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 search engine marketing (aka SEM) strategy doesn’t just depend on relevance — the type matters, too.

Long-tail and short-tail keywords work toward achieving the same goal. They just 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 search engine results pages, or SERPs. Let’s dive in.

long-tail vs. short-tail keywords

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

Why keywords matter

Keywords are, well, key to improving your website’s SEO (search engine optimization) performance.

When you search for something on Google or another search engine, you’re presented with a list of websites in order of their relevance to your query. If you’re looking for designer handbags, for instance, you’ll likely see top search results from brands like Kate Spade, Coach, Gucci, and the like.

So, how does Google’s algorithm know which websites to recommend? The search engine crawls the internet to find the right keywords for a given query. If your website has the proper keywords sprinkled throughout, Google will register your site as a relevant source for the query.

Integrating both short- and long-tail keywords throughout your website and other content you publish can help improve your SEO performance, leading to more organic search traffic and more website visitors overall. So, it’s important to understand when to use long tail keywords vs short tail. 

What are short-tail keywords?

Short-tail keywords (also called “head terms” or “broad terms”) contain up to three words to make up a search phrase. Examples include:

  • Swimsuits
  • Red roses
  • Digital marketing services

When you think about your business, these short 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, and the list goes on. That’s why the competition to rank highly for short-tail keywords is often fierce.

Short-tail keywords: pros

  • Appeal to a broad target audience: Shorter keywords are excellent traffic drivers for your website thanks to their high search volume.
  • Easy to determine: They don’t require extensive target audience research or keyword search. You can likely come up with a dozen short-tail keywords or more with a quick brainstorming session.
  • Easy to use: Short search terms can be used to create a great variety of easy-flowing content, helping to shape your overall content strategy.

Short-tail keywords: cons

  • High competition: Everyone wants to drive significant traffic, avoid extensive keyword searches, 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 than their longer counterparts — 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. But you might also see an increase in your bounce rate if your web visitors don’t get what they’re expecting from your site.

What are long-tail keywords?

Also called “narrow search terms” or “keyword phrases,” long-tail keywords are more specific than their short-tail partners, usually about 4-7 words long. 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 shorter terms, more of your visitors are likely to convert.

Long-tail keywords: 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 keywords: 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 90% of all search queries 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.

If you’re weighing long tail keywords vs short tail, it’s critical to realize that both types of keywords are important to achieving your goals. 

short and long-tail keywords

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

How short-tail and long-tail keywords work together

An efficient SEO 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 work 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 get quality keyword ideas 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, related searches, and Google’s autocomplete function for shorter terms.
  • Wielding different keyword research 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. Since these terms bring in more organic traffic, you’ll be able to spread the word about your company quite quickly.

If you’d like to shift the focus to higher conversions and cost efficiency, lean more toward long-tail keywords. Don’t let the lower search volume fool you: the users who do make their way from a Google search to your website are more likely to convert into satisfied customers.

And, as always, monitor the results so you can iterate and modify accordingly. It’s nearly impossible to improve your content marketing strategy if you aren’t learning from each campaign.

Balancing short- and long-tail keywords

Beginners are often left scratching their heads when it comes to integrating short and long terms into their keyword strategy. But with a little planning, it becomes second nature.

Keyword planning tools

An easy place to begin is a keyword planner. There are plenty of affordable or free resources across the internet that can provide relevant keyword suggestions for your website. Many will even provide information about keywords and their potential cost in a PPC campaign.

Big names like HubSpot and SEMrush provide great SEO tools that can benefit companies big and small. If you use Google Ads (formerly known as Google AdWords), you already have access to plenty of tools to help you identify the most promising SEO keywords.

At HawkSEM, we take things a step further with our ConversionIQ technology, which can help you use your keywords effectively across multiple channels and track important metrics to improve future performance.

Efficient brainstorming

If you want to come up with keywords on your own, you can take a few shortcuts to brainstorm effectively.

Start by identifying a few head keywords. Head keywords are short, broad search terms that bring in high search volumes. While you shouldn’t rely on these keywords alone, they can be helpful in shaping your overall strategy.

Once you’ve got a few head keywords, you can branch off and come up with more specific keywords. If one of your head keywords is “purses,” you could then think of more specific phrases like “black designer clutches,” “leather weekender bags,” or “best messenger bags for work.”

You can then separate your keywords into categories based on criteria like:

  • Monthly search volume
  • Keyword difficulty (how hard is it to rank for a specific term?)
  • Search intent (is a keyword narrow enough to bring in only the users you’re looking to attract?)

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 types of keywords.

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.

You don’t have to balance your SEM and SEO strategies alone. Get in touch with HawkSEM today to see how we can help.

This article has been updated and was originally published in April 2021.

Contact HawkSEM for Free Consultation