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Want to be exactly what your customers are looking for online? Tap into the long-tail of search.

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To say the Internet will fundamentally change the way businesses go to market would be disingenuous. The Internet has already revolutionised the business marketplace which we operate in.

There are now almost two billion people online, connected and searching for information – presenting enormous opportunities for small businesses to reach new customers.

Only ten years ago, it was difficult for small and medium-sized businesses to compete with their larger, more established rivals. National print and TV advertising was only an option for companies with a sizable marketing budget, while smaller businesses could only afford local advertising, which would (naturally) generate local leads.

The Internet has levelled the proverbial playing field and changed the way entrepreneurs think about their ‘market’. Not only has it cut the costs of distribution but it has also freed up small and more specialist operators to sell to interested national and international customers.

By being ‘found’ online, small businesses can quickly win new customers outside ‘traditional’ markets.

And there are plenty of potential customers looking to connect. Australians spend an average of 17.6 hours per week online now, according to the latest Nielson figures.

The long-tail of search

The way we, as consumers, search for information on the web is getting more-and-more refined.

We still search for big inventory terms like ‘wine’ and ‘furniture store’. But there are also thousands of more specific terms such as ‘1998 Sori San Lorenzo Red Blend Gaja Italy’ and ‘restored French provincial furniture St Kilda’ that make up the rest of the millions of our search queries.

This more sophisticated way of searching marks the realisation of a catchphrase which was coined some seven years ago, ‘the long-tail’.

The theory suggests that businesses capable of selling specialist, low-volume products to people actively seeking them can collectively match the revenues of large-volume, mass-market products, by tapping into a customer base which is no longer geographically confined.

The smaller the better

For small businesses, there’s a wealth of opportunity to be found in these niche search terms.

Someone looking for ‘formula for lactose intolerant babies in Perth’ is clearly on a mission for a solution – and close to making a purchase, whether that be through the click of their mouse online or by visiting the bricks and mortar store.

As well as the opportunity to grow existing businesses through easy access to new customers in national or global markets, the theory of the long-tail also explains why previously unviable businesses are able to thrive on the web. With access to a national or global market from day one, very niche services can now generate enough custom to succeed.

Look no further than custom-made stationery business, Tickle Me designs, which sells its customised wedding stationery to brides-to-be across the country, through a targeted AdWords campaign – spending just $200 a week. While search terms such as ‘wedding stationery’ may be hugely popular, Tickle Me designs decided they are better off bidding on long-tail search terms like ‘cartoon wedding invitations’, which leads to highly qualified customers clicking on their ads.

Now a store selling cartoon wedding invitations in a local mall might struggle to survive. But, online, Tickle Me immediately tapped into demand for its specialised services from a niche customer-base spanning from Brisbane to Broome.

Exploiting the long-tail

There are a couple of ways businesses can identify the long-tail in their markets.

Firstly, get to grips with how your customers look for your product or service online and when.

Each June, I know that Aussies are thinking about equipment hire for the upcoming ski season. How? Because I’ve checked out the search trends on Google’s Insights for Search tool, which shows which queries spike at certain times of the year. For a ski hire business these insights combined with some smart thinking about how to maximise their online presence, can allow them to accurately target their precious marketing budget.

Secondly, once you’ve identified a trend, Google’s Keyword Tool is a great place to start researching which long tail search terms your customers are actually looking for online – and not just what you think they want.

For example, if a costume hire business is setting up a campaign to leverage a spike in online searches around Halloween, they can use the Keyword Tool to brainstorm long-tail search terms that relate to costumes such as ‘scary halloween costumes for hire’ to include in offline and online marketing efforts.

As your customers get savvier about the way they search for things online, the long-tail of their online search queries is creating a world of opportunity for local and specialist businesses.

Will Easton is Head of Retail, Technology and Consumer Product Divisions, Google Australia and New Zealand.

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