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The Long Tail of Search to Be Cut Short in a Google Instant

by Yosaif Cohain / October 8, 2010

Note: This blog entry is available in English only.

For most people, Google Instant makes life a little easier. Not only are search terms suggested, but previews of the search results are provided. In short, it gets rid of a lot of the guesswork. But for marketers, Google Instant isn’t likely to be such a hit. It dissuades users from accessing the long tail by volunteering popular search words and results before the user stops typing. This causes fewer people to visit the long tail of search. This growing disparity between most popular search terms and least popular search terms could undermine the value of SEO and SEM for marketers.

For many companies, the long tail is the foundation of their organic search (SEO) and paid search (SEM) strategies. A standard report from any web analytics provider will likely show that there are a few search terms that drive more traffic to the site than any other individual search terms. In the long tail, analogy, this is the head. But in many cases those terms are not as important as the remaining search terms, which can drive more traffic in aggregate. It’s best explained in the Netflix vs. Blockbuster analogy: Blockbuster, which recently filed for bankruptcy, had limited storage space for movies in each of their stores. As a result, they only offered consumers the blockbuster movies, the “head” if you will. But Netflix’s warehouses and website could provide consumers with almost every movie available on DVD, the “tail.” While many of these movies only appeal to niche audiences, the total demand for niche movies is actually pretty high. Netflix was able to steal a large part of Blockbuster’s market share in part by catering to and aggregating the long tail of movie viewers. The point is, the long tail is a very big category. And for marketers it’s a key tool for reaching specific audiences at lower prices, as less popular search terms cost less to bid on. If Google Instant does end up cutting off the long tail, the repercussions on SEO and SEM will be immense:


SEM strategies often consist of going after many long tail keywords in the hope of generating both high quality and high volume traffic, all at a lower average costs per click than broader, high volume search terms. If the long tail becomes less relevant and fewer people are searching for niche terms, more importance is going to be given to the head, which means that competition and average CPC will increase. As a result, marketers could see less bang for their SEM buck and will witness their ROIs come down. Will this mean that they would abandon SEM entirely? Clearly, they can’t—too much web traffic is funneled from Google—but they might start shifting away their reliance from SEM and using those marketing dollars on other channels.


SEO strategies typically focus on the long tail. Many sites realize that they can’t compete with the sites that rank at the top of high-volume searches, so instead they focus their SEO strategy on ranking highly for many search terms from the tail that, when added, make up a significant search volume. If the long tail of search becomes less relevant and the top results for popular search terms consequently become even more popular, the strategy of focusing on long tail search terms becomes defunct. Owning search terms in the long tail is only an effective strategy when that long tail comprises a significant search volume. Marketers will have to reassess their SEO plans and may have to accept the fact that the traffic they used to receive through SEO is now lost. It’s likely they will need to find other ways to generate site traffic, like through social media.

The full impact of Google Instant remains to be seen, and awaits lots of data and analysis. But the wait won’t be a comfortable one. Reduced importance of the long tail of search is very frightening for almost all websites and marketers. If the quantity of search terms decreases, the competition and prices for those terms will only increase, forcing companies to re-evaluate their digital marketing strategies.

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  1. Chris Johnson on October 11, 2010

    Yosaif - great points about the evolving nature of SEO and SEM, where frequent testing and optimization are vital to the health of any campaign. In addition to driving qualified traffic, companies have to be concerned about user experience. We know research shows that internet users rarely look beyond the first few results, and when they do not find what they are looking for, revise their search terms rather than skimming further down the page or subsequent pages. The long tail may not become less relevant, but the user who conducts several searches before finding the information they seek is likely to experience frustration, which may be transferred to the company. Google controls much of the search experience, so it behooves to company to refine search strategies and explore other communication opportunities in parallel. This can be social media as you mention, as well as mobile, email and transmedia.

  2. shepdaddy on October 13, 2010

    I share your concerns. I think users will probably fall for the instant gratification initially, but as Chris mentions, the user will quickly become frustrated and keep searching and begin to ignore the suggestions because they are not relevant. I know I have already.