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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.