Why You Shouldn’t Optimize Only for the Long Tail

You’re about to build a new site from scratch. You have great content. You have a search engine friendly site architecture. You have plans for a great link building campaign, and you’re ready to get active in social media.

So how long will it take to start getting great traffic from search engines, and, what will that traffic look like? Great question!

The reality is that it takes some time. The time is quite variable, however.

Trust and Authority

If you have a great PR campaign that gets you exposure to, and links from, lots of trusted and authoritative sites, things will go faster for you. If your PR machine isn’t powerful enough to do that for you, and you have to rely solely on other types of link building methods, it will take a bit longer. Six months is a figure many in the industry have suggested, and that represents a pretty good working estimate for when you’ll first have interesting levels of traffic after launching a brand new site.

There are many reasons for this. One key underlying reason is that search engines have a bit of a wait-and-see attitude to determine whether they can “trust” your site.

This used to be referred to as the “sandbox.” It was believed that you wouldn’t see material gains in traffic for a fixed time. These days, it doesn’t seem so binary, but there’s continuous evaluation of how trusted a site is, which can be affected by the rate at which you add links from other sites, and how trusted each of those sites are.

The notion of evaluating trust was first well defined by a Yahoo published paper, and then later updated and patented by Google. Although both documents focus on the issue of trust, they are different in several ways. The important takeaway is that the search engines evaluate how much they trust a site.

What Will the Traffic Growth Look Like?

Even with the recent May Day update by Google, which affected a less trusted site’s ability to get long tail traffic, the early stages of a new site will get most of its traffic from long tail terms. Over time, as the site adds links, the traffic will grow, and start spreading into terms that are “not so long tail” (a.k.a., the “chunky middle”) (i.e., a bit higher search volume terms). Later still, with quality marketing and link building efforts, traffic will start to come from some of top terms (a.k.a., the “head terms”) related to your space.

This chart captures what the distribution between types of search terms might look like:

New Site Traffic

Of course, the specifics of the shape of your site’s performance may vary significantly, but the general shape of the curve is correct for most sites. The key point is that it will start with the long tail, and only evolve into other types of search terms over a period of time.

This doesn’t mean that you should optimize only for the long tail. You should build a site that can capitalize on the levels of trust that the site experiences over time.

Keeping in mind that cash flow is strategic (it gives you money to reinvest), it’s a great idea to make sure your site has the right elements in place to get long tail traffic early. However, to see optimal traffic growth over time, you need the right site architecture and a broad range of keywords that are addressed on the site. Also, you only move through this type of progression if you’re marketing (and building links to) your site effectively, so don’t skimp on that part of your marketing efforts!

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