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The Long Tail Is Dead -- Long Live the Long Tail

wright-tony
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No words more true could be said of the state of search engine marketing today. Despite the various dichotomies of many dispersed advertisers, the use of the ubiquitous “long tail” has been an assumption that search engine marketers have been making for some time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at a conference with a search expert encouraging the entire audience to squeeze as much out of this mysterious long tail entity as possible.

The Long Tail Concept

For those unfamiliar with the concept, the long tail is a theory that makes sense for anyone looking at a large range of analytics data. There are literally thousands of individual queries out there in the search engines that are not specifically bid on, precisely because of their specificity. The idea is to target thousands of keywords that may not, by themselves, make sense to advertise on. However, in aggregate, these keywords can produce a substantial ROI.

Here’s the problem in today’s market. The price for all keywords is rising. Search is not the well-kept secret it once was, and targeting the long tail is becoming increasingly more difficult to do in a direct response campaign. Also, the advent of overarching “broad” terms has made it dangerous to target the long tail for smaller advertisers. Get one term wrong and forget to turn the match type off of broad, and you can ruin your click-through rate – or worse, race through your budget faster than Lindsay Lohan downs a bottle of vodka.

The fact has always been that less than 20 percent of your keywords will drive 90 percent of your conversions. There are stats, studies, and anecdotal evidence galore to assert this assumption, as there are certainly exceptions to this rule. But anyone who has run many search campaigns in different verticals knows this to be the case.

Long Tail Strategy

Until recently, our agency’s process has included trying to identify any and every keyword a searcher might ever type in to find our client’s product or service. We also scour historical analytical data to ensure we didn’t miss anything. This usually results in a keyword list of thousands. Even at minimum bids, these keywords can get expensive to bid on – especially if a competitor in the same space is targeting them as well.

The problem comes not from the legitimate clicks that derive from this “tail” of keywords – but from the information seekers, the price shoppers, and the downright errant or fraudulent clicks. Sure, there aren’t many of them, but in aggregate (just as the long tail is supposed to work), these clicks can add up to a chunk of change. And for an advertiser on a limited search marketing budget, this money comes out of what is allotted for the performing keywords – the 20 percent of keywords that convert consistently but are usually darn expensive to maintain.

So what’s a search marketer to do? We want to have it all. We want to target the long tail but still be able to fund our main keywords. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have easy answers for most, but here are a few tips that can help you determine if you should even be playing in the long tail.

Tips for Playing the Long Tail

The first step is to create separate campaigns with separate budgets for your long tail keywords and your main keywords. Make sure that the lion’s share of the budget goes toward the main keywords and watch that campaign closely. I don’t even like to use bid management software on this campaign and make all of the changes manually.

If your main keyword campaign is spending all of its budget every day, chances are your share of voice in that campaign is not adequate and you are losing conversions by targeting the long tail. The only way to know is to shift the long tail budget over for a while and see if your conversion rate scales. Of course, if your conversion rate for your tail keywords exceeds that of your main keywords, you’ve probably got some keywords mis-categorized. Find out which words are and move them to the main campaign.

If you are maxed out on impressions for your main keywords or have reached a point of diminishing returns, the long tail is a viable option for you. This usually happens more often with advertisers who have hefty budgets. After all, SEM is all about using budgets as efficiently as possible, especially in a direct response campaign.


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