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May 22, 2005



Chris, it seems that something being a mainstream hit almost guarantees it will be rejected by certain niche markets. It definitely happens in music. The last time I was exposed to a top 40 radio station I found it to be totally unlistenable. Whatever the filter is that allows a song to climb the charts seems to almost guarantee I won't like it.

On the other hand, much of the music I do listen to is very popular among my friends, and among people w/ similar sensiblities. Is it possible to have "niche hits"? Are these higher up on the tail, or are they on their own curves?

Greg Linden

Great post, Chris. The long tail is full of crap, but one man's garbage is another man's gold. If you can match content to interested audiences, you can take advantage of the long tail.

Your signal-to-noise ratio graph points to another issue. If you increase the amount of crap without changing your filter, quality will tend to go down. When search engines boast about increasing index size, they inadvertently could be reducing overall search quality by exposing more crap to uninterested users.

Bill Fischer

In the realm of the traditional retail channels for filmed entertainment, the Long Tail is merely a signifier for catalog titles and is agnostic with regards to quality.

Diminished marketing support, limited shelf space, and crude merchandising capabilities all relegate quality older films (greater than a year) to the tail. From our consumer research and customer data, we have seen that simply making an older title available (providing shelf space) and offering basic filters is enough to break this paradigm by moving low quality newer releases down the tail and moving quality older titles towards the head.

Bill Fischer


(in response to previous)
I think that depends on your niche. If you belong to a relatively large group of people who like that music, then your content will be higher up the tail. A "niche hit" is just content particularly well suited to one niche. That means it will sell well within that niche but it may sell poorly with all the other people.


To clarify, my other post is in response to the first post. A bunch of other people replied when I was composing my post.

Jack Krupansky

Are you using the terms "filter" and "recommendation" as synonyms? Your "Filters rule" link does. I agree that recommendations and trust networks are a great *social* form of filtering, but they're not the same as the technical forms of filtering that you get with Google. Google's page ranking is of course more oriented to short-tail popularity.

The problem with recommendations and trust networks is that they don't help you gain access to the very long tail stuff that your personal network has not reached yet.

Technical filters certainly have some significant potential to reach out to the very long tail stuff (including deep left field and out in the weeds), but still have a very long way to go.

For example, if I personally had written something that might be of interest to you, how would you ever know?

I would also note that one person's junk can be another person's treasure, especially when you're talking about long tail stuff for which many people don't yet have standards by which to judge "crap or not".

I once wrote about something I call GMWIMW - Give Me What I Might Want, a mythical filter which would help you continually expand your horizons in a way that doesn't require that you *know* in advance what you want.

-- Jack Krupansky


Jack, GMWIMW seems to exist to some extent at Amazon. I mean it's limited somewhat by the things I search for, buy, or put on my wish list, but it does suggest other related books I didn't know existed.

Another good source seems to be the bibliographies at the backs of the books I do read. If I like the author, I'll consider him/her a potential filter. This is very low-tech, of course, but it does make me aware of all kinds of books way down the tail.


Ever thought about the fact that every spot on the tail is the start of a new tail? I just like to make it more difficult to understand;-) Think 3D...


The interesting thing for me is looking back through recent history to see how further-right producers have exploited (or been exploited) in an attempt to ripple their point left.

Sometimes the difference between niche and monster hit is just in the marketing and advertising venues, so (in theory) if you can take a cheesy sci-fi b-movie and promote it right, it could become the top of the tail. But then what? Would it proportionately increase the position of its fellow niche-ers up the tail?

Star Wars was only really meant to be a niche product, but ended up switching around the LT quite a lot. Were all the crap sci-fi movies in the 80s really rip-offs, or just George Lucas' colleagues, with a huge new visibility?

ed nixon

To be honest, I don't follow your conceptual leap to S/N rations and stronger filters; nor do I follow the 'quality variability' idea.

Whose idea of quality? Why is there a lower S/N ratio further out the long tail? Whose signal? Whose noise?

One of the points I've taken away from your writing so far is that roughly speaking everything is always available. If that is a reality of the long tail then the dimensionality of the X axis becomes what?

I think you may be overlaying too many conceptual notions on a relatively simplistic and powerful graphic. You may need to expand the graphical analogies or develop some sort of alternative coding scheme.


Chris Anderson


Good questions. A few answers:

You're right that everyone registers a different s/n, but down the tail there are 1) more products, 2) more narrowly targeted products and 3) more amateur production, each of us will find that the ratio of products that suits us to products that don't rises. Your favored products are different than my favored products, but both us find more that don't suit us the further down the tail we go.

The x axis is rank, in order of sales/consumption. The y axis is the sales/consumption themselves.

Barry Ritholtz

Science fiction author TheodoreSturgeon once said "90% of science fiction is crap. That's because 90% of everything is crap."

Quality is an aberational rarity . . .

Alex Rowland

I agree with most everything in the post. What I disagree with, however, is the idea that you will be able to charge more for niche content. The environment in which long tail content really thrives is within an open distribution networks. Open distribution encourages publishers to participate (which gives you the breadth of content), but it also favors less regulations, less DRM, and open standards. In such environments it becomes very difficult to charge consumers cash for access to content. To see this in action, just look at the web in general and blogs, podcasts, internet video specifically. Free content thrives, paid content withers. This only gets worse as the network aggregates greater quantities of content. Eventually, the network is governed by slightly different rules. As Clay Shirkey put it so succinctly in his essay 'Fame vs. Fortune';

“If InstaPundit and Samizdata are both equally easy to get to, the relative traffic to the sites will always match audience preference. But were InstaPundit to become less easy to get to, Samizdata would become a more palatable substitute. Any barrier erodes the user's preferences, and raises their willingness to substitute one thing for another….Though each piece of written material is unique, the universe of possible choices for any given reader is so vast that uniqueness is not a rare quality. Thus any barrier to a particular piece of content (even, as the usability people will tell you, making it one click further away) will deflect at least some potential readers… Charging, of course, creates just such a barrier.”

Even niche content suffers this same fate as the network scales. Producers will instead receive compensation by converting audience time and attention into cash, not by charging the consumer directly. Advertising, sponsorships, and donations will be the currency of the long tail.

Jon Garfunkel

So, the main innovation of the long tail is that the content is no longer pre-filtered. It is still post-filtered, though.

Jakob Nielsen

For a lot of utility-oriented niche content, the demand curve is fairly inelastic, meaning that as price goes up, sales don't drop correspondingly. Basically, either you need it or you don't. And if you need it, the price of content is often irrelevant relative to the value of the problem it solves.

For example, if a report can sell for either $50 or $100, there will be less than twice as many sales at $50, so more money is made at $100.

Of course, there's a limit on the price for each type of content, which is why you can't price it at the actual value generated for the customer. For example, it's rare to find a book that costs more than $100 or a report that costs more than $5,000. Both of these two prices are trivial if the text gives you info that, say, increases the sales of an e-commerce site by 10% (assuming that the site sells, say, $1M/year before the improvement). And still, people wouldn't pay $1K for a book, even though they would pay that much for a report with the same text.

Anyway, empirically, niche content certaily can be sold at a higher price than broader content, and that's also necessary since (by definition) the number of sales is smaller, but it still requires significant resources to create the niche content. (In fact, in my business, it often requires *more* resources to generate niche content, because it involves more original research, whereas the broad content is stuff that's already known and just needs to be written down in an understandable manner.)

Back to the original topic of the post: It might be better to avoid the term "quality", because that's so highly context-dependent. Instead, maybe talk about "relevance" or "value" for the target audience. Or, at the minimum, specify that quality is judged by the target audience and not by others.

For example, an opera recording may be high or low quality according to the criteria of opera lovers. (Say, a world-class tenor vs. somebody who can hit the notes, but not spectacularly so.) Doesn't matter. In either case the recording will be detested by people who dislike opera.


Seems to me that the issue isn't about quality, relevance or value. It's really about the constraints of shelf space, and what happens when those constraints disappear.

Alex Rowland

Jakob. I think you're observations have historically been accurate. I think what is changing is how content is distributed to consumers. In a closed network environment, you are right, niche content pricing can be fairly inelastic (although not to the degree I think you argue). But this changes dramatically in an open distribution environment. In an open network everyone can contribute. There are none of the same limitations imposed by the physical, legal, or regulatory structures of the underlying network. In this environment, free content has an enormous advantage over paid content. And just being unique becomes less and less of a reason to fork over hard earned dollars. Most consumers would just rather get 90% (or more) of the value at zero cost.

In an open network, the demand curve is actually highly elastic and only becomes more so as the network matures. In an open network you're just as likely to find the content of those $5,000 reports for free.

Paul Moore

In regards to the content creator (artist, writer, filmmaker, what have you) I posted some thoughts on the implications of this little element of filters on my site


Long Tail full of crap? Wth? I would say it's cool!

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The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

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