A Complete Guide to Optimizing for Long Tail and Short Tail Keywords

Optimize your content for a strategic mix of long-tail and short-tail keywords to maximize SEO visibility.

A Complete Guide to Optimizing for Long Tail and Short Tail Keywords

Understanding keywords is absolutely critical for the success of any search marketing campaign. Carefully choosing the right keywords and search terms to target can potentially save thousands of dollars in paid search ads, while also helping drive thousands more visitors to your website organically every single day.

When optimizing individual pages of your website, you will inevitably encounter a mix of long tail keywords and short tail keywords. If you are new to search engine optimization and conducting keyword research, you may be asking yourself—what exactly is the difference between long tail and short tail keywords, and how do you know which ones you should be targeting?

In this comprehensive guide, we will thoroughly explain the difference between long tail keywords and short tail keywords, when to use each type, tips for how to optimize for both long and short tail keywords, and tools to help you find the best keywords to focus your efforts on.

What Are Short Tail Keywords?

Short tail keywords are search terms or phrases that are only 1 or 2 words long. The “tail” in short tail refers to the overall length of the search query or keyword phrase. Searching for just “SEO” on its own would be considered a short tail keyword, while “SEO company in Toronto” would be considered a long tail keyword.

In general, short tail keywords tend to be more broad and generic, and can be expanded upon further with additional details to form longer, more specific long tail variations. Due to their broad, far-reaching nature, short tail keywords also tend to have significantly higher monthly search volumes. Many small and medium-sized businesses attempt to target a select list of high-volume short tail keywords when optimizing their website pages.

There is a very direct correlation between search term length and search volume, with shorter, more generic search terms typically receiving much higher search volumes compared to longer, more specific phrases.

Therefore, when optimizing individual pages of your website, it is absolutely essential to have strong knowledge of which short tail keywords make sense to target, as well as which long tail keyword variations you should be focusing on optimizing for instead. Importantly, remember that optimizing pages for long tail keywords will often naturally include relevant short tail keywords within the longer phrase.

What Are Long Tail Keywords?

Long tail keywords are search terms or phrases that are typically at least four or more words long. Long tail keywords essentially add additional details, modifiers, locations, demographics, attributes, and more to a search query to make it more specific. Another key feature of long tail keywords is that they are much less broad and generic, and instead narrow a user’s search down to a very specific subset, category, location, color, type, demographic, or other descriptive product or service attribute.

Some examples of long tail keywords would be “SEO services for small businesses in Toronto” or “what is the best digital marketing agency in Vancouver for a startup ecommerce company?” These lengthy phrases branch off of and expand upon shorter root keywords like “SEO” and “digital marketing agency”, while also specifying the search intent by adding details like location, industry, company size, and more.

While short tail keywords make up a minority of overall searches, long tail keywords actually comprise a massive 80%+ of all Google searches. However, due to the widely varied and ultra-specific nature of long tail keywords, they tend to individually have much lower monthly search volumes when compared to short tail keywords.

For example, while the short tail root keyword “digital marketing” may have hundreds of thousands of monthly searches, a long tail variation like “top digital marketing agency based in Calgary for B2B technology companies” will likely only have a few dozen or hundred monthly searches. However, this ultra-specific, highly targeted traffic converts at a much higher rate.

How to Choose Which Keywords to Optimize For

When it comes to choosing between targeting short tail keywords or long tail keyword variations, it really shouldn’t have to be too much of a dilemma if you know how to properly conduct keyword research to uncover high-potential long tail keywords with good search volume.

It is crucially important to remember that optimizing pages for long tail variations containing a particular short tail root keyword will also help increase the overall ranking and visibility of that short tail keyword across your website. Therefore, you do not need to worry about directly optimizing for high-volume short tail keywords on each page—instead, put your focus on optimizing for longer, more specific long tail keywords that happen to contain the short tail root term you ultimately want to target and rank for.

This method allows you to hone in and focus your SEO efforts on appealing to a very specific target audience who is searching for that precise long tail keyword, while still benefiting from the boosted visibility and authority of ranking for the actual short tail root term itself.

You can use keyword research tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs, or even just your own Google Search Console analytics data to conduct thorough keyword research and gain understanding of which short tail and long tail keyword opportunities have high monthly search volumes but relatively low competition.

If you choose to primarily use Google Search Console for conducting ongoing keyword research when optimizing your website, you can filter and sort your existing organic search terms to appear in order of their current search engine ranking position. If you come across a long tail variation that is already ranking on page 1 or 2 for your site but only receiving a small number of impressions, choosing to specifically optimize a page around that long tail can lead to great results with relatively low effort. These are essentially the “low-hanging fruit” of keyword optimization.

While short tail keywords are likely to be very helpful for building widespread brand awareness and increasing overall traffic to your website in general, long tail keywords will drive more qualified, targeted traffic that can be more easily converted into leads and sales.

Therefore, a balanced approach is best whenever possible. While ranking for high-volume, competitive short tail keywords can provide you with a larger slice of the search traffic pie for a broad term and create significant growth opportunities if you manage to rank well, it is exceedingly difficult and costly for most businesses to focus purely on short tail keywords across every page of their website.

For this reason, we typically recommend finding a balance of short tail and long tail optimization, while focusing the majority of your time and effort on optimizing for longer, more specific long tail variations with good search volume and reasonable competition levels.

Additionally, depending on your website’s current domain authority and overall strength, it may not be the wisest use of resources to attempt ranking for ultra-competitive short tail keywords, as larger, more authoritative sites will likely outrank you. Optimizing for long tail variations is often a smarter approach for newer websites in particular.

Additional Tips for Optimizing Keywords

Using Keywords in Image ALT Text

When uploading images to your website, you should always make sure to use descriptive, keyword-rich ALT text for every image. This helps search engines properly understand what the image depicts, in addition to aiding visually impaired users. This is also a prime opportunity to seamlessly incorporate logical, relevant long tail keyword phrases into your ALT text.

We certainly don’t recommend keyword stuffing or over-optimizing ALT text, but you should ensure that you are using images on pages that visually complement and reinforce the written content on the page. And the ALT text for those images should include target keywords and long tail phrases where appropriate.

Avoid Cannibalizing Your Own Keywords

When you are operating a large website that contains many pages within the same industry or niche, there is bound to be some overlap between the keywords and terms that various pages are ranking for. For example, an SEO company may optimize their main homepage for the short tail root keyword “SEO”, while also having a dedicated services page explaining their specific SEO service offerings.

In a situation like this, it can be tricky to decide which individual page on your site you should be optimizing for that shared keyword like “SEO” in order to maximize rankings and visibility. By heavily optimizing more than one page on your site for the exact same term, you run the risk of inadvertently cannibalizing your own potential rankings by competing against yourself.

The best way to combat this is to closely analyze your Google Analytics data and identify which page amongst your website is already performing better and getting more organic clicks and impressions for that shared keyword. With this insight, you can then choose to focus your on-page optimization efforts solely on the top-performing page for that term, and adjust the target keywords accordingly for other pages on your site. This can also create excellent internal linking opportunities by changing the primary keyword different pages are optimized for.

Key Takeaways for Optimizing Long Tail vs Short Tail Keywords

At the end of the day, every business has different needs, targets, budgets, and resources while operating in very different industries and niches. Larger enterprises with more authority may be able to better compete for and rank for high-volume, competitive short tail keywords, while smaller businesses with newer websites may find it more productive to focus the majority of their SEO efforts on optimizing for longer, less competitive long tail variations.

If you want to learn more tips and best practices for conducting keyword research, implementing on-page optimization, building backlinks, and executing a successful SEO strategy, be sure to explore our in-depth blog. We also offer a wide range of digital marketing services to help businesses improve their organic search visibility, traffic, and rankings. Contact us today to get started!