The “long tail” is a source of much debate within the paid search marketing community. The concept, popularized by Wired’s editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, is used to describe the large number of keywords available for purchase that individually deliver little traffic, but in aggregate have the potential to be an important source of clicks and conversions for a program. Long tail evangelists will claim that these “tail terms”—words with multiple tokens, product SKU numbers, color and size combinations or other product attributes—are a requirement for search marketing success. Long tail detractors will claim these terms have limited benefit, can’t be addressed cost-effectively, or even worse—that long tail strategies can drag down campaign quality scores. In this article, I’ll cut through the hype and give you some practical tips for evaluating if the long tail is right for your business and how to capitalize on it.
Let’s start with the first question—should I have a strategy for the long tail? The answer is maybe. For some marketers having a small keyword set is the right approach. If you have a limited number of products, operate in a limited number of markets, or your primary campaign goals are focused on branding, there may not be a true “long tail” to the set of keywords that users associate with your offerings.
Other companies will find that classic long tail marketing is an ideal strategy. Retail companies with catalogs that have millions of SKUs for example, may find it useful to purchase inventory for the various keywords associated with their products. Similarly, companies with content that is exceptionally seasonal or dynamic may need to apply strategies for updating ads for thousands of products that are constantly changing. Evaluate your own business model before considering how important the long tail is to your campaigns.
Assuming a long tail strategy makes sense for your business, the next question is can it be implemented cost effectively? To answer this question, first you need to understand the time and effort required to implement a long tail strategy. Expanding your keywords to millions of terms doesn’t happen without cost. To begin estimating the costs, first evaluate the data you have available in-house which can be applied to a long-tail campaign. Do you have a product catalog? If so, how clean is the data? How many attributes do your products have which could factor into a keyword campaign? Being able to harvest the long tail at scale requires having a large and clean data set for building out new campaigns and keywords. If your company needs to undergo a sizeable data cleanup effort before embarking on a long tail strategy, you will need to factor this into your costs.
Once you have a clean data set in place, the key to cost-effectively implementing a tail strategy is automation. Tackling the long tail of search without software is at best challenging, and at worst impractical depending on the size of your product catalog. Packaged software solutions are capable of delivering automation of campaign creation and management through data feeds. We also see many search marketers building in-house solutions for campaign automation. Regardless of the route you choose here, the costs of software need to be factored into the cost of your long tail program. This includes not only the cost of uploading, formatting and publishing feed based ads, but also the costs of managing more accounts, building larger reports and performing analysis at scale on an ongoing basis.
Once you fully assess the benefits and costs of a long tail strategy, compare the ROI to other possible initiatives and prioritize them. Assuming implementing a long tail strategy is right for you, here are some best practices to keep in mind while you’re building out your campaign.
Data quality is critical for campaign success
By definition, when you scale a campaign to millions of keywords, it’s not possible to review your ads using human editors. As a result, it’s important to focus on data quality up front. Make sure that data feeds are well structured and that the data is from a reliable source. This will prevent inappropriate words and landing pages from finding their way into campaigns. When you go to build out your keywords and creative, make sure to perform checks to avoid inserting terms that break character limits imposed by the engines. Also watch out for special characters that will result in your ads being rejected.
Test everything at scale
Because long tail terms receive very little traffic on an individual basis, it’s tough to effectively test keywords, creative and landing pages one at a time. As a result, you need to scale your tests to thousands of terms. For example, if you are testing a creative, try multiple versions of the same ad where you dynamically insert either a price or color across hundreds of campaigns and ad groups. Assign segments for color and price to each of these creatives in your analytics tool so you can perform cross-campaign analysis of performance.
Tail terms demand a different approach to bidding
Sparse data in the tail makes traditional rules-based bidding ineffective. Because individual terms have little click and conversion data history, it’s not possible to accurately estimate a bid based on past performance of the keyword alone. Applying a portfolio approach to bidding allows you to leverage data across related keywords to properly estimate bids. Using a bid tool or methodology that supports portfolio based bidding is critical to success with long-tail strategies. When applying a portfolio approach, watch out for tools that require a “learning” period. Using “test bids” to zero in on the right spend levels can be costly, especially when you are talking about millions of keywords.
Retailers should factor in product margin and inventory data
Because many long tail campaigns are based on product catalogs, you can often get more return on your investment by making a few small tweaks. Clearly when a product is out of stock, it’s probably not appropriate to be advertising for it on Google. Make sure you are able to automatically pause or bid down keywords based on the availability of the products that were used to generate the terms. Additionally, if you are able to incorporate product cost or net margin data into conversion statistics, it will result in a more accurate picture of keyword value, improving your bids and helping you to hit overall ROI targets much easier.
While applying a long-tail strategy may not be for everyone, if done correctly it can be an important driver of growth in keywords under management, clicks and conversions. More importantly, because there is often less competition for long tail terms, long tail campaigns can deliver a lower cost-per-action than ordinary search marketing campaigns.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.