Even now, in the age of content marketing, keywords play a critical role in search engine optimization. They help guide topic brainstorming, providing a foundation, and allowing you to focus your content. They also remain the primary avenue through which people discover your website, particularly if you’re a local brand.

Generally speaking, there are two distinct “types” of keywords. Short tail keywords consist of three or fewer words, while long tail keywords consist of four or more words. These differences, however, go beyond length.

Short tail keywords

Short tail keywords tend to be more general and less focused. On the one hand, this means higher search volumes and potentially greater traffic. On the other hand, the fact that they’re so general carries with it several drawbacks.

First, short tail keywords tend to be extremely competitive, and consequently far more difficult to rank for. Since they’re less focused, it’s also more difficult to target specific search intents. That, in turn, may mean reduced conversions, as people who find your site through short tail keywords are less likely to find what they’re looking for.

Let’s say you own a hardware store located in downtown Michigan. Some examples of short tail keywords you might target are listed below.

  • Nearby hardware store
  • Home improvement
  • Construction supplies
  • Buy tools online

Long tail keywords

Long tail keywords are far more focused and niche. While they produce less traffic than short tail keywords, they also tend to be less competitive. They make it much easier to target users based on intent.

Consequently, this means that long tail keywords tend to have better conversion rates than short tail keywords. To go back to our earlier example of the downtown hardware store, long tail keywords might include the following.

  • Downtown Michigan hardware store
  • Garage door installation tools
  • Buy power tools in downtown Michigan

It’s worth mentioning that, with the growing popularity of voice search, long tail keywords have seen a significant upturn in importance. This is because voice searches make use of natural language, and as such are long tail by default. Additionally, as noted by Forbes, voice searches and conversational queries are closely tied to featured snippets.

These small boxes, usually consisting of about a paragraph of text, are intended to answer a user’s question as concisely as possible. They appear at the very top of the search engine results page, a slot that’s come to be known as position zero. This makes them immensely valuable from an SEO perspective, as they can both generate awareness and drive traffic to your site.

Short Tail Keywords vs Long Tail Keywords

TermsShort tail keywordsLong tail keywords
Number of words1 to 34 and higher
Search intentGeneric infoSpecific info
Conversion RateLowHigh

Should You Target Short Tail Keywords or Long Tail Keywords?

Generally speaking, given the growing prominence of voice search and the increasing importance of conversational queries, long tail keywords are a better option. Even though short tail keywords provide much higher search volumes, that traffic isn’t likely to generate any qualified leads. They simply aren’t worth the cost and effort required to target them.

Instead, it’s better to focus on understanding your audience, knowing what they’re looking for, and generating long tail keywords that play into that intent.

Terry Cane is the COO at SEOHost.net, a reliable and supportive SEO hosting partner. You can follow/tweet her @SEOhostnet