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Monday, July 24, 2006

Why the long tail justifies content expenditures...Or, let a freelance content writer stretch your site's tail...

It used to be that I would tell clients, "The more content you have, the morel likely you are to generate search engine traffic from longer searches. Although you might be targeting one or two of the more popular keywords, more content will allow you to start collecting hits for longer search strings that aren't as common. Those add up and provide a great deal of residual value to the content."

Although those statements are true, coming from a freelance content writer, they have a tendency to sound a lot like "way #29 for this guy to sell his service." I could almost hear potential clients thinking, "Sure, if I have enough content I might get occasional hits for 'left-handed widgets for tired children in Monrovia,' but I want 'left-handed widgets' traffic. I can SELL to those people."

Since 2004, there's a growing discussion about this whole issue and what it really means in terms of site traffic. Fortunately, those involved in that discussion have started using a pithy name for the phenomena, the "long tail."

It's my belief that the current research and analysis on the long tail of search traffic is a great argument in favor of hiring a content writing pro.

Let's start at the beginning of all of this.

Wikipedia's discussion of the long tail provides a nice summary:

"The long tail is the colloquial name for a long-known feature of statistical distributions ... The feature is also known as "heavy tails", "power-law tails" or "Pareto tails". Such distributions resemble the accompanying graph.

In these distributions a high-frequency or high-amplitude population is followed by a low-frequency or low-amplitude population which gradually "tails off". In many cases the infrequent or low-amplitude events—the long tail, represented here by the yellow portion of the graph—can cumulatively outnumber or outweigh the initial portion of the graph, such that in aggregate they comprise the majority."

Chris Anderson from Wired has a great book about the long tail, and created a public diary about his tome that included a post called "The Long Tail of Design" that I think serves a as great place to develop an understanding of the whole thing. Anderson is sort of responding to an application of long tail theory by Domic Muren at IDFuel. It's a nice "1 minute primer of long tail thinking" for those who aren't familiar with the concept. Plus, there's a handy graph:

OK, so we have a body, representing the "mass market" and then a long trailing tail of smaller niches with correspondinly smaller populations. However, if you look at the graph, you'll notice that the long tail actually contains just as many, if not more, potential consumers than the body. Additionally, recognize that most sales efforts are concentrated on the body. Thus, the competition for the interest of the body is a helluva lot more intense than is the competition for various points along the long tail.

You can see where that's going, right? Niche marketing. Long tail theory, by that name or any other, has been one of the driving forces behind internet marketing for some time now. People in the IM community have been doing their market research in hopes of finding potentially lucrative smaller markets that can be mined for profits more efficiently than the massive area of the body.

Yes, Carson, running a series of "boutique sites" can be more profitable than trying to take on eBay or Wal-Mart.com. No kidding. What does this have to do with hiring a freelance content writer?

Good question. Here's the thing. Long tail theory can be applied to search engine results, too. If you take a popular keyword, log the searches made containing that keyword, and graph the results you are going to get something very similar to the graph above.

There is going to be a mass of searches just for the keyword and obvious 2-3 word phrases using the keyword. Then, you are going to have a precipitous decline in the amount of searches using other strings that will result in a long, flowing tail.

So, you can fight for that traffic in the body, but it's going to take some work. There's a lot of competition in the body. You can also start mining the long tail for traffic.

How? One of the best ways is content. And lots of it. If you hire me or some other freelance content writer to generate a series of pieces on "widgets," that content is assuredly going to produce strings containing the very kind of things for which those long tail searchers want. For instance, my article that contains the phrase, "...red widgets retain popularity among those in European nations..." you may very well find your site being tops in the SERPs for the phrase "popularity of European red widgets."

Here's an additional perk--even if you are not sold on the long tail idea, the content itself still helps with respect to marketing to the larger body. There is no forced compromise. Well-written content will serve both needs simultaneously.

An April entry at the SEOMoz.org blog notes:

"In the long tail of keyword searches, the great value comes from having hundreds or thousands of unique, valuable content pages written on a niche subject. The millions of completely unique search terms that hit the engines each day help to bring in traffic that a purely 'designed' strategy could never receive."

Blackbeard SEO
calls having a nice long tail the "hidden secret of blogging" and makes a strong argument for content as a means of long tail access with respect to blogs:

"So how do you hit the long tail for your site? Well, there are a few tricks that can help you, but realistically it’s simply a matter of how much content is on your site. The more you post to your blog the longer tail (keyword-wise) your site will have. Now, I’m not saying that you should post a bunch of crap posts to a blog, but a blog that has 1000 posts will have a much longer tail than a blog with 100 posts. That is why most blogs don’t make a whole lot of money for the first 6-12 months. It takes a lot of time to write enough content that a blog starts to have a really long tail."

NetBaldwin notes that constantly updated content regarding one's primary keywords and related topics is important to tapping into the long tail:
"To capture searchers through the Long Tail, a web site must include content that is consistently updated. And that content must go beyond the primary focus/purpose of the web site while also being (somehow) related."

Big deal, right? After all, those types of searches are few and far between. They don't represent a real traffic flow. That's true if you look at them individually, but as a group, they produce a great deal of traffic. And the more content you have, the greater likelihood you have of snagging good placement for many searches located within the long tail.

Stephan Spencer says that webmasters should "go after the long tail" and says:

"So, if you’re only targeting a handful of keywords, you’re missing the boat."

USWeb, the outfit behind Blogitive, states:

"Try to imagine the type of impact 1,000 targeted terms have on long tail. Suddenly your site is visible for all sorts of terms that you would have never thought of."

And to make matters even better, there's reason to believe these long tail searchers are actually more likely to buy than those targets within the body. These people are conducting more detailed searches than those who are just typing "widgets" into Google and cruising around...

If you run a website, you can certainly see the benefit of covering the long tail, especially if the best route of doing that ALSO assists efforts in the body, as well. The bulk of the search population--your potential visitors--are hanging out in the long tail. Using a freelance content writer to produce great content for your site can help bring them to you.