Posted to Ben Finklea's blog on May 19th, 2010

The Difference Between Long-Tail and Short-Tail Keywords

One of the first things you do when you want to optimize your web site for search is to research and choose keywords that relate to your site’s theme or business niche. These keywords are being used by your target audience most frequently when searching for your services online. If you use these keywords on your site correctly, you will increase your chances for more traffic.

But traffic isn’t the end-all be-all of keyword research. No sir. You want keywords that draw in targeted traffic. When this targeted traffic lands on your site, you want them to become engaged with content that convinces them to convert. Visitors who find irrelevant content after clicking through to your site will hit the back button faster than a gunfight at high noon. Make sure the content your keywords link to is relevant and engaging.

So how do you do it? The first step is to create a list of relevant keywords that your target audience frequently uses. You can do this by conducting keyword research tools to find related keywords. Google’s Keyword Adwords Tool is a great way to identify not only most often searched for words, but also other related words that may be a longer string of words. Check out this Adwords screenshot for a Real Estate School keyword search:

As you browse through this list you will see that there are a few keywords that stand out. SEO best practices recommend you look at least two different keyword types for targeting your website: long-tail keywords and short-tail keywords. From my experience, many clients come into the keyword research phase of an SEO campaign without completely understanding the difference between the two types. That is about to end.

Join me after the jump to discuss the differences between long-tail and short keywords.

Keywords Briefly Explained

Keywords are the building blocks of your website’s content. Once you establish which keywords you want to focus on, you can develop pages on your site that target these words.

When I use the term keyword, I am not necessarily referring to one word. Since most search queries involve longer phrases as well – i.e. nike basketball shoes jordan – keywords can be a single word or phrase. Once you know which keywords to target primarily, you can build your website’s content around them.

Different tactics are used for targeting pages on your site with keywords. This is due in part because Web searching behavior changes based on what information is being searched for. Here is a quick look at one way of interpreting your traffic’s dynamic behavior.

Long-Tail Keywords

Many Web searchers use long-tail keywords to refine their search for very specific information. They are typically looking for very particular content, not generic topics. That is way their queries look something like this: north austin texas real estate school inspection class. The searcher is destined to get more specific content than if they had queried: austin real estate school.

Web searchers who use long-tail keywords are typically more search savvy. If you have content that ranks for long-tail, you will attract highly targeted traffic to your site. This may produce less traffic compared to a short-tail keyword, but the searcher is more likely to convert. It is important to include a solid keyword density of long-tail (~3%) in your content in order to drive traffic to your site.

Because you being search savvy, highly targeted traffic to your site, you want them to land deeper in your site structure. The highly targeted traffic already know what they want, so you don’t have to lead them through your entire conversion path. Instead, have them land on a niche page, such as the inspection class sign-up page for our real estate search from above.

Long-Tail Tips

It is very helpful to understand the language your target audience uses in order to choose effective long-tail keywords. When Web searchers get specific, they are practically writing entire sentences in the search box. So it is important to understand how your target audience writes on a sentence level, rather than a phrase level. Check out blogs and social media forums where your target audience may hang out. People tend to search like they write in social media. This will also provide insight into your target audience’s writing style and help your website’s content as well.

Short-Tail Keywords

Where long-tail keywords are used to search for very specific content, short-tail keywords are used to search for more generic topics – i.e. computers, real estate school, baby diapers, or gaming PC. Web searchers who use short-tail keywords are looking for a broader swath of results. Because they don’t know exactly what the solution is for their problem means they will need to start from the beginning of your conversion path.

Short-tail keywords are used primarily to target your homepage, category pages, and main landing pages. Short-tail keywords will indefinitely have more traffic and greater advertising competition, but the searcher will be less informed about you and your product or service. If you sell vintage fans, you will want people searching for vintage fans to land on your home page or on your main vintage fans page. When the searcher wants to get more specific: V7000 vintage Orion fan, they get sent to that specific product page with their long-tail query.

Short-Tail Tips

I will always encourage you to use Google’s AdWords Keyword Tool when researching keywords. For choosing short-tail keywords, you definitely want to have the highest amount of traffic with a fair amount of competition. I have heard to two differing interpretations of low advertiser competition: either it’s not worth pursuing and our competitors already know this or it is a great opportunity to have your target audience’s undivided attention. Interpret as you will.

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