Written by Sam Yadegar on Apr 13 , 2021

Seasoned marketers know: not all keywords are created equal.

Here, you’ll find:

  • Differences between short-tail and long-tail keywords
  • How these two keyword types work together
  • Why using both offers the greatest chance at success
  • When to use each keyword type

The power of keywords for your SEM strategy doesn’t just depend on relevance. The type matters too.

Long-tail and short-tail keywords work toward achieving the same goal. However, they do it differently. Knowing the key differences between these two types can help you properly tweak your marketing strategy, cut costs, and get to the top of the SERPs. Let’s dive in.

long-tail vs. short-tail keywords

The competition to rank highly for short-tail keywords is often fierce. (Image via Unsplash)

Short-tail keywords

Short-tail keywords (also called “head terms” or “broad terms”) contain up to three words, such as:

  • Swimsuits
  • Red roses
  • Digital marketing services

When you think about your business, these terms are the first words that usually come to mind. They’re also the first terms to come to the consumer’s mind when they’re looking for something online.

Short-tail keywords can be the same for a variety of businesses. For “red roses,” this keyword could apply to a local flower shop, an e-commerce shop, a big-box chain store, the list goes on. That’s why the competition to rank highly for short-tail keywords is often fierce.

Short-tail keyword pros

  • Appeal to a wide target audience: excellent traffic driver for your website
  • Easy to determine: they don’t require an extensive target audience research or keyword search
  • Easy to use: can be used to create a great variety of easy-flowing content

Short-tail keyword cons

  • High competition: Everyone wants to drive significant traffic, avoid extensive keyword search, and write easy-flowing content — that’s why these keywords are costly to bid on
  • Wrong type of traffic: Short-tail keywords are more general — for example, “French tips” could apply to nail salons or those trying to learn the French language
  • Low conversion rates: Short-tail keywords can generate numerous clicks, but the number of people who convert is usually lower

Overall, short-tail keywords can generate a lot of traffic for your website, helping with brand awareness and improving rankings.

Long-tail keywords

Also called “narrow search terms,” these keywords are more specific than their short-tail partners — for example:

  • Swimsuits for toddler boys
  • Fresh red rose bouquets near me
  • Digital marketing services in Boston

By entering such a keyword, searchers are more likely to find what they’re looking for. Often, the more specific the search, the higher the likelihood of purchase intent. 

While you may not generate as much traffic with long-tail keywords as you would with short terms, more of your visitors are likely to convert.

Long-tail keyword pros

  • Low competition: Cost per click for long-tail keywords is usually much lower since you only compete against companies in a specific niche
  • Intent: People who use narrow search terms are usually closer to the bottom of the sales funnel than those who use short-tail keywords
  • Conversion rate: Searchers with high intent are more likely to convert

 Long-tail keyword cons

  • Specifics: It takes more time, research, and effort to identify long-tail keywords your target audience may be searching for — and sometimes, you could be bidding on an “empty” term
  • Content implementation: Unlike broad terms, long-tail keywords can be harder to use in your content organically

Overall, long-tail keywords are harder to identify and implement into your SEM campaign. However, they require a lower budget and provide a higher conversion rate, as Yoast explains.

Do you need short-tail keywords?

Long-tail keywords are generally cheaper, more specific, and have a higher conversion rate. More than 70% of all internet searches are made up of long-tail keywords.

So, why do you need short-tail keywords anyway?

While it’s possible to design a campaign based solely on long-tail keywords, working without narrow terms can be tough since you may not generate sufficient traffic. 

Lastly, if you avoid short-tail keywords altogether, it may take a while to achieve your specific marketing goals.

short and long-tail keywords

Before using long-tail keywords in your content, consider testing them with PPC ads. (Image via Unsplash)

How short-tail and long-tail keywords work together

An efficient SEM strategy involves a balanced use of both keyword types. Here are just a few ways these keyword types complement each other:

  • Short-tail keywords create a foundation for long-tail keywords. Without brainstorming for broad terms, it’s hard to identify efficient long-tail keywords. Narrow terms grow around broad terms.
  • When creating content, you can dilute long-tail keywords with broad terms. This helps you avoid keyword stuffing, which can get you penalized by search engines.
  • Short-tail keywords target the top of the sales funnel while long-tail keywords are working closer to the bottom.

Each keyword type contributes to achieving the final goals of your marketing strategy.

Pro tip: Don’t be fooled into thinking short-tail keywords always have higher search volumes. As Ahrefs points out, this isn’t always the case

How to find short-tail and long-tail keywords

Finding short-tail keywords is somewhat easier than discovering efficient narrow terms.  You can identify them by:

  • Brainstorming what terms might bring users to you
  • Analyzing your website and traffic
  • Seeing what works for the competition

Long-tail keyword research is more complicated since it’s hard to identify which phrases your target audience is likely to use. You can find long-tail keywords by:

  • Using Google suggestions and related searches
  • Wielding different keyword search tools like Moz and SEMrush
  • Analyzing which keywords work for your website
  • Browsing forums, boards, and social media groups to see what people are asking about
  • Looking at what your competition is doing

Pro tip: Before using long-tail keywords in your content, consider testing them with PPC ads.

When to use short-tail and long-tail keywords

In digital marketing, using short-tail and long-tail keywords simultaneously can help you achieve impressive results. Of course, the percentage of each keyword type in the strategy depends on factors like your goals and budget.

If your main goals are brand awareness and lead generation, you may want to add more broad terms to your tactics. If you’d like to shift the focus to higher conversions and cost efficiency, lean more toward long-tail keywords. And, as always, monitor the results so you can iterate and modify accordingly. 

The takeaway

Our experience tells us that both short-tail and long-tail keywords are important to the success of a well-rounded SEM strategy. While using them may achieve different goals and require different budgets, it’s hard to create a comprehensive marketing campaign without both.

By leveraging broad and narrow terms, you can get one step closer to improving your search engine rankings, bringing more traffic to your website, increasing brand awareness, driving sales, and boosting your bottom line.

Sam Yadegar

Sam Yadegar

Sam Yadegar is the co-founder and CEO of HawkSEM. Starting out as a software engineer, his penchant for solving problems quickly led him to the digital marketing world, where he has been helping clients for over 12 years. He loves doing everything he can to help brands "crush it" through ROI-driven digital marketing programs. He's also a fan of basketball and spending time with his family.

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