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The Long Tail…Part II August 21, 2007

Posted by Sarah Bernier in Things.
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The topic of “long tail search” fascinates me. Also fascinating is the way different SEOs approach this – from selling their services as “optimizing for long tail keywords” to merely expounding upon subject matter within a site in order to try to “capture” it.

It’s an elusive thing, this Long Tail Search concept. Even harder to grasp is the question – “what ARE long tail search terms?” Well, that’s the beauty – and the catch-22 – of it…specifically, in looking at a particular site’s focus, we don’t know until AFTER they’ve happened what they are.

In general, they’re the unique terms that people search for which don’t conform to the mainstream, heavily-searched queries. In any field/subject/service, there is a long tail. For example, in the music world, I’m sure iTunes gets TONS of hits on the newest releases, from Fergie to Carrie Underwood. However, what about all the little-known a) songs or b) artists for which people are searching?

Take for example my buddy, OB. His band, Enchanted Ape, has songs on iTunes, for which I’ve searched. Now, other fans of his band are certainly searching for him, but I’m going to assume he’s not going to be able to compete with the mainstream bands being played on radios across the nation. Sorry, buddy 🙂 HOWEVER, people ARE searching for him. They’re also searching for other bands/artists or songs that aren’t as ‘popular’. This is the long tail. The amount of searches coming through on the myriad of song titles and artists that aren’t the ‘top searches’ outnumber the heavily-searched, popular bands/songs.

Now, in regards to marketing – whether it be for commercial goods or professional services – how do you capture the people looking for little-known terms/keywords, i.e., how do you capture the long tail?

I’ve heard people I think are competent SEOs say “you can optimize for the long tail”, but, can you? It depends on your definition, at this point, of what “to optimize for” means. I’ve also seen people presenting themselves as SEOs give actual terms – which they think are long tail – which “you should optimize for”: Searches such as New Jersey Law Firm and New Jersey Divorce Lawyer. It’s sad, really, because that’s not what long tail IS.

I personally don’t think you can “optimize for long tail search terms”. That’s because you don’t know what those terms ARE when you’re writing content and putting together a web site, because they’re unique searches. You can perform research to see what the mainstream searches are, and even some lesser-known terms…but the only true way to see what the ACTUAL long tail terminology is comes after the fact, by looking at your site’s analytics. Sure, you might have a good idea of what a unique search could be – but a) are people going to type it in as a query in the future, and if so, b) will you be found for it?

To emphasize this point, I always bring out the “horseplay at work” example. We work with lawyer sites – these people’s careers revolve around words, and we do our best to explain what they to do potential clients while still remaining professional. Well, through some attorney-supplied content or article on a Workers’ Comp site we did, a long tail term came through in their Hitbox analytics – “horseplay at work”. How on EARTH would we know to add that to the site in order to “optimize” for that word? We wouldn’t.

Only by adding good, descriptive content can we truly hope to capture long tail terms. If we use the same keyword/s over and over, it won’t read very easily AND if you’re not expounding upon the subject matter, how can you expect to be found for anything other than the over-used keyword phrase you’ve chosen?

I’m not sure who coined the now-cliché of “Content is King”, but it’s true. If you explain what you do, how you do it, how you can help your clients, etc, and you take the time to write good content and optimize it well, you’ll naturally encompass long tail search.