SEO and the long tail

by Kes Phelps 4 October 2011 Guest posts, Popular, SEO

If you’ve been around in SEO circles for very long you will no doubt have heard of the hallowed ‘long tail’. But what exactly is this curious beast, and why is it so important to understand?

The ‘long tail’ is a much talked-about concept in internet search circles, but one that is generally poorly understood – especially amongst clients, who most need to grasp its importance before they sign off on your marketing strategy for their site.

In fact, the term ‘long tail’ itself isn’t that useful, since it refers to a graph depicting a particular quirk of probability distribution. This is hardly the most useful illustration, unless your audience is well versed in statistics.

Going fishing

The graph itself represents the reality that a ‘population’ (or market, in this case) is composed roughly equally of a small number of large players and a large number of small players (the graph’s ‘long tail’). In practice, there are better ways of explaining the concept than with a graph.

Let’s say you’re a fisherman with a small boat, making a living by selling fish by the pound to local restaurants. You could go about this two ways. You could pour all of your time and effort into catching one of the rare but huge fish out there, fulfilling your month’s quota in one major coup. The problem with that is that there are other, bigger players around who are far better equipped to hunt the big fish, and they’re likely to get there first every single time.

The atún’s tasty, but merluza are easier to catch

The alternative is to cast your net wide, looking to catch the small fish that the other hunters tend to ignore. OK, so they won’t make you rich overnight. But the thing to remember is that they are an easy win. Competition for these fish is low – sometimes even non-existent. Because they’re so plentiful and easy to catch, they soon start to add up: as the old Scots saying goes, many a mickle makes a muckle. It’s far quicker, cheaper and easier to catch your quota of fish this way than it is to stake everything on snaring that one prized leviathan of the deep. It’s a strategy that works for the humpback whale, which effortlessly filters tons of minuscule plankton out of the sea water rather than going for the occasional big prey, like a killer whale.

Online fish

The same principle goes for the long tail of internet search. It’s hard work – not to mention prohibitively expensive and time-consuming – to target a broad keyword, even if it does get millions of searches a month.

Try to rank for ‘shoes’, for example, and you stand no chance. But collect some of the smaller, more specific and relevant searches that have comparatively little competition – ‘sports shoes London’, ‘tennis shoes London’, ‘London sports shops’ – and you can quickly aggregate more hits than you ever would by aiming for the impossibly ambitious keyword.

The same goes for products. Bookstore owners know they will make good money out of a small number of disproportionately popular titles – the Harry Potter series and Dan Brown’s books, for example. But they also know that most of their income isn’t going to come from those books. It’s going to come from the hundreds or thousands of books they sell in small numbers: the odd copy here and there that all adds up.

Long tail = higher conversion rate

Lack of competition isn’t the only factor, though. Because these terms are very specific, the conversion rate is vastly superior. If you somehow manage to rank for one of the broad terms, you are going to be inundated with masses of irrelevant hits. Your traffic will rise, but few of these hits will lead to a sale.

For example, if you market commercial property in London but simply aim to rank for ‘property’, the majority of your site’s visitors won’t be interested. They will include people looking for residential property, people outside of London and outside the UK, and so on.

But the long tail keywords indicate that the visitor is looking for something quite specific, and is far more likely to buy it when they find it on your site. Experience suggests that perhaps only 1-3 percent of high-traffic but broad keywords actually convert. For specific queries in the long tail, that rises to around 50 percent. Look at it this way. If you own a store that sells left-handed golf clubs, who would you rather walks through your doors in a day: 1,000 golfers, or 1,000 left-handed golfers?

In addition, the reported figures for the number of broad keyword searches are often inaccurate. The reason for this is that they are artificially inflated by site owners misguidedly chasing the big fish, and then continually entering their own search terms to check where they rank! These ‘fake’ searches can account for around a third of the total in some cases – further decreasing your conversion rate if you target those terms.

Find your niches

If you’re in any doubt about the effectiveness of understanding and applying the long tail theory, it might help to know that enormously successful online stores like Amazon and eBay operate along just such lines – selling a few products in bulk and many more in smaller numbers.

At the other end of the scale there is the phenomenon of niche websites. These are sites designed to capture traffic for very specific terms – keywords with perhaps only a couple of thousand searches a month, but very little competition. Monetised with AdSense or affiliates, these sites might only make a few pounds a day. But there are lots of people who use portfolios of such sites (often totally unrelated to each other) to bring in a very respectable income.


In summary, then, there are three good reasons why you should target the long tail.

  • Firstly, competition for these terms is low – sometimes even zero – because no one else has bothered to do the work to identify and target them.
  • Secondly, they add up to bring in more traffic than the few ‘head’ terms. Check the analytics from any successful and well-optimised site and you’ll see that as well as the small number of search terms that deliver big traffic, there are dozens or hundreds that each deliver a relative handful of hits. Moreover, you’ll probably see that the totals of each are roughly equal. Ignoring the long tail means you could be cutting your potential traffic in half.
  • And thirdly, the conversion rate for long-tail terms is an order of magnitude higher than the broad searches because they are so specific, indicating that the visitor to your site knows exactly what they want and will buy it when they find it.

These lead to one very obvious bottom line: long tail terms are far more lucrative. Target the long tail and you will see a far higher ROI than if you spend unnecessary time and money going after the prestigious ‘big’ terms.

  • Kes Phelps is an SEO consultant specialising in link building and director at . Kes focuses on gaining high quality links to increase traffic and rankings, using tactics that safeguard the client’s brand values.

Tags: , ,