Posted July 2, 2008 4:37 pm by with 19 comments

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By Frank Reed.

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal by Lee Gomes the Long Tail theory popularized by Chris Anderson’s book “The Long Tail” in 2006 there is now a pretty prominent player saying “Wait a minute now… this for real?” The Harvard Business Review has published a study that questions whether this theory actually holds water. Anita Elberse, is a marketing professor at Harvard Business School and in her writing she doesn’t seem as comfortable with handing the mantle of all future economic models to the long tail theory.

Elberse simply states that when looking at online buying patterns of people renting movies and purchasing music are the same as those who buy offline. What?! How are we going to survive as search marketers if the long tail is a myth? Well, hold on just minute before the baby AND the bath water gets tossed here. Elberse goes on to talk about how even in our buying patterns we are social people who like to do what others do for the reason of common interests. There is also a sheep mentality amongst consumers because we like to be led to what to buy by others who have had a good experience. This keeps the experimentation low and the “group think” theory high.

Gomes uses the blogosphere to further prove the point.  While there are many, many, many blogs out there most still go unread and the vast majority of the traffic goes to only the top blogs. Considering the traffic on my personal blog I can certainly attest to that theory! Gomes also takes a funny swipe at Wired magazine in his description of the Long Tail phenomenon that took place following a 2004 for article (which led to the book) saying that “In retrospect, “The Long tail “ seems to have followed the template of many Wired articles: take a partly true, modestly interesting, tech-friendly idea and puff it up to Second Coming proportions”. Ouch.

Chris Anderson’s response which I have not fully read was described by Gomes as being “generous in praising the article and he (Anderson) welcomed the sort of rigorous scrutiny the theory was getting”. To his credit, it appears as if Anderson is keeping his cool.

As for us search marketers, I still firmly believe that the long tail exists but in search it is very different and actually more real. We want to find those people who have more clearly defined what they are looking for. Just because they have been more defined in their search (3, 4, 5 word phrases rather than one word generalities) doesn’t mean they aren’t one of the masses. It just means they are further along in the buying cycle, which means they are closer to the time of purchase this making them most valuable to a lot of marketers. I will pursue search’s version of the theory because it makes sense.

At any rate, a theory is a theory is a theory. There are pieces that we can all apply and use and then there are parts that may simply not work. It is up to us as marketing consumers to use our own experience and discernment to make the right choice for our business. Each case will be different so avoiding blanket statements might just be the “best practice” of the future.

About Frank Reed

Frank Reed is a partner at bnr marketing in Raleigh, NC. bnr provides SEO, PPC and blog marketing services.  In addition, bnr produces SEO tools like SEMCheck for the search marketing industry. Frank’s blog on internet marketing is at

  • WD

    I knew when the long tail reached it’s tipping point that if you blinked it’d just disappear. Will marketers ever tire of someone stating the obvious and somehow filling a book to do so?

  • It’s not an “either-or” situation; you can have Long Tail economics AND the social economics that Elberse is talking about. Indeed, it has always been thus. Elberse is right that we tend to behave in a sheep like manner, but that does not in itself negate the Long Tail. Even before the Internet arrived we had Long Tail behaviour in a sheep like way. For instance, small groups of people would enjoy a particular movie or food – they’d be fanatical about it even. But the rest of us ignored them. They, however, continued to support their interest because of their social group. There is not one social group we belong to; we are members of myriads of social groups, online and offline. We are influenced by the groups, but those groups may have tiny interests – hence even group behaviour can support the Long Tail.

  • PS3

    The theories have been studied by statisticians since 1946 according to Wiki – about time they gave a definitive answer !

  • I’m a firm believer in the value of Long Tail terms when maximizing search marketing. They cost fewer PPC dollars, are more realistic for small companies to compete on for organic traffic and I agree, they often represent a more qualified search. If you’re doing PPC on a small budget you’re probably maxing out your daily budget every day. Try pausing your big traffic general terms and allowing your “longer tail” terms to soak up some of that budget. You may be pleasantly surprised. I have been.

  • Frank,

    Typical Harvard palaver. They think we’re all sheep, or lemmings, or some such idiot animals. Yeah, that’s the ticket! I’ll just buy the most popular media. Baloney!

    How does the “distinguished” Harvard professor explain that the 1,999,998th song on iTunes gets one play a year? If that’s not conclusive proof of the long tail, nothing can be.

  • I just read The Long Tail (the full book, not the article), and yes, if you want to get the basics you can just read the article and you’ll understand Long Tail theory just as well as someone who read the book. The book merely adds more detail and historical and modern-day examples. I don’t think Chris Anderson hypes TLT as being anything more than what it is–an interesting way of describing something that has been happening for years, and which seems to be even more relevant due to the Internet.

  • I have personally seen the value of the long-tail as someone who works on an enterprise level site.

    Utah Search Engine Optimization’s last blog post..Interview with SEO: Brian Carter and Search Engine Journal Post

  • There are always different angles to take on any theory. From first hand experience I can definitely say that there is value in the long tail of search, awa in the short and sweet, especially for more general information. When people start refining their search queries the longer tailed terms definitely comes into their own.

  • People who come to your site from long tail ones usually know exactly what they want (buy your goods?) So that’s enough and that’s great.

  • This book is on my bookshelf with my favorites. The thing to remember is experimentation is key when analyzing and utilizing long-tail search results on the product level.

    Utah SEO Pro’s last blog post..Interview with SEO: Brian Carter and Search Engine Journal Post

  • @Graham Jones, I agree. I think as marketers (that actually market things versus study marketing) we should all be skeptical of academics that try to dismiss something in it’s entirety. In reality the world is very convoluted and can the internet is equally if not more less predictable.

    Joe Hall’s last blog post..Top 5 National Real Estate Franchise Web Sites

  • Pingback: » Search Engine Optimization And Long Tail Search - Is It Real Search Engine Optimization Journal - SEO and Search Engine Marketing Blog()

  • Yes, the long tail is very much alive and kicking. I see it every day in my web logs. It is also very transient. It changes so much each day, you can’t recognize from one day to the next. I think that’s part of what makes it so tough for the academics to agree on.

    Top Rated’s last blog post..The Top 10 Digital Cameras Ripped Apart

  • Great article, I totally hear you on the importance of long tail keywords for paid search – if only they were not so difficult to predict and manage 😉

    In terms of physical product inventory, the long tail, on demand model doesn’t fly for everyone. Amazon carries nearly every book, cd and movie title known to man and mp3 sites can carry every song ever written, but many businesses must focus on the hits. If they have competitors that can efficiently offer everything under the sun in that industry, then they’re at a HUGE disadvantage.

    Linda Bustos’s last blog post..Why eCommerce is a Lot Like ICanHasCheezburger

  • I think the difference lies in the business model for that you want to define the “long tail”.
    For Adwords it sure makes sense because Ads for “longtail”-keywords are significantly cheaper than other ads. And it costs next to nothing to keep a long tail of keywords in your account.
    But when you have a business model with real goods then every single good costs you in buying,financing,logistics and in the warehouse. And keeping stuff in the warehouse that is not sold can ruin your company. Here the old pareto-principle (80/20) is alive and kicking.

  • If you look at Poisson distribution you’ll see the tail.

    Symbian’s last blog post..Nokia S60 Symbian Windows Live client available in Europe

  • I adore this great book!

  • We have definitely seen an increase in the number of words that people use to search for websites and invariably convert, there is plenty of proof that long tail works.

  • I think the majority out there believe in the long tail approach.