Like many people I read and was thoroughly fascinated by Chris Anderson's The Long Tail, a book which was based upon an article originally published in The Wire in October 2004.
In the original piece, Chris said that the future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream.
There is no doubt that the products in the long tail are available to buy – but its highly questionable whether consumers are actually finding them in 2013.
My view is that people are less likely to select an item from the long tail compared with 9 years ago when Chriss article was originally published.
Here are my 5 examples of why I believe the long tail is shrinking rapidly…
1) Customers who bought this also bought
This was one of the areas that Chris discussed in his book. He gave the example that when a book called Into Thin Air was released on Amazon, it also made a previously released book called Touching the Void much more popular again. In fact, Touching the Void had apparently only been a moderate success when it was initially released, and was nearly out-of-print when Into Thin Air was released.
However, it also begs the question regarding how people find out about the long tail. In this instance it was because another book about a gripping climbing adventure had been released – and that the previous book already had a track record in the arena, albeit a minor one.
It is generally known that one of the biggest influencing factors in determining whether or not an online retailer should recommend another book (or an app, a movie or a music track for that matter) is the quality and quantity of customer reviews. But surely this has the potential to cut off the long tail? One a category becomes fuller, with a greater number of products, and a greater number of reviews then must it not become more difficult for a new entry – with no reviews to get on the customers also bought list? This whole process seems to push customers to the head rather than the tail.
2) Social influencers
Online social relationships often form just as big a bond of trust as real, physical relationships.
Think about it. If youve found that someones provided you with great value and relevant, informative material in the past, are you likely to trust them if they recommend something to you in the future?
And will this make it more or less likely that you fully take on board everything that they tell you without conducting further research elsewhere? Its likely that it will do.
In the early stages of social media (pre 2007) it was common to follow as many people as possible, to try to become as popular as possible. However, users quickly realised that this resulted in a lot of unwelcome, irrelevant noise. People started to be a lot more pinpointed about who they chose to listen to.
Now that so many web users participate on a social site, its utterly impossible to listen to what everyone has to say. This means that individuals are becoming niche industry authorities. But the more authoritative people become, the more difficult it will be for unknowns to break into the same space.
3) Personalised search
The average lay user may not be aware that Google personalises their search results. Savvy people who browse the net may know that Google delivers them a slightly different set of results while theyre signed in to their Google account, but even the majority of users wouldnt be aware of personalised search being delivered to non-logged-in users via cookies.
Googles personalised search will of course also deliver individualised results depending on who you follow on Google+, therefore making it much more likely that you visit the same websites youve been to before.
Personalised search may try to deliver a more relevant search experience, but it could also be argued that it also removes some of the randomness around finding something completely new.
4) Aggregator & review sites
An aggregator site isnt something that the average internet user may have heard of by name, but most people use this type of website on a regular basis.
This type of site pulls together information from multiple sources. An example of such sites would be hotel booking aggregators or utility service comparison sites.
However, what happens when you rely on using just use one aggregator site? The upside is that you get what you want, more quickly. However, the downside is that you only get to consider the suppliers that are part of the aggregator site.
5) Gated communities
I remember that my first internet connection was through AOL. Sorry AOL, but I wasnt satisfied. Not because of any significant connectivity issues – but because I felt that I was being funnelled towards a gated community towards the internet content they wanted me to see.
This is probably why (in the UK at least, where Im from), Freeserve, which offered immediate access to the unfiltered net became the more popular ISP ten to fifteen years ago.
However, over time, as more and more online choices started to become available – and as the quality of those options significantly improved, the temptation to be reliant upon a single provider (think Facebook or Apples app store) became much more appealing. But if you rely on a single provider, how much of the long tail are you cutting off?
There is a perception out there that the internet offers almost limitless choice, but the web appears to be going through a consolidation phase.
There is a great deal of choice out there, but how many people are practising real choice?
Ed Dale says that if you are not in the top 20 influencers in your market, youre stuffed!
I wouldnt be quite as black and white about it, but I do think that over time it will become tougher for niche, independent publishers to makes themselves known to their target markets unless theyre good marketers as well.
I suggest that when users are reasonably satisfied with a rapid, relevant result that theyre less likely to explore further, cutting them off from exploring the long tail. What do you think? Is the long tail shrinking?
David Bain is author of the 26-Week Digital Marketing Plan as well as editor and founder of Digital Marketing Monthly iPad magazine. Check out David’s free 4 Phases of Digital Marketing seminar on YouTube.