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How to Chase the Long Tail

enge-eric
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You've probably heard a lot about the long tail of search. Publishers that understand how to leverage the existence of the long tail can reap rich awards for their efforts, but chasing it isn't easy, as we'll illustrate today by using a fictional golf club business as an example.

First, here's a chart of what the long tail looks like:

Long Tail of Search

A common belief is that the head and middle terms make up about 30 percent of all search queries, leaving 70 percent of search volume in the long tail. To further understand our long tail chart, here's a look as some sample search terms for each segment of the chart, courtesy of Wordtracker.

Sample Search Terms

You can see the difference between the categories of terms right away. In a brainstorming session about keywords, the management team of our golf club business probably would have put 100 percent of the head terms up on your whiteboard. They might get about half the medium-volume terms, and as for the long tail, chances are that none (or very few of them) will make it onto the management team's list.

What Doesn't Work

Because head terms are easy to identify, it's only natural to chase them as a primary focus on a Web site. In our fictional golf club business, we might implement 20 pages to cover our head terms. We'd have nice content on those pages, smart title tags and heading tags, and call it a day.

Unfortunately, this is what so many sites do, and it provides the search engines with little reason to match you with long tail or even medium tail terms.

The next variation that we might implement would be a site with thousands or tens of thousands of pages, covering each type of golf club product we carry. Because it's difficult to write content for that many pages, most of those pages have little content on them. They probably have a custom title and heading tag, pricing information, and little in the way of a description.

This second approach doesn't work either. Low-content pages are often seen as low-quality pages (depending on the strength of your link profile). They may even be treated as duplicates because there's little perceptible difference to the spiders.

In a third scenario, if the site is an affiliate, it may have a description that was given to them by the manufacturer, which is the same description published on thousands of other sites. This increases the chances that the pages will all be seen as duplicates and filtered out of the SERPs.

To properly chase the long tail, we have two major problems to solve:

  1. Implementing pages that will be seen as quality pages by the search engines.
  2. Providing the spiders with textual content to increase the chances that they will match you up for long tail and medium tail search queries.

There are three approaches to the problem:

Solution #1: User-Generated Content

Some sites have developed a large amount of traffic as a result of incorporating user-generated product reviews or forums onto their site. This method can work particularly well if you have a good amount of traffic to your site already. If you're just starting out, it won't work so well, because empty forums, or a review site without reviews on it, will turn people off.

If you have the traffic, though, it can be a great way to get users to give you content for free. This inherently adds value to your pages and Web site (lots of unique, useful content) that both users and search engines will appreciate.

Solution #2: Machine Generated Content

Conceptually, the idea here is to use a rich database of relevant information and use a software program to generate sentences that express that data on the various pages of your site. This can work, if properly implemented, but doing so can be quite difficult.

For example, a simple word-substitution approach, where you use the exact same sentences on every page and simply do word substitution of the product name, isn't a high quality user experience and isn't respected by search engines either.

Try to vary the sentences based on context as much as you can. Focus on creating a positive user experience with the resulting content, or else you'll run into problems.

I don't advocate this approach, except in rare situations. Machine generating content from a database is tricky business, and users and search engines are quick to recognize when you haven't added any value. If you can figure out how to add value using this approach though, it can work well.

Solution #3: High Volume Content Development

Another solution is to employ a large team of writers and have them crank out large volumes of content. You can enhance this further by not exposing pages until the related content is written.

This sounds as if it would be expensive, which it certainly can be. However, many people will write pretty cheaply these days. I've also used writers in India, Pakistan, and the Philippines with some success, especially when coupled with a review of the resulting articles by an editor based in-country.

Summary

Unless you're in a position to implement reviews and/or forums, there's no easy way to generate unique and valuable content across thousands of pages. This may lead you to ask whether you can afford to chase the long tail. But with 70 percent of the available traffic coming from long tail terms, the better question is, can you afford not to chase it?


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