Search’s Long Tail Rising
“When they kick out your front door, how you gonna come?
With your hands on your head, or on the trigger of your gun?”
Last week Google confirmed changes to their natural Search algorithm. In short, by giving more weight to site authority in the algo, long tail Search traffic should begin to rise for the top 1000 publishers. The majority of new customer and visitor acquisition takes place in the long tail so this update might make as large a financial impact as anything since the Florida update in November 2003.
Google also announced (maybe not so) coincidentally last week a list of the 1000 publishers in the DoubleClick Ad Planner. What was most interesting to me was that in a foretelling bit of metrics, publishers on the list are being ranked by UV (unique visitors) and not PV (page views). The shift in thinking as Search becomes Display is important for pubs to understand. The value of the media is in the visitor, not the page they are viewing.
Ultimately, as all media becomes performance media value will be determined by how well the interests and intent - Search keywords being the best proxy for this - are matched with relevant ads and offers. In response to this the past 24 months have seen a rise in publisher business models leveraging long tail natural Search traffic from Google namely Demand Media, AOL and now Yahoo with their purchase of Associated Content.
But there is an interesting publisher/advertiser symbiosis in play here. Google strategy in case you’ve missed it the past 5 years is to build an intent marketplace where they are the lone market maker -- something they’ve done with incredibly brilliance (helped by the ineptness of Yahoo and Microsoft). By dominating Search ads (and soon Display) as well as publisher monetization through AdSense, Google keeps the true value of the media opaque while creating a market that keeps their partners “happy enough” but is optimized for Google’s 10-Q.
Publishers have few other intent driven monetization options. Gripes about Google often belie the fact that 85% [PDF here] of Google outbound traffic is directed from natural Search. Besides the institutional cost of good SEO practices the cost to publishers for this mountain of intent laden traffic is $0.00. Not a penny for what is undisputedly the most valuable assets in online media – a search referrer! With Google embarking to deliver more of this manna for pubs this should be the opportunity of a lifetime for them. It is not. At least, not yet.
As someone who helped pioneer dynamic messaging and content targeting from Search I’ve watched little technical innovation happen to target these valuable natural search referrers over the past two years – critical years as Google’s own fortifications around Search monetization continue to get stronger. Is Demand’s model the best we’ve come up with to leverage Search? Is thinking about SEO in article headlines a revolutionary tactic? Is retargeting someone who landed from a query that innovative? Are contextual and in-text ads truly relevant? Outside of Quigo (in 2004!) nobody has built any tech that truly helps the publisher make money from Search’s free traffic except Google. So now publishers are helpless except to watch Google give the gift of increased Search traffic back to itself while pubs keep hitting the AdSense pipe.
The good news is it is far from game over. Huge advances in APIs, analytics, data and semantic technology the past few years bring with them great opportunity. Search is MASSIVE and contrary to people that want to write it off Google’s natural Search volume is only rising (up roughly 10 billion queries YoY (comScore)) and even better for targeting the user queries are getting more defined. New channels like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and a rise in Mobile queries will continue to drive incrementally more intent laden traffic across the web to publishers. Search has plenty of legs and it’s not just publishers than can stand to benefit.
The long tail of Search is likely the most valuable marketing channel ever created. The dynamic nature of the web allows publishers and advertisers to roll it up so it can be leveraged it at scale but Publishers need tools to catch the money literally bouncing off their site and out of their hands back to Google. They need an endcap that allows them to both understand the value of the traffic and capture it by deliver relevance to it. These problems are some of the problems we're working on at Yieldbot and if you are a publisher interested in monetizing natural Search traffic I’d love to hear from you. Never has the opportunity been greater or more important.