There's an article over at ClickZ right now that talks about internal site search engines and the need for companies to focus on the "short tail" of search rather than the more commonly evangelized "long tail." According to the article, just 4 percent of all unique search queries make up more than half of all site searches. Now I realize this may sound like I'm about to tell you to go against everything you know about the power of the long tail, but it's essential to keep in mind that with this article, we're talking about internal site search, not search conducted on a search engine like Yahoo! or Google.

With that in mind, let's break the numbers down a little further. That 4 percent figure that I quote above means that if your customers are typing in 1000 different phrases on your internal site search, 40 of those phrases account for more traffic than the other 960 phrases combined. For e-commerce sites, just 2 percent of search queries make up half of all site searches. That should be a pretty powerful motivator to site owners toward making sure that their site search feature really delivers the goods. If you can make half of your customers very happy by focusing on just 4 (or 2) percent of their requests...well, you do the math. Martha Stewart wouldn't be lying to say "it's a good thing" if you can make it happen.

There are several reasons why internal search needs to be looked at differently than organic search results on a standard search engine.

The Only Competition is Yourself

One of the primary reasons that myself and others push the concept of the keyword long tail so strongly for small businesses is because it opens up a huge window of opportunity for them to gain fairly easy rankings and to drive qualified traffic to their web sites. For small businesses, trying to gain top rankings for highly competitive phrases usually results in more work for less profit, thus making it smarter to focus on the tail end of search.

With internal search, the only competition you face is yourself. There's no massive amount of work going into your site, only to have larger, more established sites still showing up ahead of you. That means that it's well worth the time and effort to focus on making sure that the most popular searches on your site are turning up accurate results.

Internal Searches Convert Better, Even with Generic Phrases

Another reason that I encourage small businesses to tackle the long tail for organic search is because longer, more specific phrases convert at much higher rates. That said, internal searches tend to convert at much higher rates than searches conducted on third party search engines. In fact, the article points out that users that conduct an internal site search are 2.7 times more likely to convert to buyers than site visitors that don't use an internal search engine.

That means that it's absolutely essential that you take care of the site visitors that take the time to use your internet search engine. Well it's still true that the more specific search terms will convert at higher rates, (for example, "30 Gig ipod" is more likely to lead to a sale than "mp3 player") the fact remains that ALL internal searches convert at a good rate and if you can up the chances of half of your searchers will convert by simply serving up better results 4 percent of the time, you'd be crazy not to come up with a plan to improve things.

A Tiny Fix Makes Half Your Customers Happy

Let's look at those numbers again. 4 percent for general sites and 2 percent for e-commerce sites. Those are teeny, tiny numbers. In fact, those numbers are so small, that most sites could manually tweak the results on their own. Imagine that you are running a small e-commerce site that gets about 10,000 internal site searches a month. 2 percent of that number is 200 searches.

Let's say that you spend the next month looking at ten search terms a day and manually pointing them to the most relevant pages on your site, or even manually creating a search results page that pointed to the ten most relevant pages on your site. With a little bit of work, you've suddenly managed to make over half of your visitors VERY happy.

With those three points in mind, it's easy to see why there are times when the long tail isn't the way to go. So for small businesses, it's a good idea to focus your efforts on the head of search for your own site and on the tail of search for third party engines. Doing so should leave you in the best position of all....picking up organic search traffic that is more likely to convert and making it easier for all of your visitors to convert once they get to your site.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

June 6, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

Search Engine Guide > Jennifer Laycock > Focusing on the Short Tail...Yes, You Read That Right