SEO: Why Your Long Tail Isn’t Long

The long tail of natural search should drive more traffic and sales than the head. Unfortunately, a site’s strategy, architecture, and implementation often cut the long tail short of its full potential.

This is the second installment of a three-part series on addressing the long tail for search engine optimization. In the first installment, “SEO: How to Maximize the Long Tail,” I explained the basics: the propensity for the individually high-value trophy keyword phrases to drive less natural search performance in aggregate than the phrases that drive only a few searches each.

Think of your ecommerce long tail as a body of keywords made up of a product or type of product with desired attributes or facets. An individual searcher might want a slightly used Honda Civic, preferably black. That resulting keyword query of “black 2015 Honda Civic” is really nothing more than a product (Honda) with three facets (black, 2015, Civic).

Another searcher could want to buy the last book in The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan. That keyword query would be based on a product (book) with two facets (Heroes of Olympus, Rick Riordan).

But optimization implies that there’s something there to improve. You can’t optimize something that doesn’t already exist. If your site doesn’t already contain the pages that would naturally target searches for long tail keyword phrases, it’s impossible to maximize the long tail in any scalable way.

Scalable is the critical distinction. It’s possible for most sites to manually create individual promotional or article pages to target specific keywords they want to capture. If you really want to sell a lot of black 2015 Honda Civics or Heroes of Olympus books written by Rick Riordan, you could create a promotional page for each. But manual page creation isn’t a viable option for capturing the long tail because it is, by nature, thousands or even hundreds of thousands of keywords.

But optimization implies that there’s something there to improve. You can’t optimize something that doesn’t already exist.

Strategy, Architecture, and the Long Tail

What, then, makes up the long tail? It is site architecture: subcategory pages and filtered or faceted subcategory pages. These navigational pages are the key to offering up the types of products and attributes that real searchers are looking for, in a way that search engines can equate directly with the relevance and authority signals they analyze.

If the optimal types of filters or facets are identified within the strategic planning that goes into your site, and expressed optimally by the site’s architecture, the result is a scalable network of product types and attributes that can be combined in thousands of different ways to match searchers’ desires.

Someone wants a black 2015 Honda Civic? As long as you have a page that filters your Honda product set by color, model, and year, you have a page that will naturally target that keyword search to drive that searcher to your site. But if your site lumps all Honda Civics together regardless of color or year, it’s highly unlikely that your site will send a strong enough relevance signal to rank for long tail search queries.

Only deep keyword research can tell you which subcategories and filters are important to your product set. Color may be irrelevant to your customers, but the size could be critical. Analyzing keyword data in combination with your knowledge of your product set and the products that are most profitable to you will help you determine which filters and facets to offer on top of the categories and subcategories that make up the foundation of the site.

Technical Implementation and the Long Tail

The best-laid plans for strategically optimal architecture can still be foiled by implementation, however. Architecture is expressed by navigational design and technical implementation in creating a site from which customers can purchase.

But some implementation decisions accidentally cut off the long tail. Even if you’ve planned for filters and facets, the implementation of complex forms of AJAX and JavaScript can render those filtered pages inaccessible.

Google has stated that it is “generally able to render and understand your web pages like modern browsers.” That “generally” is the problem. Some developers use it as a license to develop without regard to the degraded state still needed to ensure that search engines can access all of the functionality in the navigation and the content on the site.

I’ve had too many sites come to me after a redesign wondering why their complex implementation isn’t performing in natural search, and why it’s not even getting indexed. It’s a terrible thing to discover, after the fact, instead of planning and developing for it up front.

In other instances, facets are accessible to search engine crawlers but they don’t appear to be any different than the parent category. Some platforms by default treat facets as sorting features, without obvious changes to the textual or metadata content on the resulting filtered pages displayed.

As a result, there’s nothing on the page to send a unique signal of relevance to search engines — or for searchers to orient themselves by when they land on the page from search results. The title tag, meta description, heading, and body copy are all the same on a filtered page as they would be on the parent page.

You cannot tell with the naked eye if your site’s long tail is being maximized. Next week, in the third installment, I will explain how to analyze your long tail performance — to determine challenges to overcome or untapped opportunities.

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