Chris Anderson’s book, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, sits on the bookshelves (or e-readers) of countless entrepreneurs. For many, it has even been an influential book whose ideas have played a role in key business decisions.

Over the years, however, some have asked “Just how long is the long tail?” and interestingly, in many cases, the answer appears to be “not that long at all.”

That appears to be the case when it comes to referral traffic if a study conducted by SEO firm Conductor is any indication.

Following up on a question raised by SEOmoz’s Rand Fishkin about whether or not there was a long tail of referral traffic, Conductor analyzed 31m referral visits across fifty B2C and B2B properties. The result?

Excluding search as a referral source, direct referrals accounted for 80% of all visits. With search included as a referral source, search represented 70% of all visits, with direct referrals, other search services and social sites accounting for the other 25%, 4% and 1%, respectively. On a domain basis, the top 10% of domains were seen to drive 91% of the traffic.

In other words, “the referrer fat head is alive and well” and companies focused on extracting value from a long tail are probably going to be disappointed because, well, the long tail isn’t so long.

Vertical focus

Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the top 10% of domains varied based on the industry. Conductor’s Nathan Safran explained:

While some might have hypothesized that there would be a group of ‘super referral sites—sites that we’d see as among the top referrers across a large percentage of industries–there was little to no overlap amongst the top referring domains between the domains analyzed.  If our sample is therefore reflective of the web at large, this suggests that the top drivers of referral traffic are very much domain/industry specific.

In summary, Safran suggests that “when it comes to referral traffic, there’s actually a lot less going on than one might think.” Find the fat head of your industry and target it. A strategy far more sophisticated that may be adding complexity where it isn’t helpful or needed.