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SEO: Long Tail vs Short Tail Keywords

by Brian Rideout • June 03, 2022

As a business owner interested in learning about online marketing, specifically SEO (Search Engine Optimization) you will eventually run across the discussion of different types of keywords and the phrase "Long Tail Keywords". It should really be Long Tail Keyword Phrases, but our industry is full of acronyms and slang so why should we be surprised when someone has dropped "Phrases" from the description.

Long Tail Keyword vs Short Tail Keyword / Mountain Lion vs Bobcat

Where did the phrase "Long Tail" & "Short Tail" come from?

I found it interesting when I started to write this blog post that when I looked at the top 3 websites ranking for Long Tail vs Short Tail Keywords not one of the sites had the answer I was expecting to find.

I'm wondering if the origins of this short vs long distinction has gotten lost over the years (BANG! has been providing SEO services since the 90's). My recollection of the reason why they are called Long Tail Keywords is because when a graph of keyword research on a topic shows search volume vs word length, it's the longer, multi-word keyword phrases that form a long tail on the right side of the graph. Something like this...

Long Tail vs Short Tail Keyword Graph

Others writing on the topic were quick to say that...

1 to 2 words in a phrase are short tail and 4 or more are long tail (but what about 3 word phrases?)  

Or, Short-tail keywords are general queries consisting of one or two words, while long-tail keywords consist of three to five or more words.

Or even, A short tail keyword phrases contains 3 words or lessWhile Long tail keywords are phrases containing more than 3 words. This site clearly wins the award for the best graphics of the bunch!

Clearly we all can't agree of the exact definition for Long Tail vs Short Tail, but the semantics of it (another phrase you'll hear regarding SEO... semantic) don't matter for our purposes as much as how we use this information to choose target keyword phrases for SEO or even PPC (Pay-Per-Click... told you we have a lot of acronyms in our industry) advertising such as Google Ads (formerly called Google Adwords).

The Long and Short of Choosing Keyword Phrases

Thinking back to our graph of keyword phrases, short tail phrases have larger search volumes, i.e. more searches are performed by people using those shorter phrases. It would be very easy to assume that we should be targeting these shorter phrases in our SEO campaigns simply because there is greater potential in getting a large amount of traffic from site visitors if we rank for those short phrases. More searches means more customers right? Not necessarily!


Short Tail Keyword Challenges

Because the competition to rank for those short terms is fierce, it makes ranking for short tail keyword phrases very difficult. EVERYONE wants to be on the first page for those terms, but of course, that can't happen. And since short tail keywords tend to be generic keywords they often aren't as great as you might think as they have lower conversion rates.

So what's a business owner wearing their SEO hat to do?


Long Tail Keyword Opportunities & Benefits

Search queries with a higher number of words in them tend to have lower search volumes, but they are easier to get ranked for and they tend to convert better to boot. They tend to be more relevant keywords and lead to specific results.

A couple of examples to explain long tail keyword advantages.

Keyword Difficulty - Short tail keywords examples

I was recently doing some keyword research for a Doctor regarding the phrase "Heartburn". The (very) short tail phrase has a search volume of 165,000 queries per month in the United States according to the Google Adwords Keyword Planner (a great place to do keyword research and usually the first thing I use in my keyword strategy).

Wow, what a great opportunity... if only I could get my client ranked for the phrase "heartburn" against the likes of the Mayo Clinic and WebMD. And that's the problem, they keyword difficulty according to Semrush is 92. That's on a scale of 0 to 100 with 100 being the hardest. Trying to rank web pages for the phrase heartburn would, well, give you heartburn!

In comparison, the long tail keyword phrase "Why do bananas give me heartburn?" while still getting 3,600 searches per month, and increasing 238% year over year, is a much easier difficulty rating of just 46... exactly half as difficult as "heartburn" (would this phrase then provide heartburn relief to the SEO expert???). Semrush labels a difficulty of 30-49 as "Possible" vs the "Very Hard" KD (another acronym!... Keyword Difficulty) of 92. Clearly long tail keyword phrases are easier to rank for, especially for small businesses which make up our Phoenix SEO Companies typical client base.

Intent and Conversion

Which customer is closer to making a buying decision?
  1. The person searching for "Big TVs"?
  2. Or the person searching for "Sony 85" Class - X81CH Series - 4K UHD LED LCD TVs at Costco" ?

Clearly the person conducting the 2nd search has brand awareness of both the manufacturer of the TV and where he plans to buy it. Long tail wins.

Let's use another example using the short tail term "SEO" (can't get much shorter!). What is the intent (meaning for what purpose or what action will they take after completing their search) of a person searching for the keyword SEO?
  • They may simply want to know what the acronym means? (Search Engine Optimization)
  • Perhaps the person is a writer and wondering "Do writers need to understand SEO? (Ours certainly do!)
  • Perhaps they are wanting to learn SEO and are looking for online classes?

Now for the SEO agency looking for new clients, the intent of those three short tail examples isn't going to bring us business. Even if we ranked for the phrase and got traffic to the website that traffic would never convert into a new customer.

Looking at some potential long tail keywords about SEO we might find phrases such as...
These phrases are perfect for two of our top target industries of legal firms and contractors. Anyone searching for those phrases and clicking through to our website likely has the intent to learn more about and perhaps purchase our services, and has a high probability of converting.

Lesson Learned: The best keywords likely have long tails.
Especially if you want to catch as many "mouse" clicks as possible.

Long Tail Cat with Mouse

So, what brought you to this page? Looking for an SEO agency to help with your web page content and rank your website higher in the search results? Call us at 602-427-5626 or contact us here and let's talk about how we can improve your sites rankings and up your lead generation using the power of the Internet.

About the Author

Brian Rideout, Chief Pixel Pusher of BANG! Web Site Design is an industry veteran (sounds better than old guy right?) who started building websites in 1996 when dial-up, modems, Netscape, and 640 x 480 resolution monitors with 256 colors were state of the art.

We stumbled into SEO by "accident" when we got a client ranked #2 on Yahoo (remember, this was the 90's) for an extremely competitive keyword phrase, and they sold out of all the products they had. With a little reverse engineering, we learned what Yahoo was looking for and applied our SEO experience to other clients and then to Google when they became the dominant search engine.

We continued to build websites for small business's in the Phoenix market as well as companies across the country. Our approach of "SEO 1st Website Design" has resulted in many businesses, particularly in the building trades such as contractors and plumbers, as well as law firms, to rank at the top of Google's results which keeps our clients supplied with a constant stream of new customers.

We continue to provide website design, website development, hosting, SEO services, and digital marketing for Phoenix companies. More information about the company can be found on our About Us page. Click the following link for examples of our award-winning website design work.