Long-Tail vs. Short-Tail Keywords: What they Mean and Which is Better

Both long-tail and short-tail keywords serve as the foundation on which search engine optimization (SEO) is built. Keywords in your site’s content make it possible for Google and other search engines to determine what your site is about, who needs to know about it, and how it will be prioritized compared to other comparable sites. Google’s mission is to deliver the most relevant content to its users, and it uses keywords above all other variables to make that determination. But alas, every reputable SEO agency knows that not all keywords are created equal. There are various types of keywords, but for most businesses looking to optimize their websites for the most relevant search traffic, understanding long-tail vs. short-tail keywords and their ideal usage is essential.

Understanding Keywords: An Overview of Short-Tail vs. Long-Tail Keywords

Keywords are basically anything that a user types into Google (“real estate”, “Home Depot hours”, “computer repair”, “vegan chili recipes”, “electricians near me”, “why is the sky blue”, “what is this rash on my foot”, etc.). Generally, short-tail keywords are brief and generic, whereas long-tail keywords are longer and produce more specific results.

Short-tail keywords are more often searched by users, typically making long-tail keywords easier to rank for. Despite long-tail offering greater ranking possibilities, properly utilizing both is inherently valuable for consumers and marketers.

The Search Demand Curve

The names “short- and long-tail” come from their position on the “search demand” curve. There are few, largely popular keywords, but they can rake in millions of monthly queries, putting them on the “short end” of the curve (think just typing in “shoes”). Millions of search queries take up the middle, with search volumes in the thousands (like “running shoes for women”). Then, on the remaining portion of the curve – the “long tail” – lives the billions of search queries that only take up a small number of monthly searches (like “Nike women’s running shoes with arch support”). Being on the long-tail end may mean fewer monthly searches, but you know you’re getting the quality, targeted audience you want for a better result. 

What Are Short-Tail Keywords?

Typically, a short-tail keyword is a generic search term users are most likely to type into Google, consisting of no more than one or two words. These keywords are largely popular and can be found in millions of search queries each month. Because of their high search volume, these types of keywords offer a lot of traffic, but with that, there’s a lot more competition. 

Examples of Short-Tail Keywords

Let’s say you’re in the market for a new car, and you head to Google to see what’s out there. Perhaps this search’s broadest short-tail keyword would be simply “cars.” This keyword has over 1.2 million searches monthly and roughly 6.6 billion search results. Even a slightly more specific short-tail keyword, like “used cars” or “SUVs,” won’t narrow things down much, but these might help you find what you’re interested in.

What Are Long-Tail Keywords?

Long-tail keywords are, yes, longer, but they actually got their name as they fall on the end or “long tail” of the “search demand” curve. These are more keyword phrases than single words, comprised of four to eight words strung together to narrow down a search to the most applicable results. Despite generating a smaller portion of searches, billions of long-tail keyword queries are generated monthly. Thanks to a lower search volume, there’s much less competition, making them an easier tactic in improving rankings organically and lowering your cost-per-click in paid search campaigns.

Types of Long-Tail Keywords

Long-tail keywords can be written as one of two types: topical and supporting. 

  • Topical Long-Tail: When looking to implement long-tail keywords, topical is the recommended route as they are the most popular way to search for any given topic. A topical long-tail keyword is essentially the primary keyword of a piece of content.   
  • Supporting Long-Tail: Supporting long-tail keywords are the subtopics of a topical keyword, offering more elaboration. In general, content is written about the supporting long-tail keywords because they are much more specific and easier to rank for. 

For example, a topical long-tail keyword could be “digital marketing strategies,” but you could drill that down even further into a supporting long-tail keyword, “effective B2B digital marketing strategies for lead generation.”

Examples of Long-Tail Keywords

Continuing with our previous vehicle search query example, you can refine your search with specific long-tail keywords. For example, “pre-owned Honda CR-V St Louis” has only a few searches per month and a comparatively low 3 million search results. However, the top results will be local Honda dealerships with an in-stock inventory of pre-owned Honda CR-Vs.

Which Keyword is Better?

Long-tail and short-tail keywords are both necessary for both businesses and consumers. The key difference is searcher intent. 

When you search “cars,” you’re probably in the early stages of your buying journey and just want to see what’s out there. It’s unlikely that you’d search for “cars” and run out to buy the first thing that pops up. Rather, your search journey might look something like this:

As you decipher between what you want and what you don’t want, your search becomes more and more focused, and the keywords get longer and more specific. So, while only a few people might search for “pre-owned Honda CR-V St Louis” in a given month, it’s safe to say that these few people have done their research and are ready to buy, making it a much more valuable interaction.

While long-tail keywords offer greater impact sooner, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should discount short-tail keywords, but be realistic in how you use them. It’s not impossible to outrank the top ten results for short-tail keywords, but don’t expect to accomplish the goal anytime soon. 

Achieving the desired top ten ranking using short-tail keywords can take years of content work and link building. To clarify, consider that “pizza” has a monthly search volume of just over one million. It also has a competition level of 95 out of 100, so ranking organically in the top ten for the keyword “pizza” will be tough.

To establish your topical authority, it’s best to strategically target both short- and long-tail keywords.

General Practices for Keyword Research

The perfect keyword is going to be just broad enough to have some search traffic behind it yet specific enough to allow you to rank relatively easily. If your keyword is too specific, like “low carb thin crust pizza restaurants that deliver to 902 South 5th Street,” no one is searching for it. And if your keyword is too broad, like “pizza”, then you’ll likely be relegated to the unexplored depths of Google learning about the history of pizza. It’s a balancing act between volume and competition. Selecting specific keywords in relation to your niche is a highly influential method to get your website to rank.

How to Find the Right Keywords

You’ll want to optimize your site for specific keywords for which your potential customers will likely search. This might be “emergency plumbers near me,” “personal injury lawyer St Louis,” or “best wedding cake bakery in town,” for example. You can use your best judgment when it comes to developing these keywords, but you’ll want to avoid keyword cannibalization and use cold hard data to back up your decisions. There are a variety of resources out there that will help you determine potential traffic behind the specific long-tail and short-tail keywords, including Google Trends, SEM Rush, Keywords Everywhere, and many other keyword research tools. Some are free, while others require a monthly subscription or the purchase of “credits,” so you’ll need to find the option that works best for your needs and budget.

Volume vs Competition

Keywords with a lower volume do not mean lackluster results. Instead, looking at the keyword’s competition will help you better determine how successful it’s going to be. 

In keeping with our pizza example, using a more specific term, like “thin crust pizza delivery” or “low carb pizza near me” is naturally going to have less search traffic than “pizza.” However, the competition is virtually non-existent, so ranking for those more specific terms is perfectly within the scope of reality. In other words, if a page on your site is ranking for either of these keywords, you’ll unlikely receive millions of hits, but what you will get is an increase in conversions from qualified, thin-crust or low-carb pizza aficionados ready to buy what you’re selling.


Finding the right short-tail and long-tail keywords can be challenging for SEO or a PPC campaign, but it’s an essential step in optimizing your site for relevant, organic search traffic that generates leads and sales. And keep in mind, even if you’re ranking for a few high-traffic, low-competition keywords, your SEO job is not done.

SEO is always changing, and if you’re not constantly making updates to your site to retain your rankings, your competitors will swoop in with optimized content of their own. Keep your website optimized and functioning as an asset to your business with help from the SEO experts and marketing professionals at Timmermann Group. 

Contact us today to discover what we can do together to help your company reach its goals.