I know I've done this before, but we always seem to get people asking why sites in the long tail are able to jump around tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousand places, in the rankings. So here's a fresh shot at explaining the traffic in the long tail.
Take this graph, for example:
(Note: the original larger image is no longer available. 2/12/10)
This graph attempts to plot the top 200,000 most popular sites on the Web and show what percent of Web surfers can be expected to visit a site on any given day. I realize that it looks like a blank graph with no data points, but you'll have to look closer. In fact, you might want to break out your magnifying glass and inspect the lower left of the graph.
The most popular site on the Web, Yahoo.com gets whopping 28% of all Web visitors; but it is hard to see because it is crammed all the way over there on the left of the graph. Site number 1,000, imagehigh.com, gets an impressive 0.11% of all Web surfers visiting their site on a daily basis and you can catch just a glimpse of it in the lower left of the graph. Yes, that tiny little hooked line hanging out in the corner of the graph represent the only visible data points on the graph.
Moving down the list, site number 100,000, mum.edu, gets 0.00120% of Web surfers visiting their site and can't be seen on the graph because, like 99% of all the sites on this graph, it is vanishingly close to the axis at 0.
Of course, it isn't fair to compare other sites to Yahoo. So I have this other graph. It starts at site number 1,000, imagehigh.com, and continues out to 200,000:
Now it is a bit easier to see those sites that are close to the axis. But you'll notice that the trend hasn't changed. The sites between 100,000 and 200,000 have virtually the same number of visitors going to their site each day. In other words, to move from a rank of 200,000 to all the way up to a rank of 100,000, a whopping 100,000 places up the rankings, a site only needs to improve its traffic a slight amount.
That is the long tail in action. That's how it works. You get hundreds of thousands of sites all with similar traffic. If your traffic improves a slight amount you get to move up thousands and thousands of places. Add to that the fact that Alexa, even with millions of users in the panel, is tracking just a sample of Internet users, and not the whole bunch, and you can get some artificial bumps as well.
So, what's the lesson here? The long tail is very long. Very... Long... It keeps going out past 200,000, past a million and keeps going past 18 million sites, the vast majority of which receive no measurable traffic at all. That's the nature of the long tail and traffic distribution on the Web and that's why sites can jump up hundreds of thousands of places in the rankings with little actual change in traffic.
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