The long tail is an important concept that describes how markets and culture are developing now that an enormous range of choice is available to consumers via the world wide web. The long tail was popularised by Chris Anderson of Wired Magazine, and has since become a major topic of discussion in the world of online e-commerce.
Imagine walking into your local bookshop, to be confronted with a vast array of shelves containing every item that has ever been published, from the works Shakespeare to local newspapers such as the London Paper and the London Lite.
In the real world this is impossible, but in the online world such a degree of choice is available. Websites such as Amazon provide an immense variety of books that classical ‘bricks and mortar’ bookshops can only dream about. This phenomenon is replicated in the world of music and video by websites such as iTunes and Netflix.
What does the long tail mean?
If you graphed the sales of all the products available online, starting with the bestsellers and moving down to the low-sellers, you would see that a small number of products at the left of the graph sell very well, but as you move to the right, the line dips down until sales begin to approach zero.
This graph is known as a long-tailed graph, because while the number of products selling well (the Head) is very short, the graph of all the products selling in small quantities is very, very long. This is the Long Tail: and what is happening in this part of the graph is remarkable.
Binning the traditional Pareto approach
In the classic ‘bricks and mortar’ shopping environment, the focus has always been on high-selling items: the hits, the bestsellers and the blockbusters.
The prevailing law known as the Pareto effect or Pareto’s law has been that 80% of all the profits arise from just 20% of the goods available – the so-called ’80/20 Rule’. Poor-selling goods are too costly to store and are therefore ruthlessly purged from the shelves.
The reason for this is pure economics. Low-selling products take up expensive shelf-space and can quickly become unprofitable unless they sell in large numbers. The result for consumers is very limited choice, blandness and lowest-common-denominator offerings that appeal to a broad mass of people, but are not suited for the unique tastes and preferences of each individual.
The emerging importance of the long tail
In the online world however, it is possible to offer up a vast array of products even if they sell in very small numbers. Customers can use powerful search tools to sift through this vast range in order to find exactly what they are looking for. What happens is that when a wide choice of products is available, consumers gravitate away from the Head down into the Tail. They seek out products that are more customised to their own individual needs. A thriving market develops for niche items that would never have been apparent in marketplaces rooted in the real world. This movement away from the Head looks set to increase over the coming years.
As customers are migrating towards the tail, small online producers avail of minimal distribution costs to sell their products, so the Long Tail is getting longer as well as fatter. The total market in the Tail is becoming much larger than in the past. Not only is it large, but very profitable too.
The Age of the Niche
With the Internet and the development of the Long Tail, the age of the niche has arrived. This points to a longer-term fragmentation of society, where people are defined less by their geography than by their interests and values. Authority figures have limited impact, news media has less influence, micro-celebrities become more prevalent and mass-advertising becomes less effective. Good or bad, the Long Tail idea gives us an insight into the way the world is beginning to change.
The long tail and search marketing
Understanding the importance of the long tail impacts on search engine marketing in two key areas:
Keywords that may have been ignored as being too niche are now being looked at as an increasingly important part of any keyword strategy. Ongoing keyword research is essential for sustainable SEO anyway, but now make sure you cross-reference with data sources outside Google that can give you more information and insight into what users are really looking for. Try talking to your sales teams or consulting your onsite search analytics to see what people are looking and asking for once they reach your website – there’s often valuable data on longer tail search queries to be found here.
On page optimisation
On page content must reflect this research and be built into your websites content in a user friendly way rather than simply aiming to target the broad match and high volume terms to the exclusion of all else. As well as well optimised product, service and landing pages, look at supporting content areas like a blog, knowledgebase or other “hub” that you can use to help target those user-driven queries and draw in more visitors to make them aware of your brand, even if they aren’t necessarily searching something that means they’re in Buy Now mode.
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