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Stephen Logan

Understanding Short Tail and Long Tail Keywords

6th Nov 2009 SEO 3 minutes to read

SEO SphereShort tail or long tail keywords, which are best for your site’s SEO? Well, as with the majority of search engine marketing techniques, the most beneficial long-term strategy would include a bit of both. But to understand how to research and implement these keywords, you first need to understand what they are.

A long tail keyword is often based around a short tail term, only it has been developed to be more specific to the searchers exact requirements. A short tail keyword often only includes one or two words, which tends to cover the most popular terms, whilst a long tail term is almost without constraint when it comes to length.


Short Tail Keyword – ‘Mountain Bike’
Long Tail Keyword  – ‘Mongoose Full Suspension Men’s Mountain Bike‘

From the above example you can see a very clear difference in the keyword structure. The short tail is a very general term, which, while not inaccurate, doesn’t have the same targeted focus of the latter.

Whilst the term ‘Mountain Bike’ may accurately reflect your website and the products it offers, the competition for this particular phrase will be enormous. In fact, if you type ‘Mountain Bike’ into Google you’ll find 35,600,000 (as of November 2009) results. Clearly this represents something of an issue.

Due to the generic nature of short tail terms, the number of direct competitors is always likely to be high. Search queries tend to average between 2 and 3 words though, which makes these shorter keyword strands more popular in terms of consumer searches. Therefore there are advantages to achieving a high ranking for short tail terms, especially in terms of visibility and potential traffic. That said, it is often incredibly difficult for many new or smaller websites to bridge the gap to more established platforms.

Returning to the example above once again, the search phrase ‘Mongoose Full Suspension Men’s Mountain Bike‘ only has 47,900 competitors*. Whilst this may seem like a lot, it is clearly a good deal less than less specific phrases. Conversely though, you are unlikely to achieve as many searches for this phrase, which means that you won’t receive the same levels of traffic than you would if achieving a ranking for the shorter, more popular terms.

However, traffic isn’t the be all and end all. What you lose in numbers by having a long tail term, you should pick up in relevance. If somebody searches for ‘Mongoose Full Suspension Men’s Mountain Bike‘, there’s a fair chance that they’re looking for a particular product or style of product; this in turn makes them more likely to convert. The short tail alternative, ‘Mountain Bike’ could cover any number of enquiries. However, were you to search for this you would be in what we refer to as ‘research mode’; this is because the query itself is too broad to suggest that a consumer is seriously using their search to find a specific service or product.

People in research mode don’t tend to convert as well. This is because they’re just browsing, often looking for ideas or more information rather than looking to make a purchase there and then. So whilst they may help to boost your traffic levels, they’re unlikely to help boost your coffers. Ultimately it is conversions that count, so don’t become blinded by the visitor numbers.

One thing to also consider with the long tail keywords, as alluded to earlier, is that they often include a short tail phrase too. This means that when used properly, you can actually optimise for both concurrently. Of course it might not have the same strength; however, for smaller or newer sites this is a great opportunity to start optimising across a number of different search phrases and picking up some targeted traffic in less competitive sectors.

So there you have it, both long tail and short tail phrases have their benefits, but you have to weigh up the advantages for your own site. The only way this can be achieved is through extensive keyword research. This will help you to find out what consumers are looking for and how you can target those who are likely to improve your site’s conversion rate. Ideally you are looking for terms with high search rates but low competition; however, for obvious reasons, these are often few and far between, hence why thorough research and understanding of search queries is essential.

* Depending on how you define competition, of course. Put the phrase in quotes, and this number is considerably different!

Further reading: Understanding the Scale of Long Tail Searches

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Hand Holding A 3D SEO Sphere via BigStock

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