Internet users: Read this

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's the ‘long tail', and it might force you to rethink your understanding of the web.

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By  Matthew Wade Published  June 9, 2008

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No it's the ‘long tail', and it might force you to rethink your understanding of the web and how to get your website and/or products found and bought.

The power and influence of competition-destroying media ‘hits' such as movies and era-defining songs is on the wane, because now thanks to the online availability of, well, virtually everything, consumers have more choices than traditional media can inform them about. And with the help of intelligent search and filters they're choosing absolutely everything, accessing the ‘tail' end of the traditional demand curve to the ‘nth' degree.

That's the message of Wired executive editor Chris Anderson's must-read webonomics book, ‘The Long Tail', which I've just discovered. And this is a book that everyone whose company sells any kind of product must read. (And no, I'm not on commission, but it's just that important.)

The Long Tail, as defined by Anderson, is an economic theory for the web age, based upon the assertion that what he calls "endless choice" - exemplified by the offers of online retailers such as Amazon and digital movie provider Netflix, through to niche content sites like sword-buyers-guide and best-horror-movies.com - has effectively created "unlimited demand".

Demand in other words that is unfettered by information gatekeepers such as traditional media, and instead enabled and emphasized by Google et al.

From a product perspective, Anderson details the blue-sky thinking behind Amazon's business approach: roughly along the lines of, "If stockholding of everything can be centralized, and internet search used by customers to find anything, why not offer, well, everything?" (a strategy that has grown sales incrementally) FO, through to the inclusion of user reviews and ‘Also bought' recommendations (negating information overload), and later, how Amazon upped the ante by using the web to bring together America's thousands of second-hand book sellers (via its ingenious - and stock-free - Marketplace program).

The internet as an almost infinitely flexible distribution tool is expanded upon by Anderson using the examples of music sites such as Rhapsody (with its 735,000 songs to Wal-Mart's 39,000) and Apple's iTunes Music Store (sadly still not yet available here in this region).

He explains, "Online services carry far more inventory than traditional retailers. Rhapsody, for example, offers 19 times as many songs as Wal-Mart's stock of 39,000 tunes. The appetite for Rhapsody's more obscure tunes (similar to Amazon's more niche book titles... the ‘Stitch & B*tch Knitting Handbook' anyone? - Ed) makes up the so-called Long Tail. Meanwhile, even as consumers flock to mainstream books, music and films, there is real demand for niche fare found only online."

If your business offers products then, the over-riding message of the new web economy to absorb is this: ‘If you offer it online, someone will likely be interested in buying it, providing you make it findable through search and filtering'.

All in all, The Long Tail provides a lesson worth knowing and exploring; I can't recommend it highly enough.

And once you're done with that...

Moving away from Anderson's large-scale examples and down to a more "How do I apply these lessons to benefit me and/or my business?" level, two additional findings I've made give some useful examples of how businesses of any size, and individuals with specific topic knowledge (i.e. everyone), can apply long tail theory to the benefit of their online working lives.

My first find is aimed at marketing, PR professional and small business owners. It's a book called ‘The New Rules of Marketing and PR', by David Meerman Scott. This easy-to-read guide explains how small business folks can befriend and so gain the trust of interested net users through providing keyword-optimised and topic-specific guides and content that search engines can find - not a sales pitch, initially at least. And then - as a very last step - lead these potential customers through to direct buying channels (in the form of an e-commerce store or online retail partners say.

The ‘New Rules' also includes eye-opening chapters and real-life examples on the value of blogging (by you for example, in relation to your company's area of operation) and even just commenting on related blogs (again, with ‘helpfulness' and credibility in mind, not promotion and certainly not ‘selling' your company); the overall idea being that if you become an authority that people trust and like, they'll be happy to buy from you in future.

If you work in marketing or PR, or you run/manage a company that markets itself (i.e. any and every company to some degree), this one's a must-read too.

My second and final find for today I actually came across through researching a Windows Middle East feature about online website building tools. The company is called Sitesell, it's product is named Site Build It (SBI). And what's interesting about its home business website building offer is that it's less about building a groovy-looking site and then hoping people will find it, and more about basing this site on a niche topic or topic angle you personally love, using related keywords that people out there actually search for (meaning they'll actually find your site).

To do this, SBI offers everyday people (teachers, marketers, stay-at-home mothers, anyone really...) a relatively fool-proof system designed to help them build a keyword-focused website (one page per keyword) around a theme. Then, when traffic builds (and all the evidence offered by Sitesell and its users suggests that with time and the right techniques carefully applied, it does), the company offers numerous ‘monetization' ideas for making cash from traffic - ranging from Google Adsense scheme to affiliate programs, referrals, e-books, hardbook creation and much more. Sword-buyers-guide for example is just one SBI-created site (vegancoach.com and rent-a-villa-in-tuscany.com are others), and this ultra-niche sword guide is amongst the top 1% of sites on the web as ranked by Alexa.

The top 1%!

That right there is an example of how a site that's at the furthest, thinnest end of the ‘long tail' is really doing the do - proving in turn that surfers want content and real information about everything. Every content topic, no matter how specific. Every book (as proved by Amazon), no matter how bizarre. Every song (see iTunes' niche sales patterns in Anderson's Long Tail book). And on and on the long tail goes...

Further reading:

- Download a PDF synopsis of Anderson's Long Tail theory from the ChangeThis website (which itself is largely unrelated but also worth a read).

- The boss of Sitesell, Ken Evoy, explains what Long Tail theory means - in the plainest of English - to small and home business owners, on this page. (There's also a link here to an Evoy interview with Chris Anderson.)

- Hear Anderson himself explaining Long Tale theory (in-house at Google), here on Youtube.

- David Meerman's blog - which led to ‘The New Rules' book - is at www.webinknow.com

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