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 are what 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 in comparison 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. To optimize your site for the most relevant search traffic, you’ll want to understand the difference between long tail vs short tail keywords.
What are the long tail and short 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. And as you’ll see as we get into the next sections, both are inherently valuable for both consumers and marketers.
What are short tail keywords?
Typically a short tail keyword is a generic search term made up of no more than one or two words that a user is likely to type into Google. As these keywords are generally super generic and something more people are likely to search. You’re sure to see a lot more traffic on these types of keywords and, naturally, a lot more competition for that traffic (but more on that later).
What are long tail keywords?
Long tail keywords are, you guessed it, longer. But perhaps a better way to think of long tail keywords is to consider them not as single words but as keyword phrases. Generally these keyword phrases are roughly four to eight words strung together that a user will use to narrow their search to only the most applicable of search results.
Long Tail and Short Tail Keyword Examples
Let’s say you’re in the market for a new car and you head to Google to see what’s out there. Perhaps the broadest short tail keyword for this particular search would be simply “cars”. This keyword has more than 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 a whole lot. However, these search results might help you find out what you’re really interested in. At that point, 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. And sure enough, the top results are local Honda dealerships with in-stock inventory of pre-owned Honda CR-Vs.
Which 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”, chances are you’re 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. And when this happens, it’s up to the car dealerships to make sure that their websites are ranking appropriately and have the necessary UX and UI to convert sales.
How to find the right keywords
You’ll want to optimize your site for specific keywords for which your potential customers are likely to search. This might be “emergency plumbers near me” or “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 specific long tail and short tail keywords including Google Trends, SEM Rush, Keywords Everywhere, and a plethora of other keyword research tools. Some are free and 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 your budget.
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. 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.
Volume vs Competition
To illustrate this concept a little clearer, consider that “pizza” has a monthly search volume of just over one million pizza-loving Googlers. Not surprising. But it also has a competition level of 95 out of 100, so ranking in the top ten organically for the keyword “pizza” is going to be tough.
And while a more specific (but not too specific) term like “thin crust pizza delivery” or “low carb pizza near me” is naturally going to have less search traffic (360 and 1,000 searches respectively as of this writing), the competition is virtually non-existent so ranking for either is perfectly within the scope of reality. In other words, if a page on your site is ranking for either of these keywords, it’s unlikely that it’ll see millions of hits, but it might see a few hundred qualified thin crust or low carb pizza aficionados who are ready to buy what you’re selling.
Finding the right short tail and long tail keywords can be challenging, but it’s an essential step in optimizing your site for relevant, organic search traffic that actually 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 are going to swoop in with optimized content of their own.