As a long-time evangelist for findability, the rise of search engines as a fundamental change in how we consume information, and the inherent implication that as the Internet grows you’ll be able to find more and more obscure information online, I have been very interested in Chris Anderson’s writings in WIRED, the resultant business book The Long Tail and its inevitable book blog.
Something about Anderson’s basic premise that best sellers and truly popular items were basically a thing of the past as we all “spread out” into our larger and larger information space always seemed incongruent with what I’ve observed, however, as I dig through the reams of information out there on Web usage, product sales and similar.
Finally, Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal pegged it with his superb rebuttal of “The Long Tail” in It May Be a Long Time Before the Long Tail Is Wagging the Web, in which he provocatively writes “… you can make the case that the Internet is amplifying the role of hits, even in relation to misses, not diminishing them.”
There’s much more of value in Gomes’ article, and I’d like to quote a couple of pithy paragraphs, adding my own thoughts and amplifications:
“By Mr. Anderson’s calculation, 25% of Amazon’s sales are from its tail, as they involve books you can’t find at a traditional retailer. But using another analysis of those numbers — an analysis that Mr. Anderson argues isn’t meaningful — you can show that 2.7% of Amazon’s titles produce a whopping 75% of its revenues. Not quite as impressive.”
It’s surprising that Anderson discounts this important data point, and indeed, the very infrastructure of Amazon, the “Amazon Rank” of its products, shows just how much hits and popularity continue to be relevant in what sells. For example, Robert Scoble and Shel Israel explained a few weeks ago how having their book associated with “The Long Tail” increased their Amazon Rank and, by implication, book sales. The irony is that this phenomenon is much more “best seller” related than “long tail” related.
On his book blog Anderson rebuts these statistics, implying that these two figures are consistent, just the same data represented different ways. I don’t see how that’s possible, though. If 2.7% of inventory generate 75% of sales, then it therefore is safe to conclude that the remaining 25% of sales are generated by the remaining 97.3% of inventory, not the “long tail” 25% as Anderson suggests.
The observation that 75% of revenue comes from the top 2.7% of inventory is one that makes sense, especially in the trendy “word of mouth marketing” circles: as something becomes more popular, it can become a lot more popular, and that can feed on itself in what Malcolm Gladwell describes (much more interestingly, in my opinion) as The Tipping Point.
In terms of “The Long Tail”, I interpret this to mean that while the most odd and obscure — the ‘tail’ in the popularity equation that defines the epynonymous long tail — might have traffic, it’s the smallest subset of that tail that can actually generate any revenue or profit.
The way to have the long tail be profitable might just be to figure out how to make the obscure popular rather than trying catering to more and more obscure and offbeat tastes.
Back to Gomes, however. Here’s another terrific paragraph (well, two paragraphs) he writes:
“Another theme of the book is that “hits are starting to rule less.” But when I looked online, I was surprised to see what seemed like the opposite. Ecast says 10% of its songs account for roughly 90% of its streams; monthly data from Rhapsody showed the top 10% songs getting 86% of streams.
“Bloglines, the widely used blog-reading tool, lists 1.2 million blogs; real ones, not computer-generated “spam blogs.” The top 10% of feeds grab 88% of all subscriptions. And 35% have no current subscribers at all — there’s clearly no 98 Percent Rule in the blogosphere.”
(The referenced 98-percent rule is one that Anderson puts forward in the book, that 98% of selections are requested at least once in a while, even for the broadest and most obscure of catalogs.)
Ultimately, I think that the concept of “The Long Tail” is one that makes intuitive sense to me and should make sense to you too. Heck, the log files for this very site demonstrate that even the most obscure and uninteresting writing is encountered via Google or some other search engine at least once a week.
The problem I have with the book is when it moves into business advice, starting with a premise that identifying, promoting and selling popular items will not remain a viable business.
Gomes touches on this, but only in passing, when he writes: “… while every singer-songwriter dreams from his bedroom of making a living off iTunes, few actually do, mostly because so many others have the very same idea. And to the extent that Apple is making money off iTunes, thanks go to Nelly Furtado and other hitmakers.”
And perhaps that’s the crux of the discussion: can you actually make money off the Long Tail?
I think that it might just be harder than Anderson and his Web 2.0 ilk believe, and that the rise of “citizen media” and “user generated content” and even the popularity of blogging is a demonstration of the importance of hits and our desparate collective need to find the next thought and opinion leaders and follow them. I don’t believe that Harry Potter, The da Vinci Code and Pirates of the Caribbean were flukes at all.
In fact, I believe we already see the opposite of what “The Long Tail” predicts. You see them all time time. For example, the last time you went to an airport I bet you saw “The Best Seller Bookstore” and “Only The Hits Video Rental Shop”. If you frequent truck stops, you’ve also seen “The Twenty Most Popular Audio Books Rental Kiosk” and just about every store still has “The Fifty Magazines People Actually Buy”, sometimes along with “The Naughty Dozen Magazines Behind the Counter”.
That’s not the Long Tail at all, is it?
One final observation: if Netflix opened up a partner rental site called, say, TopFlix, and the deal was $9.99/mo for as many rentals as you want, but only movies that had been rented from Netflix itself at least 100 times in the previous month were available, don’t you think a lot of people would happily switch and never even miss the obscure Bollywood films, Russian documentaries and Hong Kong martial arts movies?
Cut off the long tail and perhaps, just perhaps, most people wouldn’t even notice. After all, if you could identify the 2.7% of inventory that generated 75% of sales, that small bookstore could do pretty darn well for itself…