Finding Your Longtail of Search

Keyword Research Jan 27, 2006

Search engine optimization, as most of us know, is too complicated and mysterious to ever become mainstream. Yet, it must because of how much of a disproportionate advantage it gives to those who get it right. In advertising, you might spend millions on a Super Bowl commercial. In PR, you might get mentioned in the NYT or WSJ. But in SEO, you get that top result on your keyword day-in and day-out, every time anyone in the world searches on that term. And that is too important to ignore.

Pervasiveness within the natural search results makes or breaks businesses. When the rules change and positions are lost, you can often hear cries of foul play. The wounded can launch into conspiracy theory regarding forcing AdWord participation. John Battelle picked one of the may examples of such people for his book, The Search. Despite initial resistance to pay-search, in the form of GoTo.com, it ultimately succeeded because of a very clear value proposition that the media buyers who control marketing budgets could understand. I pay x-amount. I get y-listings. It’s just like advertising. Not so with natural search!

The rules of natural search optimization are always in flux, and there’s something of an arms race between spammers and the engines. Engines will never fully disclose how to position well, or else spammers will be able to shut out all the genuinely worthy sites. So, the trick for the engines is to always reward genuinely worthy sites, and the most important objective for any SEO is therefore to make their sites genuinely worthy.

This concept of genuine worthiness is likely to stay around for a long time, because of how readily trust for a search provider can be broken, and how easy it is to switch. Think how little actual investment or commitment you’ve actually made to a search site. It’s not like you paid anything, or have any financial investments. Resultantly, search providers are uniquely vulnerable to the next big thing, which can come along at any time, prompting legions of users to flock away to the latest golden-boy darling site. It happened with AltaVista and Lycos, and could easily happen today, even with the 800-lb. gorillas-of-search. Yes, I firmly believe that the concepts of trust and the rewarding of genuinely worthy sites independent of advertising are here to stay. So, any company looking for that extra edge is obliged to look at their options in natural search. Enter HitTail.

So, who determines whether a site is worthy? What actions can you take to ensure that your site is worthy by today’s criteria and the unknowable criteria of tomorrow? Craig Silverstein, one of the Google engineers who makes the rounds to the search engine conferences once stated that Google’s main objective in search results is not in fact relevancy. It’s making the user happy. Happiness is the main goal of Google. And a lot of efforts are going along these directions by integrating specialized searches, such as news, shopping, local directories, and the like into the default search. There is also personalized search, which makes the results different based on your geographic location and search history. So, things are changing rapidly, and there are many factors to consider when you ask what makes a site worthy. When everything is mixed together and regurgitated as search results, what is the single most important criteria affecting results that is unlikely to change over time? That is where HitTail is going to focus.

Exactly what this most important criteria? Quality is subjective. Anything can be manipulated. Old-school criteria when AltaVista and Inktomi were king relied mostly on easily manipulated on-page criteria, such as meta tags and keyword density. Google’s big contribution is PageRank, which looks at the Internet’s interlinking topology as a whole. It’s a model based on academic citation system in publishing papers. The result was a broadening the manipulation arena from single pages to vast networks of inter-related sites, wholly intended to change that topology to indicate things that weren’t true. Today, the engines sprinkle in many criteria including fairly sophisticated measures of which sites were visited as a result of a search, and how much time was spent there. The engines also subtly change how the various criteria are weighted over time, which keeps all the manipulators scratching their head, wondering what happened, and spending months responding.

This way lies ruin. At what point does the effort of manipulating search results become more expensive than just buying keywords? For most companies, it’s a no-brainer. The only thing trusted less than the search engines are the snake-oil salesmen claiming to be able to manipulate those results. Why risk getting a site banned? Why invest money in something that may never pay off? I could not agree more. SEO as it is known today is too shadowy and adversarial to ever become a mainstream service, and therefore a mainstream market.

So, are you going to let your competitor cruise along getting that top natural search result, while you’re relegated to pay and pay—and even engage in competitive bidding frenzy to just hold your position? Of course not! And therein likes the rub. It’s a Catch-22. There’s no way out. Pay for keywords, or enter that shadowy realm.

How do you get your natural hits today and have insurance for the future, no matter how things change? The answer is in the latest buzzword that’s coming your way. You’ve probably heard it already, and if you haven’t, get ready for the tsunami of hype surrounding long tail keywords. The term “long tail” was apparently coined by a Wired writer, and has since been adopted by the pay-per-click crowd championing how there are still plenty of cheap keywords out there that can pay off big. The long tail SEO concept, as applied to paid search, basically states that the most popular keywords (music, books, sex, etc.) are also the most expensive. They’ve got the most traffic, but also the most competition. But when you get off the beaten track of keywords, they dramatically ramp off with how expensive they are, and the list of available keywords in the “long tail” of the slope-off never runs out. That’s right—as keywords get more obscure, they get cheaper, and although the overall traffic on those keywords goes down, the value of the customer may even go up!

So, the long tail of search has a very clear value proposition as applied to paid search, which today is principally Google AdWords, and Yahoo Search Marketing. What you do is ferret out those obscure keywords (through WordTracker, your log files and analytics, and brainstorming), run cheaper campaigns, pay for fewer clicks, and win bigger when they convert. The problem in doing this in the paid search arena is the work that goes into identifying these keywords, and migrating them over into a campaign is so complex. Traditional media buyers and the average person working in a company’s marketing department couldn’t handle it, so the work has been outsourced to search engine marketing firms (SEM), making a yet another new industry.

But Google automates everything! Can you imagine tedious human busywork standing in the way of increased Google profits? So, why not just automate the process and let everyone automatically flow new keywords into an ad campaign and automatically optimize the campaign based on conversion data? Just write an app that figures out the obscure keywords in your market space, and shuttles them over to your AdWords campaign! Then, drop and add keywords based on how we’ll they’re converting. Before long, you have the perfectly optimized paid keyword campaign custom tailored for you. You can even do this today using the Google and Yahoo API’s and third-party products. But it is in the engine’s greatest interest to make this an easy and free process. This, I believe, is why Google bought the Urchin analytics and made the service free. Watch for some big changes along these lines, and for the still-new industry of SEM to have its world rocked.

And so the stage is set for HitTail. Paid search is being fine-tuned into a money-press, but natural search is too important to walk away from. Yet, constant change prevents products to improve natural search from becoming mainstream. Therefore, the best deal in marketing today—pay nothing and have a continual visit of qualified traffic—is unattainable to marketing departments in companies around the world. They are shut out of the game, because when researching it, they get conflicting information, encounter a shadowy world, and get constantly corralled back to the clear value proposition of paid search. This has created a potential market whose vacuum is so palpable, that it’s always right at the edge of consciousness. It is a very sore pain-point that needs relief. It causes anxiety in marketing people whenever they search on their keywords and inspect the resulting screens.

Yes, HitTail proposes to relieve that anxiety. The way it does this will be so above-the-table and distant from that shadowy world of SEO that I believe when the Google engineers inspect it, they will give a smiling nod of approval. For, HitTail will be automating very little, and it will be misleading even less. It will, quite simply, put a constant flow of recommendations in your hands to release the potential already exists. If your product or service is worthy of the attention you’re trying to win, from the market you’re trying to serve, then we will help you release the latent potential that already resides in your site.

HitTail is a long tail keyword tool that will help you tap into the almost inexhaustible and free inventory of relevant keywords that fills the long tail of search, so that you can get your keywords for nothing, and your hits for free.

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