Search’s Long Tail and SEO

Last time, I gave a brief review of the long tail search theory. I suggested there’s an expansive treasure trove of search engine referrals that remain unexploited by marketers, primarily because these untargeted phrases exist beyond the realm of branded keywords. Consequently, online marketers would be wise to build campaigns outside of popular brand names to garner targeted traffic from search’s long tail.

At first blush, it would appear that chasing long tail search referrals would be a natural extension of PPC (define) advertising. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to sustain long tail campaigns in the major search engines, given the low CTRs (define) inherent to long tail search queries, an annoyance that can put extensive long-tail-oriented keyword lists on hold.

Long tail search referrals are the onesies and twosies we find in the dregs of our log files. These referrals can be two-, three-, four-, and even five-word combinations that form distinctive, nearly unique search queries. If not PPC, how can we possibly pursue the long tail?

The only viable option for procuring long tail search referrals is natural search, but this is much easier said than done. Unless, of course, the site’s content management structure or e-commerce platform happens to be built on a blog-like publishing system.

The blogosphere has revealed much about creating optimally structured, search-engine-friendly content. By making it easy to publish articles, link, tag, track-back, sort, and archive topical conversations, blogs have given us valuable insight into which SEO (define) tactics currently carry the most weight with the search engines, their collective deference to keyword-rich URLs not withstanding.

Many corporate and e-commerce sites are expansive and exceedingly complex, pulling different objects and common elements from a series of databases compiled on the fly while creating unique session identification parameters for tracking personal preferences and the like. These complex sites are designed to enhance the user experience while encouraging sales transactions or other desired actions. These sites are the antithesis of blogs.

To make multifarious commercial sites search-engine-friendly, often nothing short of an extreme makeover is required. Complex URLs must be redefined and rewritten in a way that takes them closer to the root. For example, =ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ?_requestid=12345 should be transformed into These changes must be able to scale across the entire site.

Once the old URLs are cast off and the new, simplified ones are in place, you must restructure your site’s presence in the search engines with permanent redirects, construct a robust robots.txt file to minimize content duplication, potentially replace embedded or appended navigation with a crawler-friendly format, and reconstruct pages to include unique title tags, meta descriptions, and a header tag hierarchy.

Even then, other issues can remain barriers to optimal performance for long tail search results, such as general business rules, routine site maintenance, and tracking and reporting metrics. If you’re going to successfully optimize a site beyond branded search referrals to include unbranded search queries, you have to make a business case for what could be an expensive site overhaul.

The ammunition for such an argument resides in yielding pages, those parts of a site that currently secure measurable search-referred traffic. With this data you can craft an argument for pursuing long tail, unbranded search referrals.

To understand the difference between pages that yield search-referred traffic and those that don’t, first determine how many publicly accessible pages exist within the site. Then drill down the metrics to determine what percentage of pages receive search-referred traffic and what behaviors are exhibited by those visitors.

The goal is to transform unbranded, non-yielding pages into keyword-influenced, yielding pages that produce results. Many sites attain a yielding page average of 15 percent, which means 85 percent of the site doesn’t benefit from search-referred traffic. Consider what a site’s performance would be if yielding pages were increased to 20, 30, or 40 percent. How would these increases affect revenue year over year? Within the numbers are data that make the case for long tail search.

There’s an exponential element in play when search’s long tail is targeted. Studies show search-referred visitors tend to review five or six pages when clicking on a search engine snippet. They stay with a site longer than their non search-referred counterparts, who only click on a page or two. As a result, search-referred visitors tend to generate greater returns in terms of average sales or ads delivered.

When you target search’s long tail, you extend search engine visibility to heighten overall search referrals by creating greater yield. The long tail isn’t a threat to branded search. It’s a well-rounded, unbranded complement to natural search engine referrals.

Join us for Search Engine Strategies in Chicago, December 4-7, at the Hilton Chicago.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

Related reading

Brand Top Level Domains