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Marketing in the Search Tail: Is the Pain Worth the Gain?

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Popular search terms tend to dominate the headlines, but there are literally millions of unique searches conducted every day, and savvy search marketers are taking advantage of the opportunities in the "search tail."

In fact, Google estimates that nearly 50 percent of all searches are one-of-a-kind. That's more than 100 million unique searches per day on Google alone.

These people aren't entering words like "travel" or "books." These are searchers who know what they want. These folks are searching for things like "virgin island bare boat charter company" or "Grohe plumbing supplies Aspen Colorado" It's hard to imagine all the variations people might enter into a search engine, and it's this incredible diversity that offers a significant opportunity for marketers.

You'll often hear this phenomenon described as the "search tail." If you're not sure what people are referring to, try visualizing a graph. Plot all search queries along the horizontal axis and plot the frequency of each query along the vertical axis. Place the most popular searches at the far left, followed by the somewhat popular searches, followed by less frequent searches, and finally the one-of-a-kind searches on the far right.

Here's what you'll find. There are only a few queries that have a very high frequency (yes, a lot of people search for Britney Spears, iPod and MP3). But the graph quickly flattens out into an extremely long "tail" that contains millions of less popular and unique searches. This tail is significant because cumulatively, it outnumbers the more popular searches at the head of the graph. In fact, if any marketer plots all searches conducted for a company, or a product, or a topic, a similar result will appear.

Worth the Marketing Effort?

Search marketers are asking themselves, should I be advertising on all these extremely relevant but hard-to-identify phrases? What is the best way to pursue the queries found in the tail and, most importantly, is the time and effort worth the gain? In essence, should I be chasing the long tail of search?

This very question was explored at the recent Search Engine Strategies conference in Chicago, Illinois. Pay-per-click (PPC) experts Harrison Magun, vice-president of Avenue A | Razorfish Search, and Kevin Lee, executive chairman and co-founder, of Did-It.com discussed the implications of advertising in the search tail.

First, Lee explained that the search graph described above also corresponds to a sales funnel, or buying cycle. People at the very beginning of their buying process are usually in the head of the search graph. They enter very general, one- and two-word searches. Typically, these folks are in basic research or fact-finding mode. As they become clearer on what they are looking for, they tend to enter longer, more specific search queries and move toward the right of the graph.

When they are absolutely certain about what they want to do or buy, they enter very specific, longer, often unique search queries—which fall in the tail of the graph. This fact is significant for marketers, because it means that the phrases found in the search tail are generally entered by people who are the most ready to purchase or take action.

Match Technology to the Rescue!

Advertisers can quickly become overwhelmed just thinking about finding all of these unique phrases, let alone managing ad copy, landing pages and bids for all of these keywords. For this reason, search engines developed broad matching technology (called Advanced Match at Yahoo) to help marketers easily advertise across keyword variations.

For example, if you broad match on the keyword "weight loss," your ad is eligible to be displayed for a search on, of course, weight loss. But your ad may also be displayed for a search on weight loss program, fast weight loss, weight loss supplement, weight loss surgery, and Paris Hilton weight loss. Problem solved? Well, maybe.

Kevin Lee reminded advertisers that they also must understand how each engine positions ads based on these match types. There are significant differences.

  • Yahoo rewards advertisers who expand their keyword lists to include the plethora of phrases found in the search tail. This is because Yahoo ALWAYS positions an ad that is an exact match with a search query above an ad that is a broad match—regardless of bid amount.
  • Google and MSN do not use match type as a factor when determining ad position. All ads compete against each other regardless of whether the advertiser selects exact, phrase or broad match. Ad position is determined by bid amount, popularity and quality/relevance.

Let's explore how this might play out. Let's say you and I are selling iPods online and we are both running Yahoo pay-per-click ad campaigns.

I am advance matching on a single keyword: "ipod," and I'm bidding $25.

You are bidding on all of these keyword phrases:

  • ipod mini
  • ipod nano
  • ipod nano accessories
  • ipod nano cover
  • pink ipod nano cover

and you're only bidding $5 for each of these terms.

If a searcher goes to Yahoo and enters "ipod nano cover," your ad will always be shown above mine (regardless of how your match option is set for this word). This is because the searcher's query is an exact match with your keyword and is a broad match with my keyword, so your ad is placed above mine, even though I'm bidding much more than you. Therefore, on Yahoo, marketers gain an advantage by building out keyword lists and including as many search tail phrases as possible.

What about Google and MSN? Should you simply rely on their broad match technology to advertise against all the phrases found in the tail? Maybe not. Studies clearly show that ads that are an exact match with a searcher's query garner a higher click-through-rate (CTR). And a higher CTR means better ad position for the money. So it's probably worth the time and effort to expand keywords and write corresponding copy across all ad networks.

Finding Search Tail Phrases

How do marketers find and test all of these keywords? Lee and Magun suggest analyzing web logs. Look at what visitors searched for before clicking-through to your site. Add these specific phrases to your keyword list. Also, use the keyword tools provided by Google, Yahoo, Wordtracker and many others.

Both experts discussed the challenges associated with testing a large number of keywords. First, it can take a significant amount of time to gather adequate data. For this reason, Lee stressed, "be aggressive to start. Set budgets and bids high." With so few searches on these phrases, your ad needs to be displayed on every possible match and in a high position so you can gather conversion data as quickly as possible.

Harrison Magun shared some surprising information on the amount of data required to make an accurate decision on keyword effectiveness. Statisticians will love this: If a keyword has a 1 percent conversion rate, you will need 25,000 clicks to make a decision on keyword ROI (that's a decision with 10 percent accuracy and 90 percent confidence). "The point is," Magun stressed, "most marketers waste time analyzing insufficient data and making incorrect decisions. How often have you thought, '100 clicks and no conversions... I'm going to dump this keyword!' This is likely a premature decision, especially for a phrase found in the search tail."

Because it takes time to gather adequate data on a key phrase like "Virgin Island bare boat charter dive trip," Lee and Magun suggest that marketers cluster keywords to see trends sooner. For example, you might need to analyze—as a group—the effectiveness of all keywords having to do with "bare boat charter" or all words related to "dive trip."

A second challenge is that it can be difficult or impossible to adhere to proper testing protocol. It could take 150 days, or longer, to collect an adequate amount of data for a group of keywords in the tail. All other campaign variables should remain constant during the test period, right? Is it really feasible to refrain from changing bids, landing pages or ad copy during a five month period? Probably not.

"Remember", Lee added, "this is an online marketplace... a real-time auction... and you're not the only one who might impact your data. What if your competitor suddenly changes their bidding strategy or their offer? This could have a significant impact on your results."

Finally, both Lee and Magun stressed that keywords (whether in the search head or tail) are only ONE of many variables marketers should be testing, analyzing and improving. Pay-per-click advertising is a multi-faceted discipline, and marketers should not become obsessed with chasing keywords at the expense of improving ad copy, landing pages or developing a sound bidding strategy.

Bottom line: The long, long tail of search not only is where things get difficult, but also interesting and profitable. Advertising in the tail will differentiate you from your competition and allow you to find conversions at a great value. But savvy search marketers realize that chasing the tail requires time, effort, money, solid analytics and, yes... patience!

Patricia Hursh is president and founder of SmartSearch Marketing a full-service search engine marketing agency serving clients in consumer and b-to-b markets.


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