Long-Tail Criticisms – Applications for SEO

The phrase The Long Tail was popularized by Chris Anderson in Wired magazine in 2004. The statistical model with the cool name is primarily used to describe marketing models seen primarily in large firms like Amazon.com, Ebay, or Netflix.

Rather than discussing the mathematical nuances of long-tail, this article aims at debunking some myths associated with search engine optimization and the supposed ‘holy grail’ status of long-tail. Many SEOs have praised the new information and tout its ‘powers’ as crucial to any web sites success. DistinctSEO will invite a special guest to talk about the ‘pros’ of long-tail, but in the meantime, let’s look practical applications from an SEO standpoint.


The long-tail is the colloquial name for a long-known feature of statistical distributions (Zipf, Power laws, Pareto distributions and/or general Lévy distributions ). The feature is also known as “heavy tails”, “power-law tails” or “Pareto tails”. What does all this mean? Nothing if you can’t understand it. Here is an image to explain the basic premise of the ‘long-tail’ concept:

Long-Tail

The Y-axis represents hits to your site and the X-axis represents the keywords used for each hit. The idea: the red area representing the top searches in your niche area and generally most competitive will equate to the summation of the green area, the less popular and less competitive keywords.

Many SEOs and marketers alike are starting to stress the importance of the long-tail, not only for marketing purposes, but for optimization as well.

“Don’t focus heavily on your the most competitive keywords when you can garner the same traffic by optimizing for the words in the long-tail.”

Although on the surface this appears to be a logical tactic, however, you must go deeper before accepting the long-tail as a crucial component of your SEO objectives and strategies. Let’s look at some issues one by one.

1. Is Long-Tail Practical For All Websites?

Although every web site has unrecognized value hidden in long-tail, is it really worth the time and effort to expand a small web site to reflect the long-tail? Here’s an example: Assuming the top ten keywords for you particular industry account for 5% of the long-tail; you’ve optimized 5 pages for the ten keywords. In order to recognize the remaining long-tail keywords you must build content to ‘capture’ the extra 95%. If 5 pages acoutned for 5% of the long-tail, you need to create another 95 pages to accommodate the remainder. Yes, there are more efficient ways to write content so you don’t have the keyword/web page ratio I’ve displayed, however, for many small web site owners this is a huge investment to consider.

(As an aside, I won’t make the argument that small web sites will run out of content to accommodate the extra 95%. The more distinct and narrow your industry the less keywords you will likely have in your entire long-tail distribution.)

The biggest success stories of long-tail are HUGE online firms like Amazon.com. (For the record I’m guessing their Long-Tail looks more like rectangles than curves….) However, Amazon.com also likely has the largest online inventory; it has been said that every day their long-tail changes completely (yesterday’s top 10 keywords are not today’s top ten.) Can small firms necessarily expand to accommodate fringe keywords? Although the investment of expansion (of your business and the subsequent SEO) may pay off in untapped market areas, one should have the practical business sense to limit their growth to their expertise/distinct capabilties. This may involve ignoring long-tail results. Remember, is your objective to make more sales or to get as much traffic as possible? I’m guessing the former.

2. Does Long-Tail Really Mean More Traffic?

Here’s the thing, long-tail graphs only depict the organic traffic you’re already ranking for. If you concentrate your energies on the long-tail you’re suggesting that a) there is an existing market for those obscure keywords, and b) you don’t already rank in the top five for the keywords (risking spending time where you don’t have to.) Hopefully the LT and other statistical tools will help your draw the line between worthy and not so worthy content.

(There are PPC (pay-per-click) componenets to this question, however, we’ll let our guest writer explain this position in better detail in another article.)

There still, however, remains a dilemma to the SEO/Webmaster. Should you expand content or not? Luckily there ARE practical methods of attacking long-tail keywords. An easy tactic to accomplish this is running an online forum. Each new post and forum category is another opportunity to find and tap keywords you haven’t directly optimized for. Your long-tail may grow since the forum incorporates many categories giving you added insight into your market. Conversely, the long-tail is larger with a forum because you have opted to include more and more content. Don’t get confused on how you derived your LT results.

3. What About the Interval?

Here is a statistical item to consider, what about intervals? The interval is represented by the dashed vertical line in the image above. If you’re a stats guru you probably run your own long-tail data through you own analyses. For those of you who use online programs there are issues to consider.

One Long-Tail program (online) I use ONLY calculates the top TEN keywords as part of the ‘hot-zone’ and let’s everything else fall into the ‘long-tail’. Usually this means my interval sits around 80%. This for some may seem to big or too small. The position of your interval will dictate how big your long-tail is, it can be moved.

By merely considering the top 10 keywords as your ‘hot words’ you could be spending too much time on words that are too competitive. Conversely, if you go too far down the long-tail, all the way to the end, you will spend too much time on words that will never garner returns. To get a better idea where to draw the line one should choose to run their own statistical confidence intervals and standard distributions to narrow the long-tail field. If you’re going to invest the time to expand content to accommodate LT then you mind as well spend the time excluding keywords that may never be profitable.

In conclusion, the Long-tail applications for SEO are viable. This is another tool to be used in trying to decipher how the market reacts and where the traffic lies within your particular niche. However, reliance on supposed SEO wonders that LT will produce is wishful thinking. This is a great content building tool for the a web site ready to accommodate an increase in content/product. Before major SEO and content decisions consider the size of your expansion and what you can handle, and various methods you can accommodate portions of the LT (not the entire thing.) Understanding its applications can certainly expand your traffic, LT can help–converting traffic is another matter.

[tags]longtail, long tail[/tags]

3 Comments

  1. > Although every web site has unrecognized value hidden in long-tail, is it really worth the time and effort to expand a small web site to reflect the long-tail?

    That’s where competitive intelligence comes into play. It shouldn’t be too much extra time, but rather make the time you already spend on content expansion more efficient. So, out of the extremely long list time-wasting list of words that you MIGHT optimize for, only a very small list is primed for instant results in search. The objective is to zero right in on that sweet spot.

    And in regard to the point about traffic vs. qualified visitors, this sweet spot of well-primed words are almost always created BY potentially qualified visitors. Chasing the right portion of the long tail can result in a site that increasingly targets uniquely qualified prospects.

    > One Long-Tail program (online) I use ONLY calculates the top TEN keywords as part of the ‘hot-zone’ and let’s everything else fall into the ‘long-tail’.

    We only do that as a matter of convenience. In fact, the entire long tail chart when you log in is just to communicate the fact that you really are dealing with long tail data. It has nothing to do with which words you should choose to optimize on. We have to communicate this more effectively and have even toyed with removing everything but the Suggestions tab. But that would make for one boring site.

    And of course the final thought is that [even] we only think of long tail targeting as a convenient entry-point to the world of SEO. By letting SEOs and even your average marketer pick the low hanging fruit and see results quickly, we can generally pump up the excitement level around the entire field. And more so than offering any sort of holy grail of marketing (a term that’s being used more and more to describe our service), that’s what we’re trying to do.

  2. Thaanks for the comments Mike

    >>That’s where competitive intelligence comes into play. It shouldn’t be too much extra time, but rather make the time you already spend on content expansion more efficient. So, out of the extremely long list time-wasting list of words that you MIGHT optimize for, only a very small list is primed for instant results in search. The objective is to zero right in on that sweet spot.< <

    Picking an choosing is important yes, but my Long tail has 20 000 words.... where would I start? And how would I know it's worth my time (assuming sole-proprietorship where time and resources are limited.)

    >>We only do that as a matter of convenience. In fact, the entire long tail chart when you log in is just to communicate the fact that you really are dealing with long tail data. It has nothing to do with which words you should choose to optimize on. We have to communicate this more effectively and have even toyed with removing everything but the Suggestions tab. < <

    It's a pretty bit deal statistically that you only use top ten. I see you point about only worrying about long tail data, but if I want to play the stats game and call for keywords in a close proximity to the 'hot spot' zone, what's to say these words aren't better suited as 'hot zone words'?

    >>And of course the final thought is that [even] we only think of long tail targeting as a convenient entry-point to the world of SEO. By letting SEOs and even your average marketer pick the low hanging fruit and see results quickly, we can generally pump up the excitement level around the entire field. And more so than offering any sort of holy grail of marketing (a term that’s being used more and more to describe our service), that’s what we’re trying to do. <<

    I coined holy grail at SEOChat saying it’s NOT the holy grail :P It’s merely presenting log data in a new format. Useful, absolutely, holy grail? I don’t think so, a good stats program should show the same results.

  3. > Picking an choosing is important yes, but my Long tail has 20 000 words…. where would I start? And how would I know it’s worth my time (assuming sole-proprietorship where time and resources are limited.)

    That’s what the Suggestion tab is for. It turns out to only be 5% of the overall list. So, of the 20,000 terms, probably only 1000 would be issued of suggestions. And since they’re issued in real-time as the hits occur, once you’ve paired your way through the original 1000 words, you typically only a few suggestions per day come in for consideration.

    > It’s a pretty bit deal statistically that you only use top ten. I see you point about only worrying about long tail data, but if I want to play the stats game and call for keywords in a close proximity to the ‘hot spot’ zone, what’s to say these words aren’t better suited as ‘hot zone words’?

    Yeah, we thought long and hard about it. What is the “head” and what is the “tail”? We wanted everyone to be verbalizing the same comparison so they would be apples-to-apples. In other words, we wanted everyone to be saying “My top-10 keywords accounted for 20% of my traffic, while all the rest accounted for 80%”.

    We chose hot zone words greatly based on how likely they are to achieve first page positions once optimized on. Close proximity matches are good too, which is another reason we show the inclusive Keywords tab and score for everything instead of just the Suggestions tab. Many people choose words from the Keywords tab, which are deemed “already optimized” or “not worth it” for further optimization. Our Suggestion alg is tweaked for people with busy schedules, so it’s only a small lists with super-charged potential. We encourage going beyond it, time allowing.

    > I coined holy grail at SEOChat saying it’s NOT the holy grail It’s merely presenting log data in a new format. Useful, absolutely, holy grail? I don’t think so, a good stats program should show the same results.

    I’ve seen us referred to as “not the holy grail” in several places. It may be that people spontaneously think to say that after watching our demo, which sort of suggests that it’s a spectacular new marketing approach. No stats program is going to show the same results as HitTail in part due to our algorithms and in part due to the data collected by HitTail from the user. Analytics packages are one-way reports, while HitTailing is an iterative process.

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