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Has the Trend toward the Long Tail of Search Ended?

Submitted by on February 22, 2010 – 9:57 pm4 Comments

Investigating the Short Tail Summer of ‘09

For the last 3-4 years, no single topic has dominated conversation about how searchers access health information like the rise of the Long Tail.  The phalanx of geeks who find search query length fascinating have documented how searchers have transitioned from treating the search box like a directory (‘Acid Reflux’) to zeroing on that one specific bit of information they need to know (Can infants with acid reflux eat bananas?’).  As people master the art of the search, their queries have grown and grown.

This pattern is reflected clearly in traffic to HealthCentral as well – the users who access our sites are getting here by using more and more complex keywords.  On our Rheumatoid Arthritis site, for example, the average length of search queries landing someone on the site is topping out around 5.  This has been a positive development all around – we see lower bounce rates and greater engagement from users who access the site through longer keywords.  As people learn to use search engines in more sophisticated ways, they’re clearly increasing their ability to find the piece of information they’re looking for, rather than swinging and missing.

However, Matt McGee at Small Business Search Marketing recently cited some interesting data from Hitwise that suggests the Long Tail party might be over.  For the first time in years, search queries seem to be shrinking.  The percentage of queries involving just one word actually increased between January 2009 and January 2010.  Similarly, the percentage of search queries 2-6 words in length shrank during the same time period.  So what gives?  Has that beautiful wave of the long tail finally broken and rolled back?

Perhaps I’m still being blinded by the bright glare of the long tail, but I’m not sold that the trend behind long tail search has reversed.

Hitwise query length data - October 2009

The Short Tail Summer of '09. Will we ever know your terrible secrets?

When I dug into the Hitwise data, it looks like it’s not so much the long tail reversing, but a temporary blip in the data. According to Hitwise’s press releases, since September of 2009, the percentage of short tail queries (1-3 words) has dropped, and the percentage of long tail queries (4+ words) has grown.  It seems there was a big spike in one-word queries some time during the summer of 2009, and has been dropping since then.   What happened during the mysterious Short Tail Summer of ’09?  The world may never know, but I’d like to hear any thoughts.  Was there an event so central to search in July and August that it managed to jack up short tail searches, if only briefly?

Matt hypothesizes that perhaps searchers are responding to some improvements in search; for example, a search for ‘pizza’ will now automatically default to doing a local search.  Why type in ‘pizza in Washington DC’ when a single word will get you the same results?

Google results: Pizza

If this were true though, we should see one-word queries continue to grow as more and more people become hip to using Google’s smart searches.  However, this hasn’t been the case.

I do think that Google’s ability to predict what you’re looking for will eventually improve to the point that searches will once again grow shorter.  If you know everything about my web behavior, why shouldn’t you be able to anticipate what I’m looking for given only a word or two?

But for the time being, it looks like we are once again trending out toward the long tail.

If your hunger for search analytics knowledge hasn’t yet been sated, follow me on Twitter – @SearchDan.  The profundity of my insights is matched only by the sharpness of my witticisms.

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