop calling this crazy "doorway page" strategy "the long tail?" Just because they stole the name of a perfectly good idea to sell some crappy software, that doesn’t mean we have to let them keep it.

Anyway…

Nancy, I think we agree 100% that this particular idea is dumb. Neither one of us would ever give people that kind of advice, would we? So can we now agree that this straw man should be burned to the ground, its ashes scattered on unhallowed ground, and acid rain fall from the sky to wash it all away?

Thanks, Nancy… I’m glad we could agree. 

Now, your assignment for next week is to actually read my entire post from last week, or read my book, or watch my video on keyword strategy (you’ve seen me give this talk live)… You can even watch your own video, because David hints at it near the end. There’s a better way to "target" the long tail.

Please Nancy, tell your eager audience how they can have their cake and eat it too, without throwing away time and money pursuing a "doorway page" strategy.

Because the right way to target the long tail, as I said last week, is to simply do your research, and be aware of the keyword modifiers that you should be working into your copy. This isn’t a bunch of extra work, and if you do it right, it even will make you a better copywriter.

Let’s take the student I mentioned last week as an example. No, he doesn’t have a huge team of people creating thousands of pages to target long tail search terms, because his coach would fire him if he did that. It doesn’t take 60,000 pages to bring in referrals from 60,000 search terms!

In fact, his site has about 1200 pages altogether, because he sells about 1,100 products. He uses an outsourced copywriter to write product descriptions when the new products come in. They work modifiers into the copy, from data that was collected during the keyword research step. With 1200 pages, 60,000 search terms in a few weeks’ time. If you look at a full year’s worth, it’s nearly 450,000 distinct search terms.

Weird… who ever thought this stuff could actually work?

What "targeting the long tail" really means:

  1. Going all out on your core search terms (the head)
  2. Using modifiers to make sure you are "in the game" on long tail searches.

No extra work. A lot more sales and leads. No doorway pages.

P.S. If you actually want to see Nancy’s video, you need to watch it before they pull it down. No, they aren’t going to pull it down because of me, they are pulling all of the videos down after showing them for a limited time. So if you don’t keep opening their emails and clicking, you’ll miss one. It’s kind of an interesting strategy – maybe one of these days Mike will let us know if it worked.

P.S.S. What’s really, totally weird and funny, is that I’m getting traffic ( and conversions!) coming in from searches for Nancy Andrews SEO. Apparently my post created some kind of "instant ranking trick" and it shows up above Nancy’s own blog on Google search results… and that search term showed up in my "converting terms" report. For the record, neither one of us would actually try to optimize a web page for a long tail term like that. That would be foolish. You’d have to be a complete… oh yeah, I said that already.

40 thoughts on “Clearing The Air On "The Long Tail?"

  1. Dan, it’s been interesting to see this unfold. I am not about to give my 2-cents. It’s been too much fun sitting back and watching the fireworks :)

    I am not at all surprised that your getting traffic. Your getting a nice little plug from a list of thousands…

    Jeff

  2. Yep. I am confused here…should we go after long tail or not? Nancy does make point in her videos and you Dan, you also make your point but how we can cay it for sure. Nobody knows how Google works and ranks websites, so…who should we follow?

    I always listen to people what they have to say, as you never know what you can learn from someone.

    Shaki

  3. Well, Alex, you definitely don’t need to build thousands of doorway pages, which is what Nancy is referring to when she says “long tail.”

    The strategies I recommend in this area, time and again, have demonstrated their worth in real world applications.

    If Nancy has actually tested her idea of “long tail” strategy (building all those extra pages), it’s quite understandable that she would give up and call it a waste of time.

    I’d be surprised if she ever went that far, because that whole “doorway page” plan, to anyone with enough experience, is obviously unworkable for an ecommerce business.

    The strategies I recommend in this area have generated roughly a third of the sales for the sites I’ve worked with, when they’re implemented… and it’s not 1/3 more work.

  4. Hi Dan

    I’m one of those who found your site as a result of this controversy. I’ve listened to the “Area 51″ video with Nancy, and I have read your blog postings as well. Both are illuminating, but then again I’m somewhat new to these ideas.

    One thing that I don’t think you’ve addressed, though I might have missed it, is the point that Nancy makes about how “long tail” keywords converting more poorly than “head,” or “money” terms. I realize now that she may have a different concept of long tail than you, but can you address this? For either YOUR idea of long tail or hers, how does the conversion stack up?

    Thanks

    Ken

  5. That’s a great question, Ken.

    It cuts right to the heart of the confusion that those videos created for a lot of people.

    Listening to the second video again, it gets even worse, because she actually claims that product-specific terms convert worse than general terms. It sounds like she’s saying that a search for something like "red ipod nano 2GB" would convert worse than a search for "ipod." This is absurd. It is false.

    I run "product catalog" campaigns all the time, where we do pay-per-click campaigns with a separate ad for every product in the store. These campaigns not only convert better than general terms, the traffic costs less.

    Anyway, I published some numbers in my first post. These showed a higher conversion rate for the top 1% than for the bottom 99%. Here’s why that happens:

    Let’s say you’re writing a product description for that 2GB red iPod Nano. I don’t know if such a product even exists, it’s just an example. That product description is going include a bunch of words. Since the iPod (and iTunes) work with Windows, we’ll have a list of Windows versions that it works with. Since it plays MP3s, we’ll have the word MP3. The word "music" will appear. The word "download" will appear because you use iTunes to download music for your iPod.

    Now, someone searches for "Windows 98 Mp3 player download" because they want to listen to MP3s on their ancient Windows 98 system. This product description contains all those words. Because we have a lot of PageRank, our page is #1. The searcher clicks. They don’t find what they want. They leave without converting.

    You can’t help getting a lot of completely irrelevant search terms sending you traffic. Nobody can. Most of the search terms, if you go read through your log files, are irrelevant or at best barely relevant. This is the part of the "long tail" for your site, that will convert worse than the higher volume search terms.

    When I take any random group of search terms from that "long tail" segment, and actually analyze them, most prove to be completely irrelevant queries, like the one I just mentioned. We didn’t "target" that search term, they just showed up.

    When you look at the *relevant* terms, they convert *better* than the high-volume terms in the "head." The *relevant* search terms in the tail will convert just fine.

    Since Nancy apparently doesn’t believe in the strategy of using keyword rich copy to target those relevant terms, I guess she’d have no way to know that.

    It’s a little like politicians running for office by claiming that government doesn’t work, then proving it by bring incompetent.

    Since I’ve worked with hundreds of people just in the past few years, and done the kind of deeper analysis that actually illuminates the facts, I do know a couple things:
    1) Relevant search terms convert better than general terms
    2) It doesn’t take a bunch of extra work to target the long tail

  6. Hi Ken. Welcome to the community!

    In my experience, long tail terms have a higher conversion plus many other benefits. For Example, I could spend much less on PPC for targeted the tail than the head terms. Why? Because there is less competition.

    I am not one sided on this. I have 1st page results for the head, money terms and long tail. Just think about it though…

    If someone searched the long tail term: “Free Shipping Ergonomic Executive Desk Chair” and they landed on a page with free shipping for that type of chair, do you think they would convert better than someone searching for the head term “chair”?

    Another point is this: targeting the head is a little like putting all of your eggs in one basket. Lose that one basket and your done! Long tail is like having many baskets scattered throughout your market. Similar to Walgreens or Walmart. If one goes down, it’s okay because a new one is being born and you’ll find another one on the next block.

    Jeff

  7. Ken, I forgot to mention that I was referring to Targeted Tail. To clearify further, if someone searched: “Model 365 Desk Chair” and landed on a page about desk chairs but not the 365 Model, it would not convert well.

    How did that page come up in the SERP’s? It had the model number on the page: “Open 365 days a year”. This is very common in the SERP’s.

    Jeff

  8. I’ve seen the same (good) results for the “targeted tail”. Yeah, long tail words that are not (1) buying phrases or (2) products you actually carry will not do as well as other head or tail search terms.

    However, if you are targeting specific segments of a market, your long tail terms (that land on pages targeted at something at the category or product level) should outsell your head terms that dump the visitor on the home page.

    Going back to Dan’s example – say I sold colored ipod covers – ipod will be up at the head but that won’t covert too well.

    Craig

  9. In true academic style (I am a real professor in my other life) let me say that Dan and Nancy are both correct. I have run a number of online retail sites and have conducted extensive academic research on SEO. In both cases I have found that both long tail and head strategies can work. Here are two cases.

    Case A – Lingerie

    When I sold this site last month it was ranking on page 1 in Yahoo and page 2-3 in Google for the “head” term lingerie. It also had dozens (or more) “long tail” terms. However, those long tail terms primarily followed from my efforts to rank the head term. In other words, we did not rank for those long tail terms (and did not target them) until we ranked for “lingerie”. In addition, the head term was virtually the only one that got conversions. Dan – here I mean conversions in terms of percentage, not total numbers. So if we got 1,000 visits for “lingerie” and made 10 sales (pretty typical), our “head” term has a 1% conversion rate. However, our long tail terms almost always had a converion rate significantly lower.

    This case tends to support Nancy.

    Case B – iPod accessories

    I developed this site and sold it about 2 years ago. I went long tail from the start and was able to get it to page 1 in all three search engines in about 6 weeks for a fairly competitive long tail term (in fact this project was published up as a peer reviewed academic paper). Obviously, if we had even attempted to go for the “head” term ipod we would have been crushed (sorry Nancy, we’re talking about a term that has over 200 million in competition on Google).

    This case tends to support Dan.

    So, where am I going with all of this. Either strategy can work and your choice of strategy should depend on a number of factors. First, what is the competition? If it’s very high for the “head” choose the “long tail”. Second, are you in a market where the products change often? It doesn’t make sense to rank for a product like XYZ2007, when that product will be discountinued and replaced by XYZ2008 in a few months.

    Finally, you need to test. Monitor your search terms to see which one’s are converting. On the lingerie site, I was surprised to see a few long tail terms with high conversion rates. Obviously, I concentrated a bit of effort improving those terms in the search engines.

  10. Thanks, Ross…

    I guess I would just like to repeat that a lot of what you’re going to see in the tail is stuff that you never targeted and that has zero relevance, so those terms shouldn’t be expected to convert. This useless, irrelevant traffic will arrive in some measure, regardless of whether you make any effort to bring in more targeted traffic.

  11. Dan – I wanted to say something like duh, that’s obvious. But it’s really not obvious to everyone, especially those just starting with SEO. They are told to pick a good long tail keyterm (decent number of searches and low competition). But most of the “gurus” don’t really talk about how to choose a long tail term that will also convert well. So I definately applaud you.

    Here’s a great example, going back to the lingerie store. The term lingerie converts fairly well, but the term sexy lingerie does not convert at all. When you think about it the reasons are fairly obvious. People looking for sexy lingerie are more interested in the pictures :)

  12. Dan, I don’t want to name names in a public forum (feel free to e-mail me to discuss offline). But since I teach this stuff, I sign up for every free course available and almost none talk about choosing a converting keyterm. Most are all about the numbers – pick a term with more than X searches per day or per month and less than y competition in Google, etc.

  13. >> “They are told to pick a good long tail keyterm (decent >>number of searches and low competition). But most of the >>”gurus” don’t really talk about how to choose a long tail >>term that will also convert well.”

    That’s exactly right. I’ve been reading voraciously on the subject of internet marketing for the past several months and this is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone make that point, though no that the point has been made it does seem obvious.

    I think perhaps that IM experts, like experts in a lot of fields, forget that there are lots of nitty gritty little details that aren’t obvious to people just starting out.

    -Ken Steen

  14. That’s true Ken, especially since their “free reports” and now videos are pretty much just designed to sell you a story and then a product.

    Very few of us can afford to give the whole product away, and do free support. It’s actually very liberating though. :D

  15. Dan, I’m up to page 56 in your new book and I just realized that from reading the above that I have slipped off the track.
    As a newbie, having set a modest starter income goal to build on, I next need to identify at least five markets to work, then build a site to exploit each. Then… build a site for each one. Then, and only then is any research on keywords, longtail or head, appropriate.

    I understand the bottom feeder philosophy underlying longtails. They will convert if they are relevant to what the surfer really wants. I’ve read lots of the junk you talk about and I confess that I am no longer a virgin out there.
    We called it in Portsmouth Navy Yard, “LESSONS LEARNED” and moved on. I am still struggling with the “First Five” theme selection… well almost. I am 75, a retired Master Electrician trying to earn more than SS. I also weigh in at 336 lb.
    With a very limited budget how can I draw upon that? Most of the sane gurus say “promote what you know a lot about”. Well, I do know a lot about poor, fat, retired semi handi- capped old men. That will be my first personally developed site. I know a lot about diets that don’t work, excercise that does work… if you aren’t crippled, weight problems compounded by conflicting medical catch-22s. The list goes on and on. I think I will promote economical, fat-man specific, quality clothing sources. This country is literally crawling with frustrated big guys.

    SEO Fast Start has clarified a lot and encouraged me to open more doors; like this forum. Am I swallowing everything I read here as gospel? Certainly not! But, like one of the posts said. Lontails, Heads… show me the numbers. Now there is a guy who will go a long way.

    And that’s all I got to say about that.

    Sam
    PATHFINDERS 2007

  16. Ken, it’s kind of funny. I started learning SEO after I wrote my 1st ebook because I had no clue on how to get traffic to it (other than through Clickbank affiliates). It took me a few years before I finally figured out exactly how to work the tail. All of the courses, books, and newsletters (except Dan’s) never taught me anything.

    Now because of what I like to call “The Targeted Tail”, I have many top positions that are converting well. Sorry…I own the domain 8)

    Jeff

  17. Dan, thanks for clearing some things up. Thank you for your book and the help you are to those of us in internet marketing.

  18. Sam, I’ll give you a more thoughtful response later (I’m at the Apple store right now borrowing their network). The first thing that just screams at me, reading your post, is why you wouldn’t start by going after one (1) market?

  19. Just another angle. Some niches are prone to much less relevant long tail terms then others. I’m currently working on a horse racing content site, which gets heaps of traffic for completely irrelevant terms that happen to have names similar or the same as horses.

    Makes tracking very difficult.

  20. “Because the right way to target the long tail, as I said last week, is to simply do your research, and be aware of the keyword modifiers that you should be working into your copy. This isn’t a bunch of extra work, and if you do it right, it even will make you a better copywriter.”

    Thanks! That so succinctly sums up the power of Long Tail Keywords.

    It’s sad that some people have to use other people, such as Nacy is, and slam them by associating concepts and ideas that may not even be accurate.

    Long Tail is just one approach. It should be worked into everybody’s marketing, but not as a full on replacement. Certainly not in ways that may hurt your overall plan, such as building scraped sites with long tail.

    Sure, if people are building sites with thousands or millions of doorway pages that will fetch good taffic (for a short while) but who is still doing that kind of stuff???

    If you want to build a banproof site you need to build real content web pages. And the more words you can use the better! Just write them into the pages as you suggest. No need to generate thousands of fake pages :’>

  21. In my experience, pages optimized for 2 or 3 different but similar long tail keywords rank better than pages optimized for 1 long tail keyword.

    For example, a single page that is optimized for “Miami Florida Vacation Rentals” and “Miami FL Rental” can effectively be opimized for over 10 different keyword combinations. Because “Miami” would be listed twice in the Title tag, it would carry a lot of weight and would give you an edge over pages with only one instance of the keyword in the Title.

    I am currently using this exact technique on a site using similar keywords to the ones listed above. I am using 3 similar long tail phrases on the home page and am scoring top tens for multiple short phrases as well as multiple long tails.

    If you are lucky enough to have 60,000 keywords to use for your site, group 2 or 3 (at most 4) similar keywords per page and you would only need 5,000 to 10,000 pages to cover them all. In addition, your individual pages would probably rank higher as a result of it.

  22. I was also surpriced and confused when I watched Nancy’s video. It didn’t seem to make sense.

    I’ve read a lot about the long tail, even half of that long tail book, and that made sense.

    Thanks Dan for letting me know I’m thinking in the right direction.

    Simon

  23. Thanks, Simon.

    It’s a little frustrating that there’s even a question, you know? I mean, the argument about conversion is just silly.

    Unless you totally botch your keyword strategy, search terms that you have targeted and put major resources into had darned well *better* convert at a higher rate than random strings of words that happen to appear on a page somewhere.

    I saw an interesting study yesterday – looking at the conversion rate for PPC campaigns, on different levels of an ecommerce site. Their home page terms were converting at just over 2%, category page terms at nearly 6%, and product page terms at 9%.

    I’d say that’s someone who really “nailed it” with their keyword strategy. They’re profitable at every level. Mixing modifiers into their copy is going to give them a whole lot of profitable traffic from the long tail.

  24. Pingback: Review of: Hit Tail - Long Tail Keyword Marketing Tool - Reviews … | SEO Manager’s Weekly

  25. As far as I am concerned, long tail pays off. for some of my clients the competitive landscape is so fierce and marketing budgets are so tight that any opportunity to draw relevant potential customers for less up front investment is critical to success.

    For example – if a client’s total marketing budget doesn’t allow them to get the amount of work needed to place in the first page of ranking results for the core keywords, the simple act of quality page content melded with page depth, and bridged by providing valuable information “related” to their offerings naturally results in long tail keywords being sewn throughout the web site. And this inevitably leads to more sales to people who were looking for relevant information but weren’t necessarily using those core keywords.

    When a web user needs information and they find it at one of my client’s sites, and that information is presented in a no-nonsense way, it builds trustworthiness and respect – where my clients are seen as going the extra mile to help their site visitors. So not only do they get the sale, they also get customer loyalty.

    Long live the long tail!

  26. Andrew,

    The term “modifiers” describes those little extra words that tend to tag along for the ride on high volume search terms.

    For example, people searching for web hosting often add “modifier” words like these to their search queries:
    php
    mysql
    pop3
    bandwidth
    unlimited

    By discovering relevant modifiers during our keyword research and working them into our copy, we effectively broaden the page’s possibilities for presence in search results.

  27. How is it that Mike Long has been spamming my mailbox lately (since august 20). Hadn’t heard of him except for Dan’s article. Maybe i’m fair game since i post to this website, but was just wondering.

  28. Thanks Jeff – I am not sure about the accuracy of wordtracker – if you try to link overture -google trends and wordtraker together you can get some very different answers so its always good to see there are other places to double check!

  29. No problem Andrew. I hear you with with getting mixed results… The process for each is different. I believe Trellian/Keyward Discovery and WordTracker deliver good results. However, sometimes I just like to see those flowing across the board results at SEO Book.

    http://www.digitalpoint.com is another source you can check

  30. I don’t spend much time at all for long tail keywords. When I write a new post I research my keywords a bit and include a couple of long tail keywords. That is it, I don’t waste my time building thousands of doorway pages.

    Overall, I get very good organic web traffic from the search engines with my current method and see no reason to build worthless doorway pages that could cause problems with the search engines.

    One important thing is not to believe everything you read or see in a video. Be aware that many people are just trying to get your last $200.00 out of you by selling rehashed SEO stuff.

  31. Hi,Dan,I spent over 8 months conducting keyword research and making 2 blogs based on long tail keyword strategy.I was taught to prepare about 30 pages for every blog and use 10 LTK with a Daily Volume 2-3 unique visitors on every page expecting total Daily Volume about 25-30 visitors for every page or about 1,000 daily visitors for the entire Blog.The results were discouraging.Most of these LTK disappeared at all in a couple of months and traffic never exceeded 60 daily visitors for the entire Blog.I read some people say that LTK with Daily Volume 10 and less are useless.Some people say we have to use LTK with a Daily Volume 30-35 visitors. What is your opinion?
    And another question: do I have to create a page around 1 LTK only or to use a bunch of them on every page?
    Thank you!

  32. Hay Dan,
    this is my first msg here, forgive if i am wrong somewhere.
    Sir, i have read your whole book and i have started reading you blogs or conversation.here my doubt is..Can you guide me how SEO loop works?
    Ex. like i do initial keywords step, keyword selection and i know the content writing, blog posting, open directory linking and what else ????

    Thanks’

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