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

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.”

A longer version of this story for Search Engine Watch members explains how to use search engine matching technologies to play in the search tail, how to find search tail keywords, how to benchmark and analyze the effectiveness of various keyword combinations, and more. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

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 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.


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.

A longer version of this story for Search Engine Watch members explains how to use search engine matching technologies to play in the search tail, how to find search tail keywords, how to benchmark and analyze the effectiveness of various keyword combinations, and more. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

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