Heads or Tails

February 2nd, 2007

by Brian Klais

As a search marketing retailer, the most important commitment you can make this year is to understand the most powerful concept affecting large dynamic websites today – the long tail of natural search. You could read the research paper we wrote on the subject, or my new article in Multichannel Merchant magazine on the new Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of natural search, or listen to this podcast interview with Direct Magazine, to learn more about tapping into the long tail of search.

What does it all mean to you?

I see three important takeaways for you to consider:

  1. Re-invent your approach to natural search:
  2. Is search engine optimization (SEO) dead as some claim? No, but the process has evolved. Nimbler competitors are sidelining top merchants. The allure of a pageless-AJAX Web challenges the basic notion of search results. And capturing unbranded keyword traffic is unfamiliar territory. SEO is no longer a list of simple tasks for your content and site management teams to complete. It’s ongoing. And it’s gone social. SEO is fragmented into disjointed new rules: Diminishing return on SEO efforts are real. It takes scalable solutions to move the needle. Iterative testing is required. Yield management is an imperative function of SEO campaign management.

    What is your plan to grow your unbranded search engine-referred traffic? What strategies will you use to target your website assets on these untapped opportunities? How will you burn your brand into the market and associate your products and services with millions of keywords? Can Web2.0 technology help you “outsource” the hard work of page-by-page website optimization to your users?

    Welcome to this brave new “long tail” world of natural search optimization.

  3. Ask what the tail can do for you:
  4. Unfortunately, making a true business case for capturing the value of this long tail requires a PhD in probability theory. (Add all the words on every page of your site. Assume 100% indexation. Calculate the likelihood that each page would be associated with each word in each engine. Calculate keyword demand for each word according to various sources. Multiply each page’s chances of ranking high enough to capture some percentage of this sum search demand. Factor in more popular alternatives not currently on the page. Not to mention backlink text…) It is complicated!

    So we have taken the messy keyword extrapolation guesswork out of this process. Using the keyword sampling factor based on real merchant data we developed in the paper (multiplying your page count x 97), you can estimate how many of these unbranded searches are conducted for keywords your pages can compete for (See methodology here). If you have 5,000 unique, crawlable pages on your website, simply multiply this by 97. (In this case, we’d estimate your pages have nearly 500,000 relevant unbranded keyword searches each month to compete for.) What percentage of this estimate is your channel capturing now? How does it compare to your unbranded keyword traffic? Chances are, your untapped potential is quite significant.

    Your brand keywords will always be important, but unbranded terms are truly your “long tail” opportunity. For the typical top 100 merchant, the unbranded keyword opportunity is nearly 40 times larger than the amount of searches for the company brand name itself.

  5. Attack your “freeloading” pages:
  6. Let this be your motto this year. Chances are good that 80% or more of your web pages are indexed and sending no search-referred traffic. Growing a long tail of unbranded search-referred traffic means making these pages work harder for you, without killing yourself in the process. The best approach is to test different strategies that can scale across your entire website, and measure the results using KPIs that track long tail dynamics (such as those outlined here).

Some strategies to get you started testing:

  • Is there value in adding keywords to your URLs?
  • Are you better off buying links or adding an RSS feed of your sale items?
  • How about user generated content for product pages, or enabling social bookmarking?
  • What about tagging pages with keywords that generate popular search result pages?

Whichever strategies you test, you need to measure your results. Concentrating on traffic and sales alone may lead you to wrong conclusions. Instead look beneath the surface:

  • Has the crawling depth and frequency increased on your pages?
  • What has happened to your indexation and rankings?
  • Has the flow of PageRank or “link juice” changed?
  • Are more websites organically linking to your pages now?
  • Are more of your pages yielding traffic than before?
  • How many keywords does each page now yield?
  • How many visitors does each of those keywords yield?

Focusing on these KPIs gives you a more holistic view of your channel’s long tail performance.

Your mission is to get as many of pages ranking your brand as highly as possible, in as many relevant keyword markets as possible, to maximize your channel yield in terms of clicks and branding. It is a tall ask. But it is not impossible if you are using a disciplined yield management approach and have the right technology and expertise in place to test and grow.

Talk to Netconcepts about how we can help your company grow your natural search long tail.

In particular, our GravityStream natural search proxy platform can provide you with ready access to KPIs like these, and the expertise to advise you on channel growth strategies. Many scalable solutions are easily included (such as friendly URLs, for maximal flow of link juice), and we can test various strategies quickly and with immediate tracking benefits. Ask your sales person or account manager about these ideas and product features in your next call. Or drop me a line at brian@netconcepts.com.