Practical Ecommerce

SEO: What Is the Long Tail?

Marketers talk about the concept of the long tail, but many lack understanding of what it truly means and how to put it to use.

The phrase itself is actually both a concept and the title of the best-selling book from 2008 entitled The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More, by Chris Anderson, the then editor of Wired magazine. The premise of the book states that products that individually have low demand can in aggregate combine to create more demand than the few products that sell in large quantities.

Anderson compared data across many industries, and the results followed a strikingly similar trend, as shown below.

Diagram of the long tail, showing "Popularity" on y axis to individual "Products" on x axis. <em>Source: Chris Anderson, Longtail.com.</em>

Diagram of the long tail, showing “Popularity” on y axis to individual “Products” on x axis. Source: Chris Anderson, Longtail.com.

The book is related in principle to the Pareto principle — also known as the 80-20 rule — which posits that roughly 80 percent of the effects are caused by 20 percent of the events. Published in 1896, Pareto’s work revolved around the distribution of land ownership in Italy, but has been applied to many other instances in the succeeding 119 years.

The Long Tail Concept and SEO

For search engine optimization, the difference between the head and the tail revolve around keywords that drive search demand for an industry. For example, if you sell blue jeans, then “jeans” is a head term because it drives an average of 60,500 searches per month in Google in the U.S.

At the opposite end of the scale, longer obscure search phrases like “boyfriend skinny jeans women” drive an average of 10 searches per month in Google in the U.S.

Keyword research gives us the ability to determine the relative demand for different keywords, and whether they might be placed in the head or the tail. Naturally, everyone gets excited about the head terms. Management has its favorite trophy terms to rank for because they drive brand visibility and traffic. You and your agency want to rank for them because they’re a simple way to show SEO success.

However, the principle of the long tail states that the aggregate keyword demand driven by the long tail will likely be larger than the value of those trophy head terms.

Explaining the importance of the long tail to management in a way that helps it understand and care can be challenging, but I find that shifting goals away from rankings and toward more performance-oriented metrics like visits and conversions is the best way. My article, “SEO: Measuring Key Performance Indicators,” explains defining goals and metrics for SEO performance in detail.

The Chunky Middle

Search engine professionals add another component to the long tail concept: “the chunky middle.” It represents a valuable middle ground for SEO performance: those phrases that are still worth optimizing for but don’t drive as much demand as the very large head terms.

Rand Fishkin, co-founder of Moz, the SEO think tank and analytics software company, described SEO’s chunky middle several years ago.

Using data from Experian Hitwise, the online consumer intelligence service, Fishkin looked at the distribution of search demand for three months of searches across 10 million U.S. Internet users.

Fishkin found that the 10,000 keywords that drove the highest number of searches per month only made up 18.5 percent of the entire number of searches available The long tail, Fishkin found, drove 70.0 percent of searches and the chunky middle represented about 11.5 percent.

To simplify, pretend that we’re only talking about 100 keywords. Of those 100 keywords:

  • One head keyword(s) drives 1,000 searches;
  • One chunky middle keyword(s) drives 100 searches;
  • One long tail keyword(s) drives 10 searches.

When you add just those three keywords together, they drive 1,110 searches. Projecting that trend for the three keywords very loosely over 100 keywords, we might end up with 20,000 searches in total when you add up the keyword demand for all 100 keywords.

Applying the concept of the SEO long tail would then result in the following.

  • Head keyword phrases would drive 3,700 searches per month (18.5 percent).
  • Chunky middle keyword phrases would drive 2,300 searches per month (11.5 percent).
  • Long tail keyword phrases would drive 14,000 searches per month (70.0 percent).

So, even if you drove every single Google search to your site for every head phrase, you’d still lose 81.5 percent of the available searches.

Capturing Long Tail SEO

The long tail roughly correlates to the hierarchy of an ecommerce site. The home page and high-level category pages should naturally target the head keyword phrases like “jeans,” which drives 60,500 searches a month. The subcategory pages and faceted navigation should naturally capture the chunky middle keyword phrases like “grey skinny jeans,” which drives 1,000 searches a month. And product pages and combinations of faceted navigation pages usually drive the long tail keyword phrases like “boyfriend skinny jeans women,” which drives an average of 10 searches per month in Google in the U.S.

This trend is completely logical if you think about a search query as a product and a modifier. “Grey skinny jeans” is nothing more than a “skinny jeans” subcategory page with a color facet of “grey” applied. If you have set up your site’s architecture to enable search engines to index a “skinny jeans” subcategory page with a color facet of “grey” applied, then you have a page that’s already ideally suited to rank for “grey skinny jeans.”

You probably won’t rank for “grey skinny jeans” if (a) you don’t have a color facet, (b) your facet pages aren’t crawlable, (c) the page doesn’t contain any textual relevance signals for “grey skinny jeans,” or (d) a host of other challenges.  Now multiply that across the rest of the chunky middle and the long tail, because these pages are the ones that rank for the higher quantity of keywords that, individually, represent a smaller individual value.

The good news is that optimizing for the long tail and even the chunky middle depends on scalable, site-wide modifications like template optimization, taxonomy optimization, and platform adjustments.

The bad news is that optimizing for the long tail and the chunky middle tends to require design and development time. To learn more, read my “SEO 201” primer series, which covers many of the technical and architectural challenges that limit an ecommerce site’s ability to capture the long tail and the chunky middle.

Jill Kocher

Jill Kocher

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