Long Tail vs Short Tail Keywords Explained

Tricia Abney
Stephanie Gray
Published: Mar 04, 2024
Last Updated:
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Choosing the right keywords for your online content is critical to a successful search engine optimization (SEO) strategy. After all, your keywords can boost the visibility of your website on search engine results pages (SERPs) and help you reach the right audience at the right time. 

But which keywords should you use for your content — short-tail vs. long-tail keywords? Understanding the difference between these two keyword types can help you create an effective online marketing strategy. 

Why Are They Called Short-Tail and Long-Tail Keywords?

When you do keyword research, you’ll run across two different SEO keyword types: short-tail and long-tail. A short-tail keyword, also called a “seed keyword” or “head term,” is a general search term that usually contains one to three words. In contrast, long-tail keywords typically contain more words — often three to five — and are more specific. 

The difference between short-tail vs. long-tail keywords isn’t as much about the number of words as the specificity of the term. For example, the short-tail keyword “air conditioner” would have tens of thousands of search results, but not all of those people need an air conditioner. Some might want service or instructions on use. Long-tail keywords like “ductless air conditioner deals” and “air conditioner repair in [city]” would be less popular but more targeted.  

Which of These Two Types of Keywords Should You Target?

When choosing between SEO keyword types, neither short-tail nor long-tail keywords are necessarily better than the other. The effectiveness of each depends on your specific goals and content strategy. 

Short-tail keywords are valuable for casting a wide net to boost your website’s overall search engine visibility. These keywords usually have higher search volumes, which can help increase your brand awareness. However, a short-tail SEO strategy is unlikely to help you reach a targeted audience and increase conversions. 

Long-tail in SEO is more specific and targets users with a clear question or intent. If you want to offer precise solutions or answers, long-tail keywords are the best approach. They are less competitive, making it easier to rank your content on page one and attract prospects who are in the decision stage or ready to purchase. 

Considerations When Targeting Long-Tail Keywords

There are seemingly endless long-tail keyword opportunities, so you need a strategy to find the best ones. One way to find commonly searched long-tail keywords is with Google’s “People Also Ask” section near the top of the search results. You can also use various keyword research tools to find relevant longer search terms to target. 

The best long-tail content types are usually blog posts that answer specific questions or address these topics. Additionally, you can break up this content to create social media posts and short videos to drive long-tail traffic to your website. 

Types of Long-Tail Keywords

Long-tail keywords are divided into two different types: supporting and topical long-tail keywords. Supporting long-tail keywords are less common variations of the highest-value search terms. Revisiting the “air conditioner” example, some people might search for the same thing using the term “HVAC.” A long-tail example would be “HVAC installation and repair.”

Topical long-tail keywords are specific, topic-based keyword phrases focused on your product or service that are easier to rank for. They often answer questions or deal with specific topics relevant to your main product or service. Examples include “window vs. mini split air conditioner” and “cost to install a new AC.”

Benefits of Targeting These Highly Specific Keywords

Why do you need long-tail keywords in articles and other content if they have a lower search volume than short-tail keywords? The benefit of long-tail terms is that they are highly intentional, meaning the user is likely further down in the sales funnel and closer to making a purchase. 

For example, someone searching for the “best AC installer near me” is probably closer to purchasing than someone searching for “AC manufacturers.” 

When you target these highly specific terms — some of which answer questions — your business can draw in targeted traffic, address common questions and objections, and establish yourself as an authority in your field. Finally, these search terms are easier to rank for because they are generally less competitive. 

Considerations When Targeting Short-Tail Keywords

Short-tail terms usually have more keyword competition when compared with long-tail keywords. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them or will never rank for them. With the right strategy and dedicated effort, you have as much chance as anyone else to secure those coveted top spots. 

The good news is that most long-tail keyword phrases include your short-tail keywords. When you start gaining momentum with your long-tail content marketing, you might also get positive results with short-tail keywords. 

When creating any type of content, you can dilute long-tail keywords with broader terms. This helps you avoid keyword stuffing. Otherwise, targeting short-tail keywords in general topic pieces is an excellent way to increase trust and brand authority. 

Benefits of Targeting Head Terms or Seed Keywords

Short-tail keywords can have many benefits, including:

  • High search volume: These keywords usually have a higher search volume than long-tail keywords so that they can attract more visitors to your website. 
  • Easy to remember: Because they’re short, these words and phrases are easier to remember than some long-tail keyword search terms.
  • Local rankings: Short-tail keywords can help you rank well in local search results. 
  • Better brand awareness: Using seed keywords and head terms can help your business boost its brand awareness. 

Challenges of Targeting This Type of Search Query

The main challenge of targeting short keywords like “attorney,” “pizza,” or “plumber” is keyword difficulty. While these search terms have higher search volumes, they are also highly competitive. 

You’ll likely devote significant resources to trying to rank your website for a search term like “pizza.” What’s even more frustrating is that many people who end up on your site won’t be satisfied with what they find. If you sell gourmet pizza seasoning and someone wants to order a pizza, you aren’t truly reaching your target audience. 

How To Find the Balance To Increase Your Organic Traffic

Achieving a balance between long-tail vs. short-tail keywords requires a strong understanding of your target audience and marketing objectives. Depending on your industry, niche, and products or services, the mix of the keyword types you choose may vary.

To achieve the most effective equilibrium between the two, consider using short-tail keywords for website pages, categories, and primary topics to rank for broader terms and target a wider audience of visitors. Ideally, you could use long-tail keywords in subcategories, subtopics, and blog posts, helping you rank organically for more targeted terms that attract a more engaged audience. 

When it comes to creating a balance between long-tail and short-tail keywords to increase your organic traffic, pay close attention to SEO principles. For example, your primary, short-tail keywords should appear in your pages' metadata and first heading (H1), and long-tail keywords should be dispersed throughout the other headings and content. However, you never want to sound unnatural or “stuff” keywords, as this won’t produce the desired effect. 

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Ready to get started? You can get the help you need to optimize your online presence with Compose.ly’s SEO services

Using a combined short-tail and long-tail SEO strategy, your business can generate quality website traffic that produces positive and sustainable returns. Aligning with a partner focused exclusively on results-based SEO content services can set your business up for success. 

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