The “long tail” in search engine marketing is dead. I delivered this sad news at ad:tech in San Francisco last week (scroll to the bottom of the post to see the slideshow), and I also introduced a new term – the “wide tail,” which has replaced the long tail. This post elaborates on both of these terms and the significance of this shift for search engine marketers.
First, let’s discuss what the long tail is. The long tail of SEM refers to low-volume but high-intent queries. For example, a phrase like “San Francisco bad credit refinance mortgage rates” probably doesn’t get many searches every year, but it has a high degree of consumer intent embedded in the query and is likely to convert very highly (after all, we know the geography, credit rating, and home ownership status of the searcher, so we can create a highly targeted landing page and ad text).
In the olden days (read: five years ago or longer), finding long-tail keywords was an effective way of creating profitable SEM campaigns, simply because there was a decent chance that you could find keywords that your competitors didn’t, and thus get clicks at a CPC below what you should be paying. In economic terms, this was an inefficient market, which means that a keyword phrase worth $2 if all advertisers were bidding on it might only go for $.25 because many advertisers never knew the keyword existed.
This sort of inefficiency was great for SEMs but terrible for Google because the true value of the keyword wasn’t being unlocked. So, over the last several years, Google has relentlessly changed its rules and algorithms to maximize return on all keywords. The result has been greater revenue for Google and fewer and fewer opportunities to profit from long-tail price inefficiency.
Here are just a few of the ways that Google has destroyed the long-tail opportunity:
Google Instant Search: Studies suggest that Google Instant Search reduces query length by 17%, meaning that shorter queries (head terms) have gained volume over longer queries (long tail).
Elimination of misspellings: Buy the word “morgage” today and you will end up in the same keyword auction as advertisers who bought the word “mortgage.” This wasn’t the case in the past.
Better, proactive keyword tools: Google’s keyword tool – in addition to many other 3rd-party tools – has reduced the advantage that savvy SEMs once had at finding obscure keywords. And Google no longer just offers a passive keyword tool; it also includes an “Opportunities” tab in AdWords that proactively suggests new keywords to advertisers. As a result, the ability to find keywords no one else has discovered is reduced, and prices on these keywords have increased.
Elimination of geo-modify advantage: In 2005, I downloaded the Census Bureau’s list of 22,000 U.S. cities and appended these names to words like “mortgage rates” and “refinance rates”; instantly I had tens of thousands of long-tail keywords! Today, Google determines geo-intent by either the geo-modifier in the keyword or the IP address of the searcher. As a result, when someone types in “San Francisco mortgage rates,” advertisers who bought the term “mortgage rates,” geo-targeted their campaign to include California, and (by default) have elected to show ads to users by search intent and physical location, will have their bid entered into the auction. This effectively eliminates my trick of buying 22,000 geo-specific keywords.
Product Listing Ads: Google has reduced the advantage of retailers buying thousands of product-specific keywords by introducing product listing ads (or PLAs). PLAs enable ecommerce companies to upload a feed of all of their products and then have their ads show up whenever Google determines that a query is related to a specific product. So rather than having to create one million ads for one million SKUs, one product feed can now cover millions of different queries.
Add to all of these innovations the overall increase in advertiser participation in AdWords (any advertiser worth his/her salt has an AdWords campaign today; that may not have been true five years ago), and the ability to truly make much money off the long tail is very low.
So what’s an AdWords advertiser to do? Well, at PPC Associates, we recommend a two-pronged approach. First, rather than focusing on the long tail of keywords, focus on what we call “keyword sculpting.” The concept here is to spend more time creating highly targeted ad text, bids, and landing pages for your head terms, rather than trying to uncover secret long-tail keywords. We generally find that 95% of clients’ revenues comes from the top 5% of their keywords; as such, making sure you are competitive on these top words is just a better use of your time than mining the long tail. To learn more about this concept, I recommend you download our white paper about the “Alpha Beta Account Structure.”
Second, to be effective at search engine marketing today, you have to basically do more than search engine marketing. I call this “wide tail” marketing (remember, you heard it here first!). The wide tail refers to all of the different channels now available to SEMs. Here are a few of the channels we currently use for our clients – ones you should also be considering for your business:
- Google AdWords
- Google Display Network
- Yahoo/MSN AdCenter
- Google Mobile Ads
- DoubleClick Ad Exchange
As online marketers, we have no choice but to go where consumers go, and increasingly, consumers are going to many more places online than they used to. As a result, simply throwing all of your money at text ads on Google’s search results (SERPs) is only going to get you part of the available traffic for your business. SEM today requires text and display ads (and video), mobile and desktop (and tablet), and social networks and search engines. With all of these different platforms to monitor, the long tail becomes even more difficult to manage, simply because it’s hard to imagine many people having enough time to spend on long tail and the wide tail simultaneously.
You can view the PowerPoint slides from my Ad:Tech presentation here:
- David Rodnitzky, CEO