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Exploring the Link Between Head and Long-Tail Traffic

Rule 1 – Most of our traffic comes from the long tail

When I analysed the inbound organic search terms on Web Design from Scratch over a 12-month period, Google Analytics gave me the maximum 500 rows of data.

I was interested to know where the 50% point was… How many of my top terms represented half the inbound traffic.

I didn’t find the halfway point. The top 500 terms only accounted for 42% of all traffic. So the long tail of the graph delivers more traffic (on a rich site) than the “head”.

This graph shows the actual distribution for those top 500 terms. Even though several of my top terms delivered over 10,000 visits, most of the traffic is not displayed here!

Long tailRule 2 – You can’t directly optimise for the Long Tail

Of course, the more pages and content you have, the more opportunities there are for the search engines to match people’s queries to your stuff.

But it’s practically impossible to optimise any site for the hundreds or thousands of different phrases that (should) actually bring the majority of your traffic.

So what can you do?

How to Optimise for the Long Tail

My idea is, if you imagine picking up the head of the graph and lift it, the Long Tail should also raise.

But, in the spirit of good marketing, I thought I’d test that assumption.

So I pulled up the numbers for a selection of 8 of my most popular terms, each taken over two separate periods.

Here are my results.

head-vs-long-tail

Notes:

  1. Obviously, there will always be more phrase matches (searches containing e.g. “css block”) than exact matches (only the phrase “css block”).
  2. The longer the phrase, the more likely it is that the exact score will be the majority of the searches (e.g. “top 10 websites in the world”, where the phrase match numbers are only 3-5% more than exact).
  3. There are variances between the two years. For terms like “css block” and “modern web design”, the proportion of exact:phrase is almost identical. In other cases, the numbers can vary by as much as 66%.
  4. What’s really important is, in every case, when the exact-match number goes up, the total (phrase-match) searches go up, I think proving the hypothesis that lifting the most popular terms will lift a range of other terms.
So, focus on a range of head terms, and the Long Tail will take care of itself.
About the author

Ben Hunt

Ben is the creator of Web Design From Scratch. He started writing articles about web design to kill time on a long train commute, and is now one of the most influential figures on the subject of effective web design. He has written three books and spoken at multiple conferences internationally.