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The Power of Long Tail Search May 8, 2008

Posted by Sarah Bernier in Things.
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This is an article I wrote awhile back…when I worked in another time; another place. Not a new concept, by any means, but one of which I’m quite the advocate. I realize I have “Part Deux” mentioned below…hopefully certain new people in my life will read this and learn something. Modified slightly from the original version (posted elsewhere).

So, what is a long tail search? Maybe you’ve heard the term but aren’t sure what it means; maybe you know what it means but are thinking, “how does this apply to my site(s)?” Also known in the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) world as “search tail” or “query tail,” this phrase was coined by Chris Anderson of Wired magazine in his article, The Long Tail, in October 2004. In essence, it’s defined as the seemingly never-ending “tail” of searches that follows a high-volume population of mainstream searches (For you math people out there, think of an x / y graph and an asymptotic curve). What this means is that although there are search terms which are searched for frequently and generate great numbers of queries (which everyone wants to “rank for” on the main search engines), there are also myriads of little-searched and different (i.e., unique) terms, which cumulatively outnumber or outweigh the conventional, ‘popular’ searches.

In relation to strictly organic search results, this is where good Web site content comes in to play. As SEOs, we can use industry-standard tools to perform keyword research, we know (basically) who’s searching for what mainstream terms, we can guess at how people are likely to search based on trends that we see, and now Google has even offered up a Traffic Estimator Tool. However, we cannot intuitively know how any one Web user is actually going to search. That’s because people search what’s on their minds – and since everyone has a different connotation of any given topic, who knows how they’ll search for it.

We do know that in addition to typing in a couple of words or a phrase, people also search with queries – i.e. questions – typed directly into the search bar. They also tend to start out with broad terms, and if they don’t find what they need, they refine their searches. So, how can we apply what we know to help our clients’ sites show up in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs)?

Again, we can only guess at long tail terminology, but by expanding on the subject matter in Web sites, we greatly increase their chances of being found for those obscure searches which comprise the search tail. As Danny Sullivan on SearchEngineWatch.com says, “having lots of good content will naturally tap into the tail of queries.” For example, by using synonyms and colloquialisms that people use in day-to-day speech, we might be able to tap into things that we might not think to optimize for.

Piggybacking on that idea, when we have existing sites that are upgrading or “refreshing” content, we MUST take a look at their analytics to see for which terms and phrases the site is already being found. Your analytics traffic often shows odd terms which might only happen twice or even 1 time in a year, but these will be worth adding to the new site’s content – these are the long tail search terms! Even though the volume of these searches is low in relation to the mainstream searches, these little-searched terms can actually generate better business since they’re very exact and will most likely convert better than the general search terms will.

One more ace in the hole we have as SEOs is our clientele – they can help their own sites with the long tail search. Most sites boast marketing copy – meant to attract the search engines and their users – but often our clients submit their own articles, testimonials and in some cases, forums. When they submit content for their site, we might ask, should it be optimized for the search engines? It doesn’t need to be – client-supplied content is a GREAT breeding ground for long tail searches! These pages – especially forums – often do well for their part because ‘normal’ people write differently than copy-writers, thus tapping into different verbiage than writers will use. That’s not to say that our marketing copy needs to be different; rather, it helps to have a different perspective to incorporate on top of the site’s marketing content. Again, the more quality content a Web site has, the more likely it is to tap into targeted traffic.

When optimizing a Web site, it’s important to remember that the terms we think are important for visibility might not be what actual Web users are typing into the query box. Of course, it’s easier to look back in retrospect by using analytics data to measure how a site is performing and for which terms it’s being found, but by focusing on quality content and inviting our clients to add their own, we are giving their sites an even better chance of showing up in the Long Tail of search.


Oh, What’s in a Meta Name*? May 6, 2008

Posted by Sarah Bernier in Things.
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At a previous company, I was on a call with a client who claimed to be Web savvy (because, he said, his girlfriend is “an IT person”), and who was very adamant that “search engines don’t look at meta labels anymore”. Keep in mind, this guy also wanted to get into the debate of ‘there is no such thing as different datacenters on search engines’. I didn’t have the heart (or the energy or the patience :)) to ask him “what exactly IS a meta label, anyway?”

I’ve also heard clients (and others who say they ‘know SEO’) say “make sure to work on my tags, since that’s the most important thing for ranking**”.

Makes me wonder where people get ideas about what is and isn’t important in regards to search engine optimization. And, frankly, how they can assume that ranking = success. But that’s a different discussion.

Danny Sullivan gives a nice definition of Meta Tags in his article How To Use HTML Meta Tags:

Meta Tag Overview
What are meta tags? They are information inserted into the “head” area of your web pages. Other than the title tag (explained within the article as ‘isn’t really a meta tag, but it’s worth discussing in relation to them’), information in the head area of your web pages is not seen by those viewing your pages in browsers. Instead, meta information in this area is used to communicate information that a human visitor may not be concerned with. Meta tags, for example, can tell a browser what “character set” to use or whether a web page has self-rated itself in terms of adult content.

In other words, we’re not just talking about meta description & keywords tags; this is information that is, for the most part, ‘behind the scenes’ for spiders to get some info from and in some cases, a visitor could see some of it. (Case in point – the meta description tag.)

Now, that being said, there is a tag which is vastly ignored: the meta keywords tag. While some search engines evidently still utilize this (they can be found within the Search Engine Features on Search Engine Watch), the major crawlers ignore the tag, due to its overuse in attempting to spam search engines in the late nineties. So, guy-who-knows-SEO-’cause-your-girlfriend-is-in-IT, you’re partially right for one tag.

However, your description tag is an important aspect of on-page optimization, and should be descriptive of the page it’s attached to – i.e., put relevant keywords in it. It should also be some sort of call-to-action, as *hopefully* it’ll be displayed in the SERPs and will help visitors decide (along with the tag and even URL) if they want to click on that listing or not.

That’s right, search engines don’t always display your well-written meta descriptions on their snippets. Why?, you ask. Depends on their search, depends on the words you utilize, etc. If your page is relevant, but the query is different from what you have in your description, search engines will most likely grab a more relevant fragment/s from within your content and display that instead. Keep in mind, search engines want repeat “customers” so they want to return the best, most relevant results they can. If that means overriding your well-thought-out meta description tag, so be it!

And, as alluded to above, all the rest of the meta data is informational – like the character set – and doesn’t concern visitors (inasmuch as optimization is concerned, anyway).

So, I’m going to call ‘erroneous’ on the dude’s observation that “search engines don’t look at meta labels anymore”. They do; you just need to be cognizant of a) nomenclature and b) on which tags you should focus your efforts. Go ask your IT girlfriend 🙂

* Keep in mind I’ve had this post on the back burner since before that SEW article by the same / similar name.
** Future post material.