Are You Chasing the Wrong Long Tail?

Chances are you’re chasing the wrong tail.

Most search marketers associate search’s long tail with large keyword lists that include the lesser-searched phrases, not just those obvious popular phrases that are easier to research and select.

In truth, keywords are only one of many ways to segment target audiences based on what they are truly searching for (their needs). Most important, as advertisers we must understand all the segmentation opportunities that will predict how well searchers will convert and whether these searchers will be good customers (high-value lifetime customers) or not.

I’ve had the honor of speaking at three major online/SEM (define) conferences this month. Even though the mix of attendees was different at all three conferences, a common concern among participants was they haven’t expanded their keyword lists sufficiently to cover the tail. The reality is phrase match and broad match can be used intelligently to capture much of the tail without knocking one’s brain out.

Instead of thinking about the tail purely from the perspective of keyword searches that are increasingly rare (infrequently searched), look at additional targeting methods that can slice and dice the traffic in the search distribution head in new ways.

Power keywords are those popular keywords that may occur early in the research stages of many consumers’ decision-making processes, but a big chunk of these consumers may be ready to buy or close to it. By analyzing post-click behavior of visitors using these power keywords, we can intelligently create our own tail and, therefore, improve our chances of capturing the searchers who are of greatest value to our businesses. We can create several obvious tails, but we must keep segmentation analysis balanced between reach/scale and improved targeting:

  • Geography. With the launch of Yahoo’s Panama, all three major search engines now allow us to set up campaigns specifically targeting geographical segments. Google even gives us additional screen real estate (on the right rail only) if the ad is geographically targeted. After looking at geographic data sets, I’ve found that segmenting at the designated market area (DMA) level is better for most clients than segmenting at the state level. However, look at your data to determine what’s best for you. Though zip code or radius-level targeting is available from most providers, you’ll have to decide how far out in the geographic tail you want to venture.

    City- or metro-specific areas follow a typical power-law curve, so look at the list and decide what makes sense for you. If you can improve the searcher experience through front-end ad copy as well as landing page personalization, make sure you take these steps: don’t simply clone a national campaign for the local markets.

  • Daypart. Searchers for your product or service may be very different people at different times of day. If you can segment your dayparts and personalize for them, you’ve created another tail.
  • Demographic segments. MSN allows us to create a tail based on age and gender, which could provide particularly important targeting variables for your business. Age and gender alone can result in significant additional permutations you can use in your campaign structure. Do the analysis on your business to see if creating an age and gender tail makes sense for you.

If adding these tail options to your existing keyword lists don’t seem all that complicated, consider what happens when you combine the above options together. Each combination creates a smaller, more focused segment. That’s why doing the math is important. Creating segments just because you can is a waste of energy and time. Creating segments that improve conversion and fit while improving user experience is an investment that pays potentially huge dividends.

It’s also important to remember that searcher intent in the long tail, once a searcher gets far out into the tail, becomes less likely to provide perfect matches with what larger advertisers have to sell (with the exception perhaps of eBay). Therefore, larger advertisers should focus on segmentation because it becomes more likely that a smaller niche advertiser will be able to serve the market of the tail better than a larger advertiser. This is one reason search engines continue to recruit advertisers, particularly local and niche advertisers, whose paid listings are likely to meet the needs of tail searchers.

An easy way to see how smaller advertisers are often serving the tail’s needs better than larger advertisers is to search Google for a local service without specifying local intent (i.e., don’t specify the city when searching). If you’re searching from an IP address or cookie profile, the paid listings will almost always be more relevant than the organic listings because the organic results aren’t tuned to geography (nor can they easily be tuned due to the ambiguity of location for most domain/page geographic relevance). Try “cosmetic surgery” or “accountant.” Depending on how many local advertisers are in your area, the paid listings may be dramatically more relevant.

Make your campaigns more powerful and more relevant at the same time. Manage the tail, don’t let the tail manage you.

Meet Kevin at Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, December 4-7, at the Hilton Chicago.

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Screenshot shows a Google search for outdoor grills, the shopping ads shows images with “in store” showing the product is available nearby.