Long Tail Keywords vs Short Tail: An SEO Breakdown
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is constantly evolving, yet at its core, the role of keywords remains much the same as it always has.
One of the enduring discussions in the world of SEO centers around Long Tail Keywords and Short Tail Keywords. To understand which one you should focus on and when, it’s essential to properly understand their definitions, uses, and benefits. This article provides an in-depth analysis of both and the role each plays in SEO.
What are Short Tail Keywords?
Short tail keywords, often referred to as “head” terms, are typically one to three words in length. They’re almost always broad and generic. For instance:
- Digital Camera
Benefits of Short Tail Keywords
- High Search Volume: Due to their generic nature, short tail keywords usually have a high search volume, which means that they can potentially bring in a large number of visitors.
- Broad Audience Reach: They allow you to reach a wider audience since they’re general in nature.
- Branding Opportunity: Ranking for short tail keywords can enhance your brand’s authority in a particular industry.
However, the broad nature of short tail keywords makes them highly competitive. It can be challenging (and expensive) for new businesses to rank for these terms, especially in saturated markets. It’s also important to note that even business’s with large marketing budgets can’t necessarily speed up the time it takes to rank for certain generic keywords. The most competitive, generic phrases could take upwards to 18 months or more to rank even under a large-scale SEO plan.
What are Long Tail Keywords?
Long tail keywords are longer and more specific keyword phrases that visitors are more likely to use when they’re closer to a purchasing decision. For instance:
- Men’s leather shoes
- Canon EOS 5D Mark IV Digital Camera
- Best laptop for graphic design 2023
Benefits of Long Tail Keywords
- Higher Conversion Rate: Users searching with long tail keywords often know what they’re looking for, resulting in a higher probability of conversion.
- Less Competition: Specificity means fewer websites are targeting the exact phrase, making it easier to rank for and also easier to maintain a high rank consistently.
- Voice Search Optimization: With the rise of voice-activated assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant, more users are searching using natural, conversational language—often captured better by long tail keywords.
It’s essential to understand that long tail keywords have lower search volumes individually. But when taken as a collective, they can drive significant traffic.
It’s very easy to get caught up in targeting only keywords with high search volumes, but in general search volume is a very dicey metric that should only play a small role in your keyword selection process.
For instance, let’s say there is a long tail keyword with “only” a 40 monthly search volume but a very obtainable difficulty score, let’s say 5% according to SEMrush.
Compare that to a keyword that is more generic, sitting at 1,100 volume and 39% difficulty.
The chance of ranking for the long tail keyword and reaching spot 1 in Google is highly likely if you are running a solid eCommerce SEO strategy.
The chance of ranking for the shorter keyword with the attractive search volume at spot 1 is considerably more difficult. Depending on how well your product category or web page matches the search intent of this keyword, you may never actually reach spot 1. Or, the journey there will take well over a year, and this under the direction of a large SEO campaign.
Also consider the search intent and conversion aspect.
If you rank #1 for the 40 volume keyword, there is a really high likelihood that the positioning will result in organic conversions. Spot 1 takes the lion’s share of clicks and conversions for the majority of Google queries.
However, with the shorter tail keyword, you might be stuck in page 2 limbo for a long, long time. Even once you gain traction, it will be a dogfight once you get into the top 5. Unless you are spot 1, it is unlikely that your positioning with this keyword will result in meaningful conversions. Sure, your impressions and traffic will increase, but will your bottom line?
These are the kinds of things that need to be carefully looked at in SEO, and yet are often ignored because those high search volumes seem so attractive.
It doesn’t matter if a search term has 1000 monthly searches if 950 of them always click the first search result, and said result is Nordstrom or Nike. Overtaking the competition here will be difficult, even with a robust SEO campaign.
That being said, a healthy mix of keywords is best practice for a strong SEO strategy. Let’s take a closer look at this:
Why Both Are Needed For A Strong SEO Campaign
Diversified Traffic Source: While short tail keywords can potentially bring a large volume of visitors, the specificity of long tail keywords attracts users who are more likely to convert. A balanced strategy can ensure both volume and quality.
Balanced Competition: New businesses can start by targeting long tail keywords to gain initial traction and gradually move to more competitive short tail keywords as they establish authority.
User Intent Understanding: Long tail keywords give insights into what users are specifically looking for, helping businesses refine their offerings. At the same time, short tail keywords help brands stay relevant in broader industry conversations.
Comprehensive Content Strategy: Focusing on both keyword types ensures that content is varied. While short tail keywords might fit better with overview content, long tail keywords can be used for in-depth articles, guides, and product reviews.
Building a Proper SEO Foundation
Another reason why long-tail keywords are important is because they pave the way to short tail, higher volume keywords.
Google will not rank a webpage for broad keywords unless there is a proper amount of topical authority present on the domain. Google wants to see that you are an authority and reliable source of information on the subject before you have a chance to rank well.
One of the key ways to establish topical authority is having content on your website that covers everything that falls under the umbrella of that short tail keyword.
So for instance, if you want to rank for “leather shoes,” the best approach would be to first establish yourself as an authority on “men’s brown leather shoes,” “comfortable leather shoes,” “luxury black leather shoes,” “best leather shoes for men,” and so on.
You can’t have one without the other.
This is especially true for newer online stores that have a low domain authority and not much content on their website. You have to crawl before you can walk and you have to walk before you can run.
When we establish keyword lists for our clients, we will always prioritize long-tail keywords, especially in the beginning, because this is how you gain ground in SEO, not by trying to go after unrealistic keywords.
It’s clear that understanding and leveraging both short tail and long tail keywords is essential, however. While each has its unique advantages, a comprehensive and balanced SEO strategy should incorporate both in order to to ensure a brand’s organic success.
As always, the key is to understand your target audience’s intent and align your content and keyword strategy accordingly.