Natural Search and The Long Tail in the Tornado

ML Aug 19, 2006

One of the benefits of incubating HitTail at a public relations company is media training. To get the level of service I’m getting “for free”, I’d have to be paying in the area of $20K/month (many clients are serviced at a much higher level). Many truly new endeavors–ones that are not just another copy-cat me too play–are difficult to explain. It’s easy to say “it’s just like MySpace” or “it’s just like YouTube”. It’s much harder to say it’s like nothing else that’s ever been, but here’s why everyone on the planet is going to love it.

And once explained, such notions are difficult to buy into. Otherwise, they would have already been invented. HitTail is one such endeavor. And the timing of Chris Andersons’ The Long Tail book coming out to coincide with the launch of our product is fortunate. It alleviates us of some of the heavy lifting that explains WHY HitTailing works.

I have hope. At least one HitTailer says:

“Never mind how it works, exactly — something to do with algorithms. All I know is that it does work.”

And its thoughts like this that helps us refine our positioning and messaging. We look so much like Web analytics to people who are concerned with such things, that we risk intimidating off the millions of people we wish to attract that don’t have the time or interest in deciphering charts and graphs. They just want to be told what to do in order to achieve their goals. And that’s just what HitTail does.

But getting this across consistently, every time has been a real challenge to me. There are so many different types of audiences, and so many tiny adjustments that need to be made to each audience. I think the mainstream marketing audience of the world, the main audience we’re trying to reach, has not necessarily even heard of the long tail yet. So, we need to explain it to then AND how a pure long tail keyword tool is going to change their world forever. For them, I needed to get it across with narration and strong visuals without turning them off with techie details. This turned into our Flash demo, which has been wonderfully received and even used as a crash-course introduction to the long tail concept, but, the Yannis of cre8asiteforums told us to lose the flash in favor of showing the app itself. You can’t please everyone, but it’s my job to do so.

That’s why incubating HitTail inside a public relations company has been so valuable. I spent 2 months wrangling with professional SEO’s, explaining why its different from mining your log files for keywords and why its helps the emerging industry of SEO, instead of being a threat. This has made me a spontaneous expert at any of the questions my PR-brethren have labeled as the difficult fastballs and curveballs. Where I break down is the easy questions, like “What is HitTail?” The question is so open-ended and that I could talk forever, or give a one-sentence summary. Neither is appropriate.

As I’m learning, it is my job to understand the goals of each journalist, and provide the answers that satisfy their goals and lead the story where we want it to go. So, when I’m asked “What is HitTail?” my answer should be along the lines of:

“HitTail is a time-saving writing suggestion tool for small to medium sized Web publishers who wish to reach a larger audience and increase their natural traffic coming from search engines, who don’t necessarily have the budget for advertising. It plays off of the notion being recently popularized by The Long Tail book, implying that the traffic from all your less-popular phrases added together can be far greater than your most popular terms. You can chose to use or not use the suggestions provided by HitTail, in your blog or Web publishing software. When you do, your site tends to snowball over time, and can lead to dominating a market niche.”

And that has to all flow naturally, without sounding rehearsed. I have to speak from the heart on every question, and be able to shorten, expand or adjust each answer depending on the goal of the journalist. And after all that, I also have to be ready for the unexpected.

I could have gone about developing HitTail in a number of ways, but doing it through the channel of public relations is so right. In addition to the numerous tie-ins between SEO and public relations, SEO has a huge public relations problem. HitTail has provided a framework where we can endless extol the benefits and ease of natural search traffic as a top-line marketing priority, without even mentioning SEO. That’s not to downplay the field. It simply defers the much more complicated discussions for a later date. So many SEO discussions lead to the “big infrastructure fix”, and there’s nothing surer to turn off a discussion with a marketing person than telling them that their success is going to rely on getting the IT people to do something they don’t see the value of.

HitTail and public relations is a perfect match. HitTail and Connors Communications, a small boutique agency in NYC that has repeatedly been a “game changer” (Amazon, Priceline, GoTo, etc.) is brilliant. There is no surer way to fix the SEO public relations problem than to promote the most workable sub-section of SEO as a standalone product for mainstream marketing, that’s ready to be swept up in the tornado that is natural search and the long tail.

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