Long tail vs short tail keywords

Long-tail vs short-tail keywords

When it comes to writing online content, the terms ‘long-tail keywords’ and ‘short-tail keywords’ are all important. To the uninitiated, it might not seem like a big deal, but as a digital content creator, understanding long-tail vs short-tail keywords and the rules of SEO is important.

Equally, for publishers, brands and anyone else trying to attract eyeballs to their content online, knowing the difference between long-tail keywords and short-tail keywords, and how to use them is crucial. Keywords along with SEO should be part of an overall content strategy. What’s the difference between long-tail and short-tail keywords? Let’s break it down.

What are long-tail keywords?

So just what are long-tail keywords I hear you ask? Long-tail keywords are the longer search phrases that people use when searching on Google. It can includes anything from “what’s the best streaming platform” to “how can I tell if I’m pregnant” or “when is daylight saving?” 

These long, specific search phrases make up the vast majority of search queries. Think about when you turn to Google. It’s usually for help with something that begins with a ‘how’, ‘when’, ‘what’ or ‘why’ phrase. We don’t typically just type ‘streaming’ or ‘pregnant’.

The concept of the tail is a metaphor for the large volume of search queries that can be used for a long period of time using these four to six-word highly specific phrases. They’re often queries or questions about finding or getting help or understanding something. 

What are short-tail keywords?

So just what are short-tail keywords I hear you ask? Not surprisingly, short-tail keywords are search phrases with only one or two words. They’re more general because there are just less words to form a specific inquiry. So ‘shoes’ or ‘running shoes’ are short-tail keywords but ‘best running shoes for women’ is a long-tail keyword, also known as a keyphrase. 

There are many short-tail keywords – just think of the dictionary and you’ll get the idea. If you’re in the world of online advertising, which is paying for ads linked to single keywords or short-tail keywords, keywords are very competitive. There are a lot of brands and advertisers who’d like to ‘own’ single words in search results so it help prioritise their websites. Buying keywords so your ad appears for that term in the search results is something quite different to what I’m focussing on here. I’m looking at how to utilise long-tail or short-tail keywords in content articles so that it ranks in the ‘organic’ or non-paid search results.

Why do long-tail vs short-tail keywords matter?

It’s all about Google and the dark art of understanding search results, search terms and Google’s algorithm that matches website pages with search queries through keywords.

As a digital content writer and a digital journalist of many years, I’ve had the benefit of some training in writing for online, often called SEO, which stands for search engine optimisation. It’s part-writing and part-keyword usage, but it all adds up to crafting content that is pleasing to the Google Gods. It needs to rank high in the search results and be readable and helpful for the human on the other end of the search query. The larger point of writing for online is to produce good-quality content, useful to the readers, which pays attention to some of the ‘rules’ of SEO.

The ‘rules’ is really the algorithm Google uses to assess websites and webpages and rank them according to a range of factors. These include website structure, length of content, internal and external links, page loading time, image descriptions, keywords and how pages load for mobile, specifically image size, font size and other mobile usability criteria. We all love our smartphones, and Google knows this better than anyone because it can see the search queries coming from mobile devices more than desktop computers. As a result, it now prioritises how it ranks pages for mobile usability. It’s become that important to Google because it knows we’re all busy searching on our phones now far more than on desktop computers.

Google tweaks its algorithm regularly and, without becoming obsessive and driving yourself to distraction, it’s useful to keep abreast of its changes. To do this, I’d suggest signing up to a newsletter from an SEO, keyword research or digital marketing site that sends out a post when there’s been a change. It will explain it so you know how to tweak what you’re doing and, if it’s a significant update, go back and edit existing pages to take into account the changed ranking criteria.

Long-tail vs short-tail keywords and how they fit into SEO

To finish up, I’m going to write an overview of how long-tail and short-tail keywords fit into the overall search and SEO pictures to help make sense of it all. 

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is the process of trying to get organic, non-paid traffic to a website or webpage by appearing at the top of the listings. These are known as SERPs or search engine results page on Google. Remember there are many country variants of the Google search home page, such as google.com.au, google.com, google.co.uk. A Google search refers to any Google search starting at one of its homepages.

Google has a crawler that goes out and crawls, or scans, websites and their individual pages to create an index by ranking and rating elements on the pages – from technical elements to the content and sharable elements. This includes length of content, structure, when it was published, regularity of new content being published, social media links, site identity and site structure. It also matches the keywords on the site in the copy to the keywords used in people’s search queries.

Now behind the scenes, digital writers, website editors, coders and other ‘back-end’ people adhere to the set of SEO rules for our content. And these are choosing a long-tail or short-tail keyword for each page, sprinkling that keyword throughout the copy to reinforce the theme of the content, and marking up the copy in the content system. To do this, we chooses headings, image descriptions, internal and external links and meta-descriptions. These tell Google what the content is about and are displayed to web users in the search results.

The ‘O’ in SEO is the optimisation is understanding the rules of how content needs to be written, structured and tagged. Writers and editors choose relevant short-tail or long-tail keywords to appear high on the search results page for those search terms is part of SEO.

Now this entire post itself has been written using the principles of SEO. It’s also hopefully shedding some light on the difference between long-tail and short-tail keywords. Think you can guess my keyphrase?

Rosalyn Page

Freelance journalist and editor. Rosalyn is an award-winning journalist, writer and editor with a niche in digital lifestyle, tech and travel who has worked in the media for nearly 20 years across newspapers, magazine and online.

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