Long tail keywords vs. short-tailed: what’s the difference?

The difference between long tail and short tail keywords comes down to popularity. Many people search for short tail keywords, while few people search for long tail keywords.

Long tail keywords vs.  short-tailed

Because of this, long-tail keywords are generally easier to rank for and tend to appeal to users with more specific intent. This has made targeting them a widely adopted SEO tactic.

So should you follow suit and prioritize long-tail keywords at all times?

But first, why are they called that?

It’s not about how many words they contain or how specific they are.

Short and long tail keywords get their respective names from their position on the “search demand” curve.

If we take all the search queries people have performed on Google over the course of a month and sort them by their search volumes, it will look like this:

The research demand curve.

As you can see, long tail keywords are literally in the “long tail” of this chart. It’s because they’re less popular (but not “worst”) variations of short-tail keywords/head terms on the “fat head” curve.

By the way, there are two types of long-tail keywords you should know about.

Long tail keyword support

The long-tail keywords they support are less popular variations of the most popular search queries. They are basically broader topics in disguise.

To illustrate, while some people will search for “bedroom furniture chests”…

Supporting long-tail keyword example.

… most people will be looking for the same thing just using “dressers”:

Example of a long-tail topical keyword.

As you can see, despite having vastly different search volumes, those keywords have pretty much the same Keyword Difficulty Scores (KD). This is one of the main reasons why using long-tail supporting keywords as your primary keywords might not be the best idea.

So, in most cases, you should probably avoid supporting long-tail keywords and instead focus on the other type: topical long-tail keywords.

Long-tail topical keywords

Long-tail topical keywords are the most popular way to search for a particular topic. In other words, they are topics in themselves and not other topics in disguise.

To know if you’re dealing with topical or long-tail support keywords, you can do two things:

  • Search the term on Google and see what the pages above are talking about
  • Use the Parent Topic feature in Ahrefs Explore keywords – If the keyword is the same as the Parent Topic, you are dealing with a topical keyword. Technically, the Parent Topic is the most popular keyword for which the page ranks top.
Keyword corresponding to the main topic
The keyword is the same as the Parent Topic = the keyword is topical.

It helps to know if your keyword is topical. Because if you can rank for it, you’ll probably rank for the less popular support long tail.

SERP comparison in Ahrefs.
If we compare “apartment living room furniture” (supportive) with “apartment furniture” (topical), we will see seven common results in the SERP.
Topical or long-tail support keywords

To know more: Long tail keywords: what they are and how to get search traffic from them

Which are better: long-tail or short-tail keywords?

Both types of keywords have their pros and cons.

Short-tail keywords will have a lot of competition, but it’s not impossible to outrun pages in the top 10.

It could take years (yes) to fine-tune your content and years to build links.

But once you finally get there:

  • You will get serious traffic from your main term and relevant long tail keywords.
  • Chances are you have built up some good backlinks if you rank high for these keywords. You can then use the internal links from that page to boost other pages.
Positioning no.  1 for the main term makes the content rank for relevant short-tail keywords as well.
Our #1 article for “SEO tools” ranks in the top 10 for 240 other keywords.

As for long-tail keywords, they’re great for other reasons. In most cases:

  • They are less competitive.
  • There are many.
  • They are usually specific; you can attract visitors with specific intents.

On the flip side, you’ll need to rank for a lot of them to get a large volume of traffic. But as long as these keywords are good for your business, that traffic can be very valuable.

Case in point: left-handed nail scissors. Not much research in general. But if you’re a left-handed store like Lefty’s, customers are sure to expect that product.

Bottom line? I would say that if you want to be the go-to resource for your topic, you could target both short-tail and long-tail keywords (see also: topical authority). However, try to target thematic long-tail keywords instead of supporting long-tail keywords.

How to find short tail keywords

If you take a keyword research tool like Ahrefs’ Keywords Explorer, type in something broad like “electric cars,” and sort the results by volume, you’ll get a list of keywords. The top results will be your short tail keywords.

How to find short tail keywords.

That’s all. If you don’t know what words to type into the tool, try:

  • Looking at the topics people are talking about on social media
  • Grab a few trade magazines online and look at popular topics
  • Analyze your competitors’ keywords (more on this in the next section)
  • Using an audience research tool like SparkToro

How to find long tail keywords

Keyword research and competitor analysis tools can help you find long-tail keywords as well. You just need to set some filters. Let’s look at a couple of ways to do this.

Use a keyword research tool

In keyword explorer:

  1. Enter a broad topic
  2. Go to Matching terms report
  3. Set the Volume and traffic potential filters up to a maximum of 300
  4. Click Show results
Finding long-tail keywords in Ahrefs.

Side note.

If you don’t see great results with these settings, set the volume and TP filters a little higher. However, I don’t recommend going beyond a few hundred, as the results won’t be long queues at that stage.

From there, refining your initial keyword list is a good idea. You can do this using the remaining filters within the tool.

For example, you can use Keyword Difficulty (KD) to get only low-competition keywords, like:

Examples of long tail keywords.

Or you can use modifier keywords, like “for,” to bring out some niches.

Using modifier words to find specific long-tail keywords.

Some examples:

Long-tail keywords containing modifier words.

Sure, you can mix and match. Below is a filter that finds long-tail keywords posed as questions with low difficulty and minimal search volumes.

Example of using various filters to find long tail keywords.


Long tail keywords with low keyword difficulty and minimal traffic potential.

Analyze competitor keywords

You can use a similar process to find good long-tail keywords among your competitors.

For that, use a tool like Site Explorer by Ahrefs. You can:

  1. Enter any URL.
  2. Go to Organic keywords report.
  3. Set the Volume up to a maximum of 300 (traffic potential the filter is not available here).
  4. Click Show results.
Use Ahrefs to find long-tail keyword ideas on other websites.

Side note.

If you don’t see great results with these settings, set the volume and TP filters a little higher. However, I don’t recommend going beyond a few hundred, as the results won’t be long queues at that stage.

Looking at the popular cooking website loveandlemons.com, we will come up with keywords like:

Sources of long tail keyword examples form another website.

Final thoughts

Probably the most important point here is not to target keywords just because they belong to the long tail or short tail camp.

Instead, try this four-step process for finding keywords (we use it ourselves at Ahrefs):

  1. Find keywords with search traffic potential
  2. Make sure you create content that aligns with search intent
  3. Make sure the keyword has “business potential”
  4. Make sure you can rank for the keyword

Read all about the process in How to Choose the Right Keywords for SEO.

Do you have questions? ping me on Twitter.

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