Short Tail Long tail

Search Engine Optimization – Long Tail or Short Tail?

What's the difference between short tail and long tail keyterms, and why does it matter in search engine optimization? Find out.

Editor’s Note: This was originally posted in 2010, but has been updated to match current SEO standards, providing recent information and relevant, current links.

When looking for SEO information, you can always find plenty of articles on how to research keywords. You can find tons of tools as well, such as WordTracker,, SEMRush, Moz and many others. What you get is a list of potential keywords, information on how often they’re searched and, basically, whether they’d be a good choice for traffic.

Sounds helpful, useful, informational and all those words ending in the “ul” sound. Now, here’s the question – have you thought about how many others will be using the same optimization methods and tools? When I say “others”, of course, you realize that I mean “millions of others”. In fact, the question quickly moves from “How do I get into the search engines” to “How do I compete and get my website in the top 3 slots of the search engine results pages?

The secret is: Go for the long tail.

Keyword Phrases: Short Tail; Long Tail

Even if you’ve been working on optimizing your site for awhile, it’s easy to miss nuances. The difference in the usage and quality of key phrases is a prime example. Although many understand the need to focus the on-page content and choose the topic of the content, just as many don’t understand that how you do that matters, and depending on the reason for the page.

About the short tail…

The short tail general has one or two keywords, tops. It’s generic, like “shoes” are generic until you start getting into brand names. The short tail doesn’t care whether searchers are buying shoes, selling shoes or just looking at shoes; all it cares about is whether “shoes” is in the search query.

About the long tail…

The long tail has more than two keywords. It’s not generic. It’s long, detailed and accurate to a “t”. It’s a mouthful, but darned if it won’t bring targeted traffic. The really cool thing about the long tail is it doesn’t just care if “website optimization services” is in the search query. It also cares about:

• Website optimization
• Optimization services
• Real estate websites
• Real estate website optimization services
• Real estate website optimization
• Real estate optimization services

In other words, it cares about variations of the search query as well.

Pros and Cons

Both options have pros and cons. For example, the short tail gets more searches than long tail – major pro. However, it’s harder to be ranked high for short tail – major con. Why is long tail easier to rank for? Fewer people are optimizing for them. Period.

So why would you want to go to all the trouble of optimizing for long tailed search queries if they have fewer searches? Two serious reasons:

1. More exposure at the top of the SERPS
2. Searchers are more detailed, which means searches are more targeted

The Two Camps of Searchers

Searchers tend to be either lookers or buyers. Lookers search for free stuff, information, are “just looking” or are bored. You’re going to have to work hard to convert lookers into buyers.

Buyers, however, are looking for a purpose – they already know the product and are there to buy it or they’re performing pre-buying research. Let me be clear: you want these people on your site. Let me also be clear: they tend to use the long tail, because they’ve already defined what they want (Example: Nike golf shoes, size 9, Miami Florida).

Which Keyphrase Type Do You Go For?

That’s easy to answer – both. For example, if your short tail is “website optimization” you obviously want to rank for it. However, you increase your search exposure if you sit down and think about the end user. If they want to buy, what other words might they add to that short tail? The list you come up with is your list of long tail key phrases. Optimizing for both gives you potential high ranking for numerous searches.

A well thought out keyword strategy containing key words, short tail phrases and long tail phrases will not only have you ranking high, but also will having you ranking high in several places. Take your time; don’t rush. Once you get started, you want to keep the momentum going.

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9 Responses

  1. When you start looking for a keyword, I think it is advisable if you choose short tail relevant keywords because most blogger consider short keywords to easily find in search result page.

  2. I’m wondering how long will it take for you to get high rankings in short tail keywords. I know that it depends on the competitors but i just want to get an approximate in order to build an effective link building strategy. Sorry if i asked. I’m still new with this. Thank you.

    1. Hello Brian, could I say you answered your own question? I’d love to throw a number at you, but can’t – competition for the phrases you’re targeting is always a factor. For most clients, it takes no more than 60 days, but there’s always that exception to the rule: major industry, highly competitive key terms, not enough people searching and too many companies targeting… Depending on your “effective link strategy” and goals, you’ll need great content, no matter what terms you’re talking – which, by the way, I dropped by your site. Looks like you’re doing a great job.

  3. Surprisingly, with small industrial / scientific / medical technology businesses it’s possible to get in the top 6 with more short-tails than you might expect. Why ? Many of these are niche businesses — needing to score on some very ‘niche’ search terms with which their ‘niche’ target customers are very familiar. And many times their competitors are highly SEO-unaware. Competitive analysis, good on-page SEO and some relatively affordable minimum of link building can really score for these guys.

    If the business is small, the average sales fairly large, a conversion strategy is in place and if they have the top 1 or 2 spot for a search string nailed, it also really doesn’t matter much that there are only a few hundred searches a month on a particular string.

  4. Such a valid point yet such a hard one to get across. Many simply assume that just because a keyword is high traffic it is the one to go for.

    Which ones to go for first is important. If you start at the head of the tail it will take longer to generate the same volumes than if you had started with the long tail.

    And a pro of starting with the long-tail is that it’s a much more organic approach and can often lead to head-tail terms being gained at a much lower cost due to the long-tail terms containing the head-tail terms, highly varied anchor text and deep linking.

  5. @Ruud – Ssssh… you’re giving away all the secrets! 😀

    Excellent comment and brings up a good point. There’s always going to be at least one good key phrase you miss in your research. Keeping an eye on analytics can help you find the phrases you miss for better targeting.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  6. Also, there’s no real need to choose, right? You can target both, either in separate articles or in one and the same.

    Long tail can also act as a steps on a ladder to higher ranking; or like a knife carving out a niche. Check your analytics, see which long tail searches were used to bring in people. Then write specifically about that search, for that search: you made it to that SERP once “by accident” — just imagine how much better it will be if you specifically *work* for it!

    HitTail was (is?) analytics based on this concept although I’m under the impression that they’re now defunct as a service.

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