The Decisive Advantage Of Optimizing For The Long Tail

The long tail is something that has been written about many times, by many people, including this article by me on Search Engine Land. In spite of all this coverage, the great majority of publishers (that I’ve encountered at any rate) aren’t aware of what I call the “decisive long tail advantage.” This is the notion that publishers who effectively chase long tail traffic have something like a 50x advantage in obtaining ROI from their SEO efforts over their competition. In the most extreme situations I hear people focus 100% of their SEO efforts on climbing the rankings on one or two terms. With rare exceptions, this is generally a bad idea. In today’s column I will offer up a model for why this is the case. First let’s start with some basic assumptions:

  • The site owner most likely wants the fastest possible revenue growth from the web site.
  • Competition is also investing in SEO, so the market is competitive.
  • The long tail for the site is typical. In other words, 10% of the traffic goes to the head terms, 20% to the “chunky middle,” and 70% resides in the long tail.

Of course, the above assumptions are probably true for very nearly any business operating a web site. This means that the long tail of search offers seven times as much opportunity as head terms, and more than double the opportunity of the rest. But now let’s take the discussion a bit further, by looking at the keyword competitiveness in one market. To do this we will look at three different stats for a set of keywords: search volumes, the number of results returned for an “inanchor:” query (e.g. words appearing in anchor text of links) and the number of results returned for an “intitle:” query (e.g. words appearing in title tags). Here is some data for some keywords in the health insurance market:

Keyword Daily query volume Inanchor results Intitle results
health care 1,985 136,000,000 31,800,000
health care problems 239 158,000 124,000
single payer health care 197 286,000 51,500
Christian health care 14 25,900 103,000
cultural competency for health care professionals 12 1 1
health care reform pros and cons 11 0 50

Daily keyword volume in the above table is courtesy of Wordtracker, and the inanchor and intitle results are from Google.

In our table we see that the combined inanchor and intitle results for “health care” is a touch greater than 167M, whereas the corresponding total for “health care reforms pros and cons” is 50. If we divide 50 into 167M, you might conclude that the phrase “health care” is 3.34M times more competitive than the phrase “health care reforms pros and cons.” This is probably a bit of an extreme conclusion, but a page with “health care reforms pros and cons” in its title, and/or links pointing to it with that anchor text, will clearly have an excellent chance of ranking highly for that search term. For purposes of this article, we are going to guess that the average competitiveness of a long tail is one quarter that of the head (a figure which is probably low).

This is already pretty compelling, but now let’s take it one step further, by considering keywords in relation to where a user is in the purchase cycle. Many head tail terms are used by searchers who are at the beginning of the purchase process. They are still in research mode, and are not quite ready to buy. With (relevant) long tail terms the conversion rate tends to be much higher.

To illustrate, take the example of someone who searches on “digital camera” to start a search session. A bit later they search on “canon digital camera,” and after that they search on “Canon PowerShot SX20 IS”. This is a process that has been documented many times, where the user starts with a general term because they are still in research mode. As they learn more and more about what they want, their searches get more specific. By the time they get to “Canon PowerShot SX20 IS” they are much closer to making a purchase decision.

I have seen articles that suggest that the conversion rate of relevant long tail terms is 2x that of head terms, but unfortunately, could not find hard data to support that. Yet this does make intuitive sense.

Now for some math. We have seen that the long tail has 7x the traffic of the head. We have estimated that it is 4 times easier to rank in the long tail (a figure which I believe is low), and that the conversion rate is 2x higher. This would suggest that extracting cash from search is 56 times easier with a focus on the long tail. That’s pretty compelling.

There is no doubt that there is brand value in ranking highly on head terms. Users in research mode will see your site if you rank for head terms. That serves as a brand impression, and that’s a good thing. But, the reality is that branding is expensive. It has always been expensive, and this is unchanged in the world of search. You can pursue branding as a first priority, but you will need to make sure you budget for it.

I realize I have not provided empirical proof for my estimates in this article. But our experiences with clients confirm that businesses that proactively implement a long tail strategy on the web have a significant advantage over their competitors. Cash is strategic. Few businesses are in a position to ignore an approach to revenue that is 50+ times easier than the alternatives. Money in your pocket puts you in a position to increase your investment from cash flow, even as you are able to show results from your SEO activities. Better still, you can implement your SEO strategies to chase all the relevant search terms (head, chunky middle, and long tail), as these strategies do not have to be mutually exclusive. But, whatever you do, don’t ignore the long tail.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Industrial Strength | SEO: General


About The Author: is the president of Stone Temple Consulting, an SEO consultancy outside of Boston. Eric publishes a highly respected interview series and can be followed on Twitter at @stonetemple.

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  • EricGoldman

    Great post with some impressive arguments and reasons for focusing on the long tail. Here’s a similar post which delves into the long-tail by forecasting how it’s killing the concept of mass-marketing. Readers may find the comparison useful:

  • http://incrediblehelp incrediblehelp

    Eric do you believe the only true way to optimize for the long tail is through user-generated content?

  • Mark Nunney

    UGC can do the job. Especially if it fills up a carefully planned site structure, eg, see tripadvisor.

    But long articles placed within a carefully planned structure can do wonders too (and be more targeted). Here’s an example of one article targeting over 10,000 keywords (it’s not extraordinary):

    ‘Target the head and exploit the tail’ is a useful mantra.

    But in practice you get results from more than the tail of a single keyword.

    You get results from thousands of other related keywords. So perhaps…

    ‘Target the head and exploit the (related) tail’ is better.

    Some keywords in that related tail will respond well and be the seeds for new keywords (and their related tails) to exploit, perhaps with another article (or more).


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