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Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Head of the Tail

I first started seriously expounding on that whole long tail thing a little over three years ago, when I urged AdWords advertisers to "avoid insider thinking" in their selection of keywords.

Search engine optimizers have done this for much longer, since they've always looked at ways of ranking well on secondary phrases in industries where the top phrases are too competitive. A great way to continue to get lots of diverse search referrals to your site is still pretty basic: have a lot of great content. The diversity of words on those pages will act as a net that should capture odd, unexpected searches -- the phrases that only get typed in once or twice by anyone, ever.

So should we all start getting worried that more people are discovering the tail (props to Seth for the reference)? Nope. If you live by the tail today, or benefit from it, you're safe. The tail, like every other good idea in business, is safe from those who get into it only because it's a fad. Marketers who understand the tail and its benefits will watch as the fadsters come and go, because fadsters always misapply, misunderstand, and generally make mincemeat of any good idea.

In short, for the next little while, the tail becomes the head, as folks obsess about it, raise VC funds on the strength of it, and generally go ga-ga for it.

I mean, really. Take any general trend or fad, like say ASP-based productivity tools. Some like to call this "on demand business." Wall Street champions like to call Salesforce.com (a company never shy about promoting its stock) the "poster child for on demand" or something to that effect. Then again, I remember when Priceline.com had invented a new way of counting, or something.

I'm sure that when Google's stock tops $300, the last few bullish analysts will start beating the drum for Google's impressive and still-untapped mastery of the tail.

And some new e-commerce or auction-based services clearinghouse startup that will get squashed when eBay or a better competitor stomps on it will use the tail metaphor to hoodwink a few investors.

The tail has always been there. Big companies like Apple are studying it and figuring out how to design products using idiosyncratic advocates out in the field to look at unusual forms of emerging and highly differentiated consumer demand. It's a frightening and enormously cool thing that so many new businesses can benefit from it, and that so many customers can make so many more specific demands on business. It can't be ignored.

But unless your grasp of the tail fits in with a savvy business sense and customers you've been cultivating for awhile, be careful you aren't really grabbing for the head. You could get bitten.

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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