Long Tail, Business Blogs and Measurement

There has recently been some chatter about long-tail-focused blogging, especially in that little corner of the blogosphere occupied by your local-loving real estate bloggers. And since I can’t help but wade into something that could possibly be measured I bring you this post.

If you want a sparkling essay on why long tail strategies may be better than mass media/generalist approaches, Theresa Boardman has it for you at Inman News.

If you want a brief example of the longtail improving a business, read how the long tail is affecting Jonathan Dalton’s business.

What is the Long Tail anyway?

The Long Tail as a marketing theory was established by Wired editor Chris Anderson back in 2004 and or Clay Shirky in 2003. Wikipedia tells us that the Long Tail is used:

“to describe the niche strategy of certain business such as Amazon.com or Netflix. The distribution and inventory costs of these businesses allow them to realize significant profit out of selling small volumes of hard-to-find items to many customers, instead of only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items. The group of persons that buy the hard-to-find or “non-hit” items is the customer demographic called the Long Tail.”

Here’s an image that is often used to portray the Long Tail, note that the yellow section is the “long tail” and never ends while the neon-green part is the “head” and should end (even though the silly image doesn’t).


The Y axis represents an amount of customers or price or some other number. The X axis represents individual options. So if the individual options were books perhaps a NYT best seller would be in the green side while a little-known ebook on Real Estate Selling Techniques would be in the yellow section. More people read the NYT best seller than the ebook.

It’s important to understand this chart. Most of the reading and nearly all the conversations I’ve had with people involve some sort of misunderstanding about it. There is only one metric being tracked in this chart: number of sales/searches/conversions/whatevers. This number is tracked on the Y axis. Once all of your sales/searches/conversions/whatevers have been assigned a number, you put them in order of most to least on the X axis.

In effect, you are just lining up all the kids in the class from tallest to shortest. Where it gets interesting is determining whether there is a relationship between that metric and performance (do the short kids under-perform vs the tall kids and so on). PLEASE NOTE: I think short kids and tall kids are great. I am going to be using this metaphor a lot and if you are tall or short, please don’t take offense (the secret message of this post is that individuals perform regardless of their metric–sort of a Frodo kind of thing really). Thanks.

Conventional wisdom ala the Pareto 80/20 principle says put your efforts in that 20% at the head (focus on the tall kids) to get 80% of your business because of inefficiencies in reaching the other 80%. Long Tail Theory asserts that distribution (the internet) has changed and barriers to production (cost of print, television, etc) have been lowered leading to greater opportunity in the 80% long tail (the short kids).

Anderson asserts that the volume of the long tail (the yellow part) of the market exceeds the that of the head (the green part); there is more opportunity in the long tail if you can reach it efficiently.

Ok enough of that, how does this apply to business blogging?

Much of the original focus of Long Tail Theory was on moving atoms around (I’ll spare us the Nick Negroponte backstory): Amazon’s books. These are tangible goods that have costs to produce that are fairly substantial. Moreover they have costs to store until they sell as well as costs to deliver once they do sell.

If we apply the Long Tail lens to business blogging (i.e. we want more high-quality visitors–our blog is an advertising tool) what are we sorting? If we’re looking at gathering attention or interest, it’s usually search terms that we measure. Is there a finite number of search terms? In theory but not in practice. Observing our analytics for the search terms that lead visitors to our site we’ll find a very long list of terms that bring us a single visitor.
How about inefficiencies of production and distribution? Sort of a pain to write blog posts but at least we don’t have to set the type by hand, fire up a press, or hire a driver to haul it around. I’d say our distribution is fairly streamlined. Observing our analytics we can see how many visitors come to us by way of search engines.

Right, but are any of those visitors worth it?

Here’s where it gets exciting: are the tall kids outperforming the short kids? Mary McKnight, over at RSS Pieces claims that (emphasis hers) “people that wind up on your real estate blog for a long tail search are most likely not transactional visitors.” As business people, we want transactional visitors because we want transactions. Luckily, we can measure that by looking at search terms that brought visitors to our site ranked in order of conversions (this assumes you have a way to convert site visitors, which you should if you have a business blog). From there we might know the facts based what is converting. Maybe the long tail terms are working, maybe not. Good thing we can check!

Joseph Ferrara, another of my current favorite business bloggers, gets the idea of “one-metric, many items” when he says (emphasis his):

“If 20% (or whatever % you believe) of visitors come from long tail real estate searches– in total, unless you can cover all/most of the long tail searches in your market, like Amazon, you will only get a piece of that thin long tail granted, when we’re talking six-seven figure homes vs. two figure books and movies — that’s a nice piece of tail.”

Amazon can convert all the short kids. You might not be able to, but if your short kids have bigger allowances or better jobs then maybe it’s no big deal. Then Joseph goes on to echo Mary when he writes (emphasis his) “the overall number of visitors will always be significantly lower in the long tail than if you were ranking for the head or neck keywords. Consequently, your conversions will be lower.” Again, I’m not so certain. It makes sense on hand, you have more opportunities. But on the other, maybe those opportunities aren’t converting. Sort your search terms in order of conversions, not volume.

Or, as Justin Smith says, target the Money Tail. What’s that? Justin tells us the Money Tail (emphasis his) “would be keywords like: ‘katy texas condos for sale’ or ‘real estate listings in Katy Texas’. The benefit of targeting keywords like these is that they are searched fairly often, but are specific enough to not have a high level of competition.”

Great idea right? Time to dig and open up the analytics.

Too… much… data…. Gimme a checklist!

Gladly. You may have noticed that I’ve sprinkled some of the measurements throughout. 😉 Before you begin, make sure you are tracking conversions from your blog. Place a value on those conversions.

Measuring the Performance of the Long Tail for Business Blogging

  1. Observe how many visitors come from search engines
    (traffic source).
  2. Observe how many search engine visitors convert
    (performing source).
  3. Observe total number of search terms used to visit your site
    (length of your long tail).
  4. Observe which search terms are bringing visitors
    (popular search terms).
  5. Observe which search terms are converting
    (performing search terms).
  6. Orient your data by comparing performing search terms to popular search terms. Are any in both reports?
  7. Decide if writing for search engines is working for you by understanding your performing sources.
  8. Decide which search terms are working for you by looking at your comparative information on performing search vs popular search.
  9. Act: Write articles targeted towards those performing search terms whether they are in the long tail or not.
  10. Go back to step 1 and repeat. Welcome to Continuous Improvement Process!

So there you go, using the long tail to help inform your business decisions. Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll see what I can do to help. Extra credit for anyone who reads all the articles linked in this post.

20 thoughts on “Long Tail, Business Blogs and Measurement

  1. thank you for posting this. Jim Cronin just forwarded it to me, and I’m glad he did.

    Thank you for laying your little 10 item checklist. I think #2 is key, but can sometimes be very difficult to track.

    I just wrote a post on this topic in response to Mary’s post. You can check it out on my blog if you’re interested.

    Thanks again!

  2. Thanks for the tip re: your post! It gave me the exact transition I needed and I’ve added it to the narrative. I wish I had seen it sooner.

    As for tracking item 2, conversions. In GA you can set up “goal” pages/actions (say… clicking the send me an email or visiting the contact page for the phone number) whatever you like. Remember this is a conversion, not a sale. But it should be representative of someone giving you permission to talk to them (from there on it’s all your sales skills). First though, I notice you don’t have analytics on your blog, go ahead and install Google Analytics.

    Once you have the goal state set up, tracking item #2 is very easy. You might want to check out my series on Site Optimization for some tips around this method of working/thinking.

    Thanks again for letting me know about your great post! And feel free to ask more questions (and provide more answers).

  3. Bottom Line…it’s about making my phone ring! And it does from my long tail blogging. It a true listing tool, just like when we used to show client at listing presentations copies of our full page ad’s we ran in the past, I copy my search engine postions on Google under specfic long tail discriptions and I’m near or at the top, along with serveral other poitions on the first page. I.E. 306-949 Cloverdale top floor two bedroom two bath condo for sale in Victoria. People find me with serveral of the key searches such as… top floor two bed two bath condo. Generic key words like Victoria BC real Estate bring prople but not NOW buyers, Key word searches for schools in an area usualy bring buyers buying in 30 days. I’m after Sellers, and they love this stuff, I’ve had people cancell their listing to come with me after they do their long tail key word searchs and find me all over the page on Google, such as victoria luxury and waterfront homes for sale…Think about this, Consumers want to search what they want. I.E. How to grow potatoes in a barrell…they find what they are looking for! And like searching for …top for two bedroom condo in victoria…brings specfic results for a buyer looking for a top floor two bedroom condo.
    Excuse my typos, no spell checker, I need one at my age.


  4. Fred,

    That’s great insight! I’ve noticed, in reviewing a wide variety of site traffic reports for blogs, “static” sites and other web doodads that you’re absolutely right: people who are ready to convert get more and more specific in their searches.

    I think there is still value in the broader search terms, just that the value isn’t realized until much later than specific search terms. Broad searchers are only beginning to think about buying something. Specific searchers know more about what they want.

    Also, don’t sweat the typos–ideas first, editing second. But if you want to avoid them, use the Firefox browser (www.firefox.com), it has a built-in spell-checker for text fields like this comment form.

    Thanks again for the great thoughts!

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  6. Thanks for the explanation of a term I’ve been hearing used by folks I’m not sure really understand it. What I’m wondering is if in actual practice a blogger who concentrated on writing an abundance of articles with high quality content probably do pretty good with long tail searches without making a conscious effort to do so?

  7. Cindy:
    Thanks for stopping by, good luck with your site!

    Your thought on a blogger who writes good content about their market achieving a healthy long tail as a side benefit is on-target. It was this argument (follow the Mary McKnight article linked in my post) that started everyone going on this.

    Basically there are two strategies being discussed:

    1) Write about something directly related to your audience’s needs/desires and the long-tail will grow by itself (assuming you approach their needs/desires from a variety of angles).

    2) Identify which long-tail search terms are valuable (i.e. which ones come to your site and then convert, even if it’s only one search every month) and write articles targeted towards that term. Then hope that the primary needs/desires of your audience are met as well.

    Strategy 1 is definitely the easier of the two (it doesn’t require the same level of analysis that the second strategy requires). But I bet either could be successful. My current recommendations are to focus on strategy 1 because for most people keeping up a blog is hard enough as it is.

    Think of it maybe like eating a balanced diet: write about the main needs/desires of your audience (your good healthy food) but make sure you approach it from a variety of angles (make your diet healthy, but varied) and then maybe throw in some candy now and then (pick a long-tail term that converted and write a post specifically targeted for that term).

    Hope that helps, let me know if you have any other questions or thoughts.


  8. Thanks for the article. (And thanks to the RealEstateZebra guy for the tip…)

    I’d agree that tracking our long tail (using a site like hittail.com) and reacting quickly with content has helped us steadily build traffic on our young, but booming Philadelphiareaestatehub.

    One side benefit of the long tail that doesn’t seem to be discussed too often is what establishing a local internet “omnipresense” can do for a large brokerage. We’re already starting to hear from clients and other agents that they’re finding us everywhere, even in a big city like Philadelphia where competition for many keywords can be really tough. While property search sign ups occur at a lower ratio from our long tail visits, we think we’ll see nice returns on our blogging effort as our brand recognition grows and recruiting becomes a little easier.

    Single agents in smaller markets can certainly identify and dominate niche keywords on their own, but it’ll be interesting to see if large brokerages in large markets start employing the (bloggy) staff necessary to build and maintain a brand building online omnipresence.

    It’s probable that articles like this will likely be required reading in broker licensing courses of the near future…Good stuff.

  9. Thanks for the compliments Ryan!

    I think you’re dead on with using Long Tail strategy for publicizing businesses on the local level. Ultimately, I think that the Long Tail is just a simple way to describe (and quantify) branding efforts on the internet.

    You’re right that you might not see immediate conversions from your long tail visitors. But your brand will have made some impression that will hopefully spread your brand (someone who reads your content talks about you to someone else offline or online).

    Applying all of this to a local strategy is even more clever (and luckily easier and more likely to yield results sooner).

    There are a variety of ways to track the health of your long tail (and more importantly, take action on what you learn by tracking it). Probably a future blog post.

    If you know anyone working on licensing courses let me know. I’d love to contribute.

  10. Appreciate the mention, Ryan …

    Targeting the long tail’s more complicated than the short or money tail as it were. What I’ve tended to find is the long tail grows without clear design. At the end of the day, people will search for some of the oddest things. But if they’re specific in what they are looking for and you meet that specific need, you’re set.

  11. I agree Jonathan. Setting out to target the long tail is like setting out to read your visitors’ minds. Fairly impossible.

    The specificity of long tail searches is what makes them golden. They’re usually very qualified and further along a decision-making path than a more general or broad searcher.

    Thanks for stopping by!

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  15. I wish I hadn’t evolved to someone who lives this stuff! I need to get a life! Couple of thoughts – apparently my site performs very well for long tail searches. I’m informed by the SEO gurus that’s because I have concentrated my efforts on writing blogs and pages that are not your average search. I think that anyone can hire an intern to do the popular search pages – they are a lot of work but straight forward – here’s a list of terms, get someone who can write, off you go. Trouble is, that’s what everyone else is doing. What’s more, the lead aggregators such as House Values, House Hunt and Realtor.com are doing it way more successfully than local firms. Your success will be based on following history (what is scoring well) rather than looking at the future tipping points and leading edge factors that are switching potential buyers (whatever industry) on NOW. I’m not suggesting ignoring what is working, just accenting it. I think building content (wherever it is) that is outside of the ordinary will over time build a large database of data that will mean more than 3 bed master on main in xyz town. I’m not suggesting not doing the ‘popular’ or using terms for listings at all – I’m just saying that is the springboard off which to build things that set you apart. Most successful ideas in business are one of two things – BGOs – blinding glimpses of the obvious – or things we didn’t realize we needed. Just like any news that people are looking for, it’s about the HOOK – the thing in the tail that is news. If it is pedestrian we are fighting with all the other people out there that manage to create content that has a low barrier to entry. I also want to say thank you for all the ideas on here – I need to practice a lot more of the everyday stuff which is not easy, instead of living outside the box all the time, so very helpful, thanks.

    ps – I Confess to having a love affair with google and use all kind of google tactics to raise it up there and have spoken with a number of their staff, however on the topic of this blog – no one can keep up with how and why things rise to the top. We can speculate and then tomorrow it is different, through a different browser, algorithms or some new filter that will be out next week! If you truly have a niche, long tails will work fantastically I think to bring in the value clients not the volume clients.

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