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What is the Long Tail of Search? Understanding the Principle that Creates Niche Markets

Updated on July 5, 2014

Any would-be marketer who has ever dabbled in the online marketing world – or who has at least acknowledged that they should – most likely has heard some reference to “the long tail,” usually in the context of searches or products. Though people “in the know” refer to the long tail frequently, they rarely offer a definition. This has left many people wondering – just what exactly IS the long tail? Very simply put, the long tail is everything that is not among the big hits or “blockbusters” in a given category. Perhaps you’re wondering how this could be such an essential part of online marketing? Let’s start from the beginning.

The scientific explanation of the long tail

Business people of every stripe have likely heard of the Pareto Principle, also frequently referred to as the 80/20 rule. Essentially, the 80/20 rule states that the top 20% of products will yield 80% of the revenue (or some other severely unequal number). The 80% of products below that magic line is all long tail. The name comes from the fact that, on a graph, that non-hit 80% of products and their resultant revenue looks like a tail attached to the “short head” of super hits.

For added effect -- here's a visual demonstration of the Pareto Principle

What does the Pareto Principle have to do with online marketing?

While the Pareto Principle can be applied to countless things, we’re going to take a look at it in Internet marketing; namely, as it applies to the search engine. Long tail keywords are those that get relatively little traffic, yet also have minimal or non-existent competition for search rankings.

Want a really good, close look at the long tail?

The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More

My personal recommendation for really learning in-depth about the long tail, and just how and why it's important for niche marketers. It goes over exactly what the long tail is, how it presents itself in the online world, and how it can define desirable niches. This is an excellent book that I've added to my personal library.


Let's look at an example: Perhaps your business is selling applications or accessories for the Apple iPad touch screen. While the actual key phrase "Apple iPad touch screen" gets millions of hits (as of 2011), it also returns more than 6 million search results. The vast majority of searchers will only look at the first search engine results page, perhaps even a tiny bit further if they haven’t found what they want yet. On a key phrase like this, you can rest assured they’ll find the desired information quickly. This key phrase pits your site’s ranks against some of the world’s largest wholesalers and retailers, and without the kind of traffic or advertising budget they have you’d sink very quickly. Your search link get buried, and your site receives little or no hits from those millions of searchers.

Zero in on your target market with long tail keywords

In contrast, let’s look at the long tail. Let’s say that your product is a custom carrying case for the Apple iPad, and there are tree frogs in the design. Every other Apple iPad retailer may have accessories, but there’s a good chance you’ll be the only one with a tree frog carrying case. We’re going to say that the phrase “Apple iPad tree frog case” receives about 200 searches each month. While those search numbers are nothing compared to the millions searching for the Apple iPad, there are only four retailers other than yourself who carry a tree frog case. Let’s say the item is out of stock on one site, two others have higher prices or less appealing return policies, and the fourth is less user-friendly than yours, and so you get 155 sales from those 200 searches. Even though this term gets a fraction of the searches of a more popular phrase, you ended up getting 155 more sales with this long tail term.

Why should every marketer and website owner pay attention to long tails?

The long tail principle is currently used by some of the internet’s most successful businesses -- eBay, Netflix, and Amazon, just to name a few. The basic idea behind this is that a traditional brick-and-mortar business can’t afford to waste space on less-popular items that could be populated by hits instead, so many simply overlook the “non-hits.” This is where niche markets are created by the thousands; it allows smaller retailers and marketers to eliminate competition from the larger businesses that they generally don’t have a chance against when going head-to-head. That kind of head-to-head competition is eliminated by the use of long tails; you offer something completely different than the sales giants, but they’re products that their customers still want.


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    • wychic profile image

      Rebecca Mikulin 5 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming

      Awesome, glad to hear it! I know I learned the basic definition pretty quickly, but it took me a while to really figure out how to use it to advantage in the online marketing world. What I distilled it down to is basically what I do for everything now, and it seems to work quite well.

    • Julie DeNeen profile image

      Blurter of Indiscretions 5 years ago from Clinton CT

      I never quite understood the long tail thing, but this hub helped tremendously. Thank you! Sharing now :)

    • wychic profile image

      Rebecca Mikulin 6 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming

      You're welcome :D. I've had a few of those sudden spikes and drops myself, and it's always accompanied with that fear that Google decided to do another update, or I inadvertently upset the "search engine gods" ;). If you have Analytics on your page, one of the features I use the most on there is the traffic breakdown by country -- if I'm correct that Thanksgiving caused your spike and the day after caused the drop, then it will be able to show that traffic in the US significantly changed from normal, whereas other countries should remain about the same. I find that major sporting events (i.e. World Cup, Olympics, Super Bowl) can also wreak havoc on the traffic :).

    • molometer profile image

      molometer 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Wychic,

      Yep you were correct, they are returning to a more normal pattern and I am picking up hits from every territory in the world.

      It was just a little disconcerting watching all of these reds and double reds power forward for 36 plus hours and then to see the all reverse and drop to virtually nothing.

      Thanks for the quick feedback. It is very helpful. I may write a hub on this experience as it was quite an exciting roller-coaster ride.

    • wychic profile image

      Rebecca Mikulin 6 years ago from Sheridan, Wyoming

      My suggestion is, wait a while longer and see what happens. Because you did your changes directly before Thanksgiving (US), the spike may have been completely unrelated to the changes. Generally I'll see a spike on Thanksgiving Thursday, and then a precipitous drop on Black Friday because so many people are out shopping or doing other community events...and many are decorating Christmas trees :S. About the only holiday where my traffic DOESN'T spike is on Christmas, but a lot of people seem to be browsing online for the other holidays. If you have your traffic trends mapped out from before the change, then any changes in the trend should be pretty apparent within a couple of weeks. That way short-lived spikes will kind of balance out, and you can get a better full picture of what the changes accomplished. Hope this helps :).

    • molometer profile image

      molometer 6 years ago from United Kingdom

      Hi Wychic,

      Interesting read, I had just redone all my hubs 2 days ago using this method and guess what happened.

      First everyone of my hubs got little red arrows 4 of them with double reds.

      Within 24 hours though they nearly all dropped to lower page views than before I made any changes and continue to drop?

      I don't understand it at all.

      Have I missed something?

    • smcopywrite profile image

      smcopywrite 6 years ago from all over the web

      i love the 80/20 rule. it works with nearly everything. even a picnic will have 20 percent of the people bringing 80 percent of the food.

      great hub.

    • mejje profile image

      mejje 6 years ago from blessed land

      i love your hubs wychic; thanks for sharing your expertise.