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Long Tail vs. Short Tail Keywords: Use Cases and Elements

long tail vs short tail
Updated: | SEO vincent d'eletto wordagents ceo Vincent D'Eletto

One of the main objectives of search engine optimization is to develop online visibility for your business. To achieve this goal you will need to intimately understand search engine optimization, also known as SEO.

Although there are numerous SEO principles and best practices that you will need to implement to achieve turbo-charged organic visibility, one of the most important is with respect to the keywords you decide to target and optimize when developing content.

Back in the day, you could simply load up a blog post with hundreds of popular search terms, and BOOM - traffic magically appeared. 

For better or worse, times have changed. Today, if you want to achieve organic visibility for your business, you need to develop content that helps readers solve a problem or answer a question.

Keywords are divided into two categories - short tail and long tail keywords. I'm here today to shed some light on both types of keywords, including their elements to use cases.

Note that while this piece is by no means an exhaustive resource on the topic of keyword research, by the end, you will understand the characteristics of each keyword and why both keyword types have a place in a holistic content strategy.

What Are Long Tail Keywords?

Long tail keywords are phrases that contain three words or more. These are highly specific search terms, and they typically result in low search numbers.

How low?

Well, according to Ahrefs, a whopping 92.42% of long tail keywords have fewer than ten searches per month.

Interestingly, the name itself comes not from the number of the words used, rather the low search volume numbers that these words produce (i.e., the "long tail" of the search demand graph). 

And yet, despite the low amount of traffic that long tail keywords generate, there are many advantages of using these keywords that make them an essential building block of any modern SEO marketing campaign. Let’s take a look at some of their distinctive characteristics.

Low Competition

Despite accounting for 70% of all search queries (as per Moz) long tail keywords have relatively low competition. This low competition is due to the inherent specificity of long tail keywords, and the fact that they, again, are likely to receive less than 10 searches per month.

More specificity = lower competition = easier to rank.

For example, every bicycle shop sells bike frames, but not all of them sell “titanium adventure bike frames.” Yes, this long tail keyword isn’t very popular (i.e., less than 10 monthly searches), but there’s a good chance that your website will rank higher for this term if you target it as there’s little to no competition.

While it's safe to assume that the lower the search volume, the lower the phrase or term competition, it’s important to keep in mind that this is not always the case as some long tail keywords will have a long line of high domain authority websites competing for the top spots.

Higher Conversion Rates

According to some recent research by Conductor, conversion rates for long tail keywords were 2.5 times higher when compared to short tails.

One of the main reasons for this - as we have already alluded to - is because long tail keywords have very specific phrasing, and the search results generally match the user’s search intent more closely. As a result, users searching for more specific terms tend to be further in their buying cycle and are more likely to convert.

This makes sense because long tail terms effectively align with user intent. For example, if someone searches for "where to buy an air fryer," there's a good chance that this individual is ready and willing to purchase one if presented with the opportunity.

As a result, long tails typically have better ROI and higher conversion rates because the people that use them know precisely what they want and are only a few steps away from making a purchase.

Highly Targeted

As mentioned above, long tail keywords are highly targeted, niche-specific keyword phrases. This is an important characteristic to understand as it will put you in a better position to understand your audience's intent and capture people looking for something specific.

By purposely targeting these limited terms, your content is more likely to have topical relevance with regard to what users are searching for. In addition, highly targeted niche terms, if used correctly, are also likely to result in higher quality leads - i.e., visitors that have a higher chance of converting to paying customers.

(Typically) Lower Search Volumes

Most long tail terms have low search numbers because fewer people search for them online. For example, while there are probably a lot of people searching for the term “nba playoffs” right now (i.e., 829k per Ahrefs), there’s unlikely to be many people searching for “dallas mavericks courtside tickets” (i.e., 10 per Ahrefs). 

And yet, contrary to popular opinion, not all long tail phrases have low search numbers.

In Ahrefs’ long tail keyword report that we linked above, it was discovered that 29.13% of keywords with 10k+ monthly searches are made up of three or more words – indicating that not all long tail phrases are low in search volume.

Again, just keep in mind that while lower search volumes are the norm, there are always exceptions.

Examples of Long Tail Keywords

Long tail terms should be at least three words long. It’s also worth noting that long tails typically include the broader short tail terms, plus modifiers.

Below are some highly targeted long tail keyword examples:

  • digital marketing strategies for restaurants
  • diy home renovation on a budget
  • seo tips for small businesses
  • vegan asian restaurant tampa
  • best organic protein powder for weight loss
  • where to lease 2021 bmw x3
  • free website builder software

When Should You Use Long Tail Keywords?

Suppose your top priority is to increase traffic to your website while improving conversion rates. In that case, long tail phrases are your best bet for success given the fact that they're more targeted and align better with user intent. Long tails position you to better connect with your audience on a more emotional level.

However, this doesn't mean that you should neglect using head keywords.

Contrary to popular belief, long tail keyword optimization doesn’t come at the cost of short tails. In fact, one of the best ways to generate long tail terms is to build short tails or seed keywords using modifiers. Both keywords play critical roles in your overall marketing strategy.

What Are Short Tail Keywords?

Short tail keywords - also referred to as broad keywords and head terms - are search queries of no more than three words. Unlike the granular targeting of long tails, short tail phrases focus on incredibly broad topics.

They're also extremely popular. According to a study by Raventools, 10,000 of the most used keywords are all short tail terms. Out of the millions of keywords and searches that happen daily, short tail keywords make up about 20% of the overall user searches.

High search volumes and high competitiveness are two of the most prominent characteristics of short tail keywords. Although they’re typically more challenging to rank for than their long tail counterparts, they’re still valuable search terms and should be incorporated into your content strategy.

Let’s take a look at some of their most prominent characteristics.

Very Broad Scope

Short tail keywords are basic phrases that refer to vast topics. They are both broader and less descriptive when compared to long tail keywords. This fact often leads to a context conundrum - i.e., generally, short tails lack the necessary context to determine user intent. 

Take, for example, the short tail keyword “keyboards.” Who is searching for this term? Is it a budding musician searching for the latest addition to his music studio? Perhaps it’s a tech-savvy gamer looking to complete his PC gaming setup? How do you know the difference?

Often, a qualifier must be added to the head term to make the context more apparent. As a result, short tail keywords are used as a starting point for keyword research (i.e.,  “seed keywords”) in much the same way as topics are.

Higher Search Volumes

Due to their broad nature, short tail keywords receive a significant monthly search volume. Taking the example we used in the previous section, we see that the short tail keyword “keyboards” has a monthly search volume of 30k on Ahrefs - that’s a lot of potential traffic!

If you manage to rank for this short tail keyword, your website could potentially see thousands of targeted visits each month. Short tail phrases present a greater opportunity to put your website in front of more potential customers.

Higher Level of Competition

Although short tails promise a ton of search volume, they're also very competitive. Trying to rank for a short tail keyword means joining a long queue of market competitors trying to rank for the same phrase. 

Unless you're already a major industry player, ranking on the first page of Google for a short tail keyword is incredibly difficult. However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t optimize your blog posts for short tail phrases. On the contrary, you should look to include both keyword groups in your content efforts and cover all your bases.

(Typically) Lower Conversion Rates

Due to their broader scope and lack of context, it’s typically more difficult to determine user intent with short tail phrases. And since the user intent is vague, conversions are usually harder to achieve.

In general, short tail keywords are often used to drive visitors to the top of the sales funnel. I’m talking about the Awareness phase, where people first become aware of your product or service. Although this can help drive more traffic to your website and increase brand awareness, visitors are less likely to make a purchase or perform an action (i.e., convert).

For example, when someone searches for “PS5,” it’s a broad, high-volume search term (13M per month!) with vague intent. The user might be looking for more information about Sony’s newest console, searching for the latest Playstation news, or actually looking to buy the console.

It's not that short tail terms can't convert (they absolutely can); they're typically just not specific enough to convey user intent.  Thus, although short tails can bring a ton of traffic to your website, it’s hit or miss with respect to whether or not individual visitors are qualified and ready to make a purchase. 

Examples of Short Tail Keywords

Short tails are relatively straightforward and broad. Here are some examples:

  • seo strategy
  • running shoes
  • air fryers
  • camping tent
  • kitchen renovation tips
  • apple iphone
  • ford bronco

When Should You Use Short Tail Keywords?

If you want to use a short tail keyword in your content, make sure that you get the keyword density just right. 

Too many short tails, and you run the risk of keyword stuffing. The most critical rule of using short tail keywords is never to force them. Look to integrate them into URLs, meta-tags, headers, and anywhere else you find appropriate within your content.

Short tail terms are also great for content ideation. Whenever you’re running low on content ideas, you can pick one of your short tail keywords from your research list and type it into a keyword tool to generate your next blog post idea.

Depending on the size of your business and your market share, short tails have the potential to help strengthen your keyword strategy. Specifically, you can use the head terms as a compass to guide your search engine optimization efforts - including your strategies for long tail phrases.

Although it’s tough to rank for short tail keywords and receive that coveted traffic, it’s still very valuable to target and optimize your content for them.

4 Tools for Long Tail and Short Tail Keyword Research

Researching keywords can be a daunting task, but fortunately, a number of tools can assist you in your research. Here are some of our favorites:

  • Ahrefs - One of the best keyword tools available for content creators. This tool boasts a massive keyword database, over 1k+ keyword suggestions, and a handy keyword difficulty score to help you decide which keywords to target.
  • Quora - As the largest Q&A platform with crowdsourced questions and answers, Quora is a goldmine for question-based long tail keywords. Use the search bar to find inquiries related to your target keywords. From the results, you can start answering the questions by using them as long tail terms to power your future SEO content writing.
  • AnswerThePublic - This is an excellent website for discovering phrases and questions that you might not have thought of. AnswerThePublic’s free version of the tool lets you view a visualization of phrases and questions surrounding a particular root term.
  • SEMrush - This SEO Swiss Army Knife features many robust keyword search features. Instead of simply suggesting a long list of keywords, SEMrush will also provide you with in-depth insights about the keywords that your competitors are using.

If you're interested in taking a deep dive on how to find and rank for niche long tail keywords, I recommend that you check out our guide on Keyword Golden Ratio.

Use Both Keyword Types to Power Your Content Marketing

The comparison between short tail vs. long tail phrases is not a case of black or white. Both have their benefits, drawbacks, and use cases. For the best results, you should look to incorporate both keyword types into your overall SEO and content marketing campaigns.

But remember, your short and long tail targeting strategy will only be effective when paired with strong content. Strive to become an authority in your industry by producing high-value assets and informing your audience about your unique value proposition. What’s your take on keyword research? Let us know in the comments!

vincent d'eletto wordagents ceo Vincent D'Eletto

Hey, I'm Vin. Founder and CEO of WordAgents.com. I create content that ranks really well on search engines for our clients. I'm also deeply involved with the SEO community; maintaining a portfolio of successful, profitable affiliate websites. You can find me playing guitar, drinking scotch, and hanging out with my German Shorthaired Pointer when I'm not working!


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