Long-Tail vs Short-Tail Keywords

Search engine optimization is among the most important pieces of a comprehensive digital marketing strategy. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most complex.


Fortunately, that complexity does not necessarily have to lead to complications. SEO, complex as it may be, actually follows a set of very rational principles. Understanding those principles can go a long way towards a successful SEO and, by extension, a successful digital marketing strategy.


Long-tail keywords and short-tail keywords are among those fundamental principles of SEO that are vital to understand for any sustainable success in the medium. Embracing the possibilities both brings can go a long way towards creating and executing a strategy designed to increase visibility for your brand and website.


In this guide, we’ll explain just how that can happen.

Just the Basics: Short-Tail Keywords

Generally speaking, short-tail keywords describe any search queries on a search engine like Google that include three words or fewer. These terms are typically broad, spanning the entire industry in which marketers operate. Common short-tail keyword examples include:


  • athletics wear
  • diamond jewelry
  • energy suppliers

Some SEO experts describe these types of keywords as head terms. They’re the terms that are top of mind for audiences looking for products or services in a given industry, before they even think to get specific. Another common term is a seed keyword.  

Just the Basics: Long-Tail Keywords

Long-tail keywords are any search phrases that consist of four or more words. In other words, these are the counterparts of short-tail keywords. They are typically reserved for more specific searches, in which audiences look for very specific results. Long-tail keyword examples include:


  • men’s XL athletics wear
  • diamond jewelry stores in Boston, MA
  • sustainable energy suppliers for electricity bill

As these examples show, long-tail keywords typically include a head term. But they also add descriptors around it to make the results more relevant to the user’s intentions and desired results. 

Long-Tail vs Short-Tail Keywords: Which is More Important for SEO?

The two may seem like polar opposites but in reality, long-tail and short-tail keywords are both important for a successful SEO strategy. Above all, that’s because of a basic value equation:


  • In isolation, short-tail keywords see significantly higher search volume than their longer-tail equivalents. As a result, competition for these keywords also rises significantly.
  • Because of their more intent-based nature, long-tail keywords see significantly higher conversion rates than their short-tail counterparts.

In recent years, marketers especially in small and medium-sized businesses have gravitated increasingly towards long-tail keywords. Lower competition, and the associated lower costs, match perfectly with the increased specificity of the search term to fit their niche audiences.


At the same time, that doesn’t mean short-tail keywords have gone away. Optimize as the top term for athletic wear, and you guarantee thousands of additional monthly visitors. It costs significant time and money to get there, but the returns tend to be no less significant.


In other words, long-tail keywords and their short-tail counterparts should not be classified based on their importance for SEO. Instead, it’s their use cases that differ significantly, and correctly applying these use cases can go a long way towards sustainable SEO success.

How to Leverage Short-Tail Keywords for SEO Success

The alternative name of seed keyword gives away the core use of short-tail keywords in modern SEO: they’re perfect to structure your larger keyword strategy around.


A business in the apparel industry, for example, might want to find just a few basic seed keywords most relevant for its audience. They might include terms like apparel, sports wear, online clothing, etc. These seed terms get put through a rigorous analysis to determine which is a good match for the business, its audience, and its search volume in online searches. 


Once a few key terms have been identified, these terms become the foundation of the larger keyword strategy. The homepage, about us page, and other key pages are structured around them. At the same time, they also help to determine exactly what long-tail keywords might be a good match for your business and brand.

How to Complement Your Short-Tail Keywords With Long-Tail Keywords

When it comes to specific content, long-tail keywords are king. In fact, around 70% of all searches today are made using long-tail queries. That means one thing above all: marketers who can identify the right long-tail keywords for their specific audience and industry niche can make a major impact on these less competitive, more intent-based, more relevant searches.

Getting to that point can be complex. It involves comprehensive keyword research techniques along with quite a bit of patience. Especially for small businesses without significant dedicated marketing resources, the help of an SEO expert may be required to focus on the right keywords.

At its most basic, though, long-tail keywords can best help your SEO when they follow a few basic principles:

  • They’re organized around the few core short-tail keywords identified in the previous step.
  • They have enough search volume to make a top position in relevant results pages pay off long-term.
  • Competition is low enough that even smaller businesses can break through with top results.
  • They are used by just the right audience segment to overlap with the target audience of the business.

In other words, long-tail keywords take significantly more work than short-term keywords to identify, but their payoff tends to be both faster and more significant. Especially when structured around a few short-tail seed terms, building content around these long-tail terms can go a long way towards long-term SEO success.

short vs long tail keywords

Optimizing Your SEO and Digital Marketing Strategy With a Sustainable Keyword Strategy

Of course, keyword research for both short and long queries is only the beginning of a more comprehensive SEO strategy. But it’s vital to get this step right; without it, every subsequent optimization may follow the wrong path, focusing on the wrong audience or keywords.


That’s what makes long-tail and short-tail keywords such an important part in a larger SEO strategy. In many ways, their combination builds the foundation that can ultimately lead to a cascading effect for all digital marketing efforts down the road. Once you know what terms to focus on, those terms begin to be the sun around which all content marketing efforts can be built.

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