How retailers can take advantage of a new concept in Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to drive more sales.
The Long Tail
Most retailers with an online presence are keenly aware of Search Engine Optimization (SEO), a series of tools and techniques designed to drive up your rankings on popular search engines like Google and Yahoo.
One of the most interesting recent developments in SEO, particularly as it impacts the retail industry, is the idea of capturing the long tail of your online store.
In the classic Pareto distribution, you could expect about 80 percent of your sales (the Y axis) come from 20 percent of your products (the X axis). The remaining 80 percent of your products are only responsible for 20 percent of sales. This is relevant to SEO because, traditionally, SEO experts have not focused on the long tail. Instead, they have used SEO techniques to broaden the appeal of the already highly popular 20 percent of your inventory. However, the long tail theory that emerged in 2003 says that, in the world of the Internet, the long tail can end up yielding more than 20 percent of total sales. The longer the tail gets, the more it will outweigh the head.
The classic example of the long tail is retail supersite Amazon.com. In 2004, journalist Chris Anderson and a team of researchers from MIT discovered that 25 percent of Amazon's sales came from its least popular products. Other online retailers have an even larger percentage of their sales coming from the long tail. What is true for these retailers may also be true for your business. If it is indeed the case that your long tail outweighs your head, it is time to take advantage of this fact by updating your SEO strategy.
You have to begin by understanding how much of your traffic is generated by which keywords. According to traditional Pareto distribution statistics, a small amount (20 percent) of your keywords will be driving a disproportionate number of visits to your website. You will certainly want to keep investing in these keywords and asking your SEO partners, if you have any, to keep focusing on them. However, you will also want to start dedicating resources to the long tail of keywords, particularly if they end up outweighing the head.
Think of it in terms of marketing potential. A recent study by SEO consultancy, NetConcepts, discovered that, on average, only 14 percent of an eCommerce site's pages yield search traffic. The other 86 percent (in some cases, tens of thousands of pages) were yielding no natural search traffic. Retailers were so focused on the 14 percent, often pages selling branded, very popular items, that they neglected the remaining 86 percent of pages, leaving a lot of money on the table. NetConcepts points out that items and brands that are very popular do not need to suck up all of your SEO resources: after all, "The brand is expected to win these search battles with no contest." The real challenge, and the strategic opportunity, lies in selling those items that do not sell themselves so easily, and for most retailers this will be the long tail of their inventory.
While exploiting the long tail could generate a universe of new sales for you, there is a lot of work to be done to realize its potential. Here are the steps to take:
1. Chart your eCommerce website's SEO long tail, with the Y axis representing visits and the X axis representing keywords. You will now have a precise idea of the length of your long tail. If it turns out that you are close to a classic Pareto distribution, in which 80 percent of your sales are generated by 20 percent of your products, do not change your SEO strategy. However, if you have a long tail, move to step 2.
2. If you have a relatively manageable number of pages, employ traditional SEO strategies like keyword-based copy, meta-tagging, and the creation of static rather than dynamic pages to improve the placement of long tail pages in search engine results.
3. If you have too many pages to cost efficiently perform SEO on page, consider a Web 2.0 approach to SEO, in which your own customers will do the work for you.
Introducing Web 2.0
Web 2.0 has been one of the hottest buzzwords in the tech world for nearly three years. It refers to the second generation of web computing, in which users and networks are becoming increasingly important. On Amazon.com, for example, users have the power to rank products, make recommendations, and create their own product lists. In this way, Amazon.com users are actually doing a lot of marketing, sales, and classification work on behalf of the company.
The connection between Web 2.0 and long tail SEO is that you can use Web 2.0 tools to give customers the ability to do SEO. Here are some recommendations:
The Bottom Line
- Let customers tag your pages using their own vocabulary. Amazon has been doing this for a while. Users add their own keywords to your products, and these keywords turn up in future search engine results.
- Give customers the ability to add their own content to your pages. Bulletin boards, wikis, and other community-building technology can support discussion of your products, and thereby generate more content and keyword for search engine results.
- Give customers the ability to subscribe to content that you generate, for example in a company blog or in RSS feeds, thus creating a larger number of link exchanges that will rev up your results in search rankings.
In 2005, TiVo Chairman Michael Ramsay told USA Today that: "Given the choice, people will migrate towards a much greater variety, and the deal is you have got to make everything available to everybody so that they are not restricted. And if you do, the market for that more esoteric, more specialized stuff is just as big as the market for the mainstream stuff."
Ramsay's comments have even more application to the retail industry, which sells tens of millions of different products, than to the entertainment industry. In today's competitive retail environment, you need to do everything you can to optimize the value of your long tail, and adjusting your search engine strategy is an excellent way to begin. If you are already working with a vendor, we suggest you ask them about their approach to long tail SEO and how it complements the state of your business.
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