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What is The Long Tail?

"The Long Tail" is a popular phrase nowadays, but what does it mean? In this article I'm going to discus the long tail as it relates to choosing a product to market, such as a book, or for choosing topic for a blog. The long tail is actually a term from statistical science, but here I'm going to explain it with the minimal amount of mathematics.


Shown above is a chart of the test grades from a senior physics class. The grades are plotted along the horizontal axis, the number of students who received that grade is plotted along the vertical axis. For example, 3 students received a grade between 58-62, 6 students received a grade between 63-72, and so on. This type of graph is called a "histogram".

bell curve

Shown above, we've impressed a "bell curve" on the chart. The bell curve represents the "probability" of the distribution of values. The shape of the curve describes the "normal distribution" used in mathematics and science. To put it another way, it has been found throughout history that if you create a histogram of the values of any naturally occurring parameter, it will almost always make a curve shaped like a bell.

normal distribution curve

In the senior physics class test grades example, the teacher would use the curve to give a C grade to the students with a score of 80. That's not to say that everything in nature conforms nicely to the bell curve. When I was in school, when the teacher said he would "grade on the curve", he meant he would distort the bell shape towards the left, giving a C to students with a score of 40 (we weren't that bright). What the bell curve gives you is a starting point to describe distributions.

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