Debunking ‘The Long Tail’?

In a bit of schadenfreude, the Wall Street Journal writes about a Harvard Biz School prof’s rigorous debunking of the theories and conclusions of the Chris Anderson tome “The Long Tail”:

Prof. Elberse looked at data for online video rentals and song purchases, and discovered that the patterns by which people shop online are essentially the same as the ones from offline. Not only do hits and blockbusters remain every bit as important online, but the evidence suggests that the Web is actually causing their role to grow, not shrink.

The Harvard prof’s article in question examines the Internet’s impact on consumer behavior and consumption patterns and offers practical advice to businesses and retailers selling products online. The conclusion is that the Internet has dramatically expanded access to inventory — and obscure inventory — but that hits and blockbusters remain as important as ever.

Google in a way is a case in point: Search and YouTube are runaway hits, other services not so much.


12 Responses to “Debunking ‘The Long Tail’?”

  1. The Long Tail A Myth? Study Calls It Into Question : Natural Search Blog Says:

    […] also mentions of this study by Greg Sterling and Rafe […]

  2. Malcolm Lewis Says:

    What exactly is he debunking?

    Hits and blockbusters populate the left edge of the curve where there is very high consumption (spend, pageviews, whatever your measure) for relatively few items. The long tail is everything to the right.

    The beauty of the web is that it makes it easier for us to find and consume items in the long tail that we would not otherwise have known about. It’s the notion that physical inventory is limited and gets harder to search the more you have, whereas online inventory is practically infinite and equally easy to search regardless of how much you have.

    I’m not sure Google’s services are a good example. I think the long tail assumes a broad distribution of essentially similar products/services that are well known to a broad group of people, and where the only difference in the products/services are minor and taste-specific.

  3. Greg Sterling Says:

    Okay you’re probably right re Google. First thing that came into my mind.

  4. Greg Sterling Says:

    The debunking is the idea that hits don’t matter as much as they once did and marginal or obscure titles are in fact more important than the top titles.

  5. Peter Says:

    i never thought of a ‘grow vs. shrink’ argument, but one of ‘possible vs. not possible’. the local video store can still only carry so many movies – ditto best buy for music, etc. chances are, if i want something, a physical retailer does not have it.

  6. Greg Sterling Says:

    Clearly more inventory is good for everyone. But the idea that business models should be turned on their head based on “the tail,” is what the Harvard study/data is arguing against.

  7. Mike Says:

    I think Greg is right that the thrust of the Long Tail theory is not merely to point out that there is a head and a tail, but to suggest that businesses stand to gain more by focusing on the tail rather than the head, and network technology makes that prospect practically feasible.

    Even before the www, businesses managed themselves around the concept of balancing the head and tail – consciously or not. A bookstore that carried only the top 10 best sellers would go out of business because it wouldn’t attract enough repeat visitors who like to browse and purchase tail selections. At the other end, bookstores that carry an extensive collection of obscure title can have trouble staying in business as well.

  8. Malcolm Lewis Says:

    Do online business models have to choose between the head and the tail? I’m not sure they have to online. Amazon does very well across both. In the physical world, where inventory is limited, businesses had to choose. Hence the difference between Borders and your local specialty book store. In the online world, you can cater to both the head and tail without compromising anything since physical inventory is no longer a constraint (assuming you have a huge warehouse and/or large enough network of suppliers who will drop-ship).

  9. Greg Sterling Says:

    No they don’t have to choose; it’s a question of emphasis online however.

  10. Mike Says:

    I don’t think it’s a matter of either/or, it’s a matter deciding strategically where you want to strike the balance. Different businesses are going to plot different points along the curve as the head/tail balance that works for them.

    I think this is not really a refutation of Long Tail theory, rather just a tempering of it. Just because certain physical constraints are removed via technology and network effects, that doesn’t mean that now the best place to market is along the tail. It just means that you have to rethink your marketing approach and see the ways that the opening of the tail that technology provides can now expand your marketing strategy.

    I think it’s just a classic case of a new theory being conceived in an antithetical way, with the practical application of the theory being in reality more of a synthesis of the old and new. Often people are taken with a new theory in abstract and see it as a new reality, when in reality there is nothing new under the sun… remember the “new economy” talk in the late 90s?…

  11. Greg Sterling Says:

    Mike. That’s a great way to conclude the discussion.

  12. Search Engines Blog - The Long Tail A Myth? Study Calls It Into Question Says:

    […] also mentions of this study by Greg Sterling and Rafe Colburn.) Share and […]

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