Is The Long Tail A Myth?
I get a lot of email from internet marketers… it’s a job-related hazard. As a result, I get a lot of email "newsletters" that are nothing more than one offer after another. One sales pitch after another. So much hype, so much junk… but every now and then someone sends me something that at least makes me think a bit.
Internet Marketer Mike Long (who I suppose I can’t really call a friend since he doesn’t return my calls any more) sent me a short video clip containing an interview with an acquaintance of ours from Stompernet. In the video, our friend "debunks" the idea of the Long Tail, by embracing some common misconceptions about the whole thing. For example, she refers to Chris Anderson’s book as being about search… which it’s not.
I don’t fault her for not reading the book, it’s not terribly exciting reading (sorry, Chris). However, it’s usually better not to talk about books you haven’t actually read. I don’t think they have Cliff’s Notes for it, but the Wikipedia entry on The Long Tail would have offered a clue, but anyway… I didn’t start out this post with the intent of insulting Nancy Andrews… because Nancy is a smart lady.
What Nancy was really thinking about was articles like this one, and posts on Chris’s own blog, where the "long tail" concept (actually, Zipf’s law) is bent a little to apply it to search. Maybe she was thinking about Joe Kraus’s post which mentions search patterns at Excite… in the context of discussing the Long Tail effect in the software business.
A Lot Of People Are Confused About "Long Tail Keywords"
How do I know this? Because my team at SEO Research Labs gets requests all the time to "research long tail keywords." What they’re really thinking about is the idea pushed by Sumantra Roy and Wordtracker several years ago, that there were "keyword niches" – extremely popular and profitable search terms (lots of searches, lots of wallets) that for some reason, nobody had targeted with SEO.
Forget about that myth. I’d bet even Sumantra has.
The "long tail of search" is very real. Half of the queries in a given month (more or less) are one-offs. One search query for that term. By one person. It should be obvious to those who have read the keyword strategy chapter in SEO Fast Start, that these search terms are:
- Not going to show up in any keyword database
- Not worth targeting individually
- Very easy to "target" by writing keyword rich copy….
Back To Nancy Andrews, Sorry
Nancy showed a chart in her video – thousands of search terms leading people to her site, but only a small number of search terms actually resulting in a sale… Well, duh. You have a conversion rate between 1-2%, right Nancy? Somewhere in there?
Let’s just use 1% for the sake of argument. That means that if you have two search terms that send 50 visitors (100 total) you would only expect one (1) of them to generate a sale. If you have 1000 search terms that sent one visitor each, you would only expect 10 of them to make a sale.
When you factor in the nature of "long tail" referrals, that you can expect a LOT of very strange and irrelevant queries in the mix, I just say, again, DUH. The vast majority of search terms that show up in your logs in a given month will not generate a sale. This is true, precisely because the Long Tail effect is real. The vast majority of search terms that show up in your logs will only refer 1 or 2 visitors, so of course very few of these terms will generate sales.
You make it up with volume, and the effort involved is minimal – in fact, the effort involved could also be described as "writing good copy."
How Internet Marketers Use "Straw Man" Logic To Sell Products
Again… I have a lot of respect for Nancy, but she’s being "handled" by Internet Marketers now. The way they convince you to buy the product they’re pushing involves a lot of "straw man" arguments. Let me walk you through the basic template they’re using here:
- If you have failed at (SEO, marketing, business, life) it’s not your fault.
- You’re not failing because you didn’t actually put in the time and effort to do things right
- No, it’s not your fault, it’s all those evil "gurus" who aren’t telling you the whole truth!
- As an example, watch us construct a straw man and knock it down
- See, we’re smart, and we’re trying to help you.
- Open your wallet now.
In this case, the "straw man" is The Long Tail. The vast majority of search terms that sent me traffic didn’t generate a sale, therefore the Long Tail is a lie.
Except, it’s not a lie. It’s a fundamental truth.
Real World Results & The Long Tail
I borrowed a little data from one of my former students, who is running an ecommerce business, to illustrate how the long tail works in SEO. These numbers have been rounded off slightly, because nobody in their right mind would let me publish their full stats. The percentages are very accurate, though.
During a recent time period that we analyzed, this student received 250,000 visitors from Google organic search. These visitors placed 1,600 orders and spent about 200,000 dollars. In total, there were just over 60,000 search terms that generated visits.
The top 1% (600 terms) generated:
- 135,000 visitors (54%)
- $130,000 in revenue (65%)
- 1000 orders (63%)
Some other fun facts:
- Of the top 100 terms (visits), only 70 generated a sale – and only 60 were actually part of the formal "core term" list
- Of the top 600 terms, only 200 generated a sale – as you would expect, since "term #600" only delivered a couple dozen visits!
- The "long tail (the other 99% of queries) generated 1/3 of revenues!
To get that extra 1/3 of revenues (a 50% increase from baseline), would you be willing to do a little work? Would you be willing to research modifiers, and work them into your selling copy? Of course you would! Heck, if you do it right, it will make your copy better… which means you sell even more stuff.
So is the long tail a myth? No… but you can always construct a straw man to "debunk" any idea. All you have to do is completely misunderstand it.
For more on keyword strategy and the right way to target the long tail, read Chapter 3 of SEO Fast Start.
To follow along with Nancy Andrews’ product launch (in spite of the hype, Nancy has some interesting ideas on competitive SEO and link building) visit Area 51 Marketing. Their video series so far has been very instructive – some of the marketing/manipulation "secrets" that Mike Long and Frank Kern disclosed recently made me a little uncomfortable, but I still got some incredible insights and "aha!" moments.
I realize that this post increases the chances that Mike will continue to ignore my calls (seriously Mike, just pick up the phone) and radically decreases the number of Internet Marketers who will be willing to help me out in the future… but I have received so many emails from readers about this that I have to respond.
Internet Marketers: I know that you hate the way things are right now… where everyone expects you to keep silent and play along with everyone else’s launches. It doesn’t have to be this way! If you want to see a different kind of Internet Marketing, where we all try to get along even though some of us tell the truth sometimes… give me some comments here and let’s figure out how to get there. Use a pseudonym if you gotta.