" />

When to Cut the Long Tail

Posted on Wednesday, January 4th, 2012 by Print This Post Print This Post

Categories - Featured, SEM

The long tail has been a cornerstone of search engine marketing strategy since Chris Anderson first introduced the term in 2004. The underlying idea is that high-volume head terms tend to be fiercely contested, which raises CPCs, reduces ROI, and prices advertisers out of the market. So instead of competing for limited space on a crowded page, marketers should focus on long tail terms that have low search volume, but are highly specific, relatively cheap, and collectively deliver a significant amount of clicks. This line of thinking has led many SEM marketers to aggressively expand their keyword set. SEM tool providers have gotten in on the act as well, using automated scripts to add long tail terms on an industrial scale. But is this effort really worth it? What is the right number of keywords for an account?

To answer these questions, marketers need to dig deep into their data to identify how their keywords are actually distributed. As a first step, I recommend pulling a keyword performance report for the last twelve months and then using a PivotTable to organize the data into a usable format.


My preferred method is to drag the Conversions into the Row Labels box and the Keywords and Cost into the Values box. Your Keywords will likely default to ‘Sum of Keywords’, so just click the dropdown arrow on the ‘Sum of Keywords’ menu, select ‘Value Field Settings’, and choose ‘Count’.

Once you’ve organized your PivotTable, sum the data based on the number of conversions to give yourself a sense of the distribution of head, torso, and tail terms. So what does this data tell you? Let’s look at a few examples.



In the table to the left, the advertiser has about 90,000 keywords in their account. They have a very long tail, but it is not delivering conversions. Over 93% of these keywords have had zero conversions in the past twelve months. Not good, but at least these non-converting keywords only accounted for about 14% of spend.


In this next example, the situation is more severe. Not only are 94% of keywords non-performing, but over 40% of the SEM spend was being wasted. What’s more surprising, the average non-performing keyword spent less than $5 per month.


This is a perverse version of the long tail; each of these keywords doesn’t generate enough volume to raise alarms, but collectively, the negative impact of these low-volume keywords is huge. This highlights the inherent tradeoff between granularity and transparency. The more volume that is derived from the long tail, the less data is available for managing each keyword. Taken to the extreme, conversion data can become nothing more than a series of 1s and 0s. By reducing the number of keywords, you can consolidate data into fewer elements, allowing for better decision making.

Based on this advertiser’s data, I aggressively cut back on the long-tail and paused all keywords that have had no conversions in the past twelve months. The result? ROI increased 5x, which freed up budget to reinvest in growing volume on performing terms.

The long tail can be a great source of efficient traffic and every account should have a healthy balance of head, torso, and tail terms, but marketers need to exercise caution. Here are a few steps to help better manage your campaigns:

  • Periodically measure your campaigns to see how your keyword volume is distributed.
  • Use caution with automated keyword expansion tools. No keyword should be added simply because someone searched on the term. Set criteria such as a minimum number of impressions or conversions before adding keywords to your account.
  • When the tail starts wagging the dog, it’s time to cut. Consider pausing out non-performing long tail terms (even those with very little spend). If it hasn’t converted in a year, you probably don’t need it in your account.

About Richard Conn

Richard Conn is a manager on the Strategic Programs team at The Search Agency and founded the charity search engine GiveAClik.org. He earned his MBA at the University of Oxford and has working in search marketing for the past four years.

Tags | , , , ,

12 Responses to “When to Cut the Long Tail”

  1. Ted Ives says:

    Great stuff Richard. Your mention of “allowing for better decision making” was a real lightbulb moment for me.

    Not just money is at stake, but the *time* invested in maintaining those terms (examining search query reports, bidding performance, even just the time filtering terms in and out of various analyses…) really takes away from time that could be used to optimize more profitable terms. This amounts to a sort of long-tail productivity tax on ROI. Very interesting point.

    I think Jefferson Airplane would give the same advice to this client:

    – Ted

  2. Josef says:

    Thanks for the great article Richard. The examples really helped. I recently performed a similar analysis of keywords that led to conversions over 6 – 12 months and found it enlightening! It’s early days but ROI has already increased since the changes were made.

  3. Nate says:

    Thanks for this, Richard! Great insights here. Good to see some data too. And just in case this doesn’t paint a convincing enough picture of the risks of overdoing the longtail, there’s also the matter of the potential drag on Quality Score, specifically on Google’s account-level QS variable.

    Just like with ROI, a single bad keyword with almost no volume is no big deal; but thousands of keywords with a few impressions and no clicks each can dampen your overall account-level QS variable, which can hurt your QS/CPCs/ROI even for the good keywords in the account as well. It’s like the bad apple poisoning the rest of the barrel, except it’s tens of thousands of microscopic bad apples poisoning a couple of good ones… Ok, maybe that’s not the best analogy, but you get the point…

  4. Great article Richard. A valuable reminder that established wisdom needs to be questioned once in a while. The extra degree of account control that this sort of cull would provide is reason enough to look into it, even ignoring the potential ROI impact. …updates to-do list…

  5. Kevin Hill says:

    Great information here Richard. This is something that should be run every 1-3 months even! Much more than that, and you get into a fixit loop that can turn into a lot of jitter adjustments to the data. I would even go so far as to start looking at a system to tie revenue into each of the “buckets” in your great report.

    Perhaps I’ll find out that those 1 conversion keywords over a year cost me 50k, but generate 800k in revenue. Changes the landscape a bit when you tie revenue back into the numbers.

    Thanks for sharing this stuff – it is always refreshing to get a look into ways to improve ROI!

    Kevin Hill

  6. Brandon says:

    Great insight on long-tail keyword research. The notion that having thousands of static long-tail keywords on a ppc campaign, just for the fact that they might generate a few clicks is a surprisingly common misconception with new ppc search engine marketers. As you put it above, the collective negative impact of thousands of long-tail keywords and the issue of granularity those type of numbers create voids any transparency of important keyword-specific conversion analytics. This is the quickest way to not only go through a budget, but also to kill off a campaign before it has a chance to prove its potential for success.

    • Satish says:

      Useful iofarmntion like this one must be kept and maintained so I will put this one on my bookmark list! Thanks for this wonderful post and hoping to post more of this!

  7. Tally says:

    Nonsense welcome to the UK

  8. Ziggy says:

    […]Avinash Kaushik had a great post this moirnng about the different types of keywords visitors use to reach your site, what their intentions are, and how to measure keyword effectiveness based on where customers are in the sales funnel. This got me thinking about metrics in general. I often hear people complain that they are not getting enough hits to their website (which is a very outdated metric in any case). But when you ask them what goal/objective they are trying to measure, they usually cannot tie the two together.[…]

  9. Tuus says:

    […]Ce problème de tcaikrng de la chaine de valeur a déjà été excellemment décrit par Avinash Kaushik dans son article Measuring Upper Funnel Keywords (comprenez mesurez la performance des mots clefs en haut du tunnel de conversion). La description faites dans cet article traite plutot du SEM (search engine marketing ou achat de liens sponsorisés) mais elle s’applique parfaitement au référencement naturel. Le problème peut être résumé comme suit : si l’on se fie aux raport analytics il apparait que les mots clefs menant à la conversion sont les mots clefs contenant votre marque, ce qui n’est pas faux puisque ce sont ceux qui mène en dernière instance à la conversion.[…]

  10. Tim Cole says:

    Outstandingly enlightening thanks, I reckon your subscribers would likely want considerably more information similar to this carry on the excellent work.

  11. Thank you, I’ve just been searching for information approximately this subject for a long time and yours is the best I have came upon till now. But, what concerning the bottom line? Are you certain concerning the source?|What i don’t understood is in truth how you are now not really a lot more smartly-favored than you might be right now. You are so intelligent.


Leave a Reply

Follow Us on Twitter

Featured in Alltop

Big List - Search Marketing Blogs

2010 SEMMY Runner-Up

BoostCTR Best PPC Blogs