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Short Tail Vs. Long Tail: Which Type of Keyword is Best for Your Website?

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Published: November 14, 2014

Advertising legend David Ogilvy summed up his philosophy about product marketing with the much quoted adage, “The more you tell, the more you sell.” While Ogilvy was probably referring to print media advertising, the idea behind his words still resonates with today’s SEO practitioner: “Use head keywords to generate volume and long tail keywords to generate profit.”

Or as Ogilvy himself might have put it, “The more your long tail keywords tell, the more you will sell.”

The question of which type of keyword your web pages should be optimized for simply has no clear-cut answer that applies in all situations; short tail and long tail keywords both have a role to play in driving traffic to your site. Your choice of short tail or long tail keywords largely depends on your marketing goals.

Short Tail, Long Tail: What’s the Difference?

  • A short tail keyword, also known as a head term, is a broad root keyword that represents a single idea. “Auto repair,” “dentist,” and “French restaurants” are all examples of short tail keywords.
  • Short tail keywords generally have more search traffic potential than longer phrases, but are also harder to rank for.
  • Long tail keywords are extensions of the shorter single-idea phrases. They come closer to matching the way search engine users frame their search queries. Examples of long tail keywords include “mobile auto repair in Denver,” “Santa Fe pediatric dentist,” and “French restaurants in Beverly Hills.”
  • While long tail keywords deliver less traffic than short tail head terms, they are usually considerably easier to rank for than short tail keywords.

In addition to being easier to rank for, long tail keywords deliver a better conversion rate. When users type in longer and more specific search phrases, they are generally closer to making a purchase decision. Users who are still in the product research phase tend to use shorter and less specific search terms.

Advertisers running pay per click ad campaigns can also benefit from long tail keywords. When you bid on long tail terms, there is usually much less competition than for shorter head terms. Less competition means that your cost per click is going to be considerably lower.

The Drawbacks of Using Long Tail Keywords
While the long tail keyword has a lot going for it, it may not be the best choice for everyone. Shorter head terms may be more effective than long tail terms in some niches. One significant problem is the reduced volume of traffic. The search volume for some long tail keywords may be so low that visitor traffic to your website drops off considerably. You may be able to compensate for the difference in search volume by optimizing for multiple long tail keywords.

If your website is relatively new, focusing on long tail keywords may cost you the opportunity to test popular shorter head terms that might convert just as well as the longer ones.

Optimize for a Combination of Short and Long Tail Keywords
Most websites will benefit from optimizing for both short and long tail terms. Short head terms are great for driving volumes of visitors to your site who could potentially be added to your email list as well as for establishing brand awareness.