9 Types of Keywords
Updated: Jul 7
If you have ever researched a topic like Search Engine Optimization (SEO) or Pay Per Click ads (PPC), then you most likely have read at least something about keywords. If you’ve heard a marketing pitch for these services, then you have probably heard the salesperson discuss keyword research. Keywords are a fundamental tool in all Search Engine Marketing (SEM), and there are thousands of articles, videos, and studies out there that discuss them in detail.
Ask anyone that practices SEM, and they will give you their personal take on keyword use, research, and implementation. This is all due to the varying schools of thought on search theory. Search theory is the study of how humans interact with search engines.
With that in mind, I will outline the various types of keywords that exist, and give you empirical information regarding their use in both SEO and PPC (as they can have different implications in both disciplines).
The first type of keyword is the short tail keyword. This is a keyword or search term that is 1-3 words long. For the purposes of this article, we will use examples from the legal world, so keywords like “attorney” “defense attorney” or “personal injury lawyer” would all fall under the category of short tail keywords.
Short tail keywords tend to have the broadest scope in terms of results on a Search Engine Results Page (SERP). If I Google “attorney’, I’ll see results returned for bankruptcy attorneys, criminal defense attorneys, law schools, news articles about attorneys, and more. Even adding the modifiers of “personal injury” or “defense” return millions of results.
From an SEO perspective, it is very hard to be ranked on the first page for short tail keywords. For one-word terms, it is close to impossible. Major firms, sites like Avvo and Legal Zoom, and news sites will always end up outranking you on the organic side.
For PPC ads, be ready to bid high for short tail keywords. Because they have the highest search volume as well as highest interaction rates, they are often bid on by the majority of advertisers. Therefore, you will be in stiff competition and have to bid as high as $50.00 to have your ad displayed on page one of the SERP.
Overall, it is important to bid on short tail keywords for your PPC campaigns, and it will help to create content around them for your overall SEO performance, but I would suggest not making them the focal point of your website.
The next type of keyword we need to discuss are long tail keywords. These are keywords that are 4-10 words in length. Examples of these might include “attorney in chicago” or “best criminal defense attorney near me”.
In terms of SEO, you can make much headway with long tail keywords, especially if you are focusing on geography. The opportunity to appear on page one for “attorney in chicago il” is much higher than simply “attorney”. This is because as we get into more specific searches, you are dwindling the volume of queries. Practically speaking, only searchers in Chicago are searching for a Chicago-based attorney, while anyone, anywhere in the world could be searching for the term attorney.
On the PPC side, you will see slightly lower bids, depending on the type of long tail keyword you are focusing on. “Best attorney near me” might still be an expensive click, but if you narrow it down to “best bankruptcy attorney in Chicago”, you might see the competition dwindle and the cost for the keyword drop significantly.
It is best to focus on long tail keywords for your website, and produce plenty of high quality content focusing on these keywords. This will greatly increase your chances of ranking high on the SERP. As far as PPC campaigns are concerned, you will want to think more deeply about how consumers find your product or service, and what types of long tail searches might be conducive to driving high quality traffic to your site.
Short tail and long tail keywords are the baseline for most other keyword types. The next few will be sub-categories of these types. They are essentially modified versions of the keywords, but are also very important for a variety of reasons.
Geographic keywords are just what they sound like. Take a keyword (short or long tail) and make sure it has a location within it. So “attorney in chicago” or “best bankruptcy lawyer in boston” would be examples of these.
Much like we have described above, the short tail version of these keywords would be difficult to rank for organically. However, this depends on the actual location you are targeting. It is much harder to rank highly in a large urban market, such as New York City or Los Angeles, than it is in a small town. Even midsize cities such as Ann Arbor, MI, or Flagstaff, AZ can be difficult if you are not producing a heavy amount of high quality content centered around the keyword in question.
For PPC, geography is essential in the keyword planning of any campaign. If I am an attorney licensed in Arizona, it makes no sense for me to appear in searches for attorneys in Texas or Louisiana. Therefore it is crucial to bid on local keywords in order to appear in searches that consumers will perform. Local searches tend to have excellent volume with less competition, allowing for lower bids than more general long and short tail keywords.
Another type of keyword you can use is a short term keyword. This is a keyword that will have volume fluctuations based on timing. For example, recently in the state of Michigan, recreational marijuana was legalized. So the search volumes surrounding marijuana laws spiked in the state. As time wore on, the topic lost its appeal, and the searches returned to normal volumes. It is helpful to have content surrounding short term keywords, provided that you produce them in a timely manner. Depending on your timing, you may end up ranked very high on the SERP for these particular searches.
When building a PPC campaign, it would be beneficial to occasionally add short term keywords into a campaign, and even build a new ad surrounding them. It would also be beneficial to manage your bidding manually for these, as you may want to decrease your bidding significantly as time goes on and the search volumes around the topic return to normal levels.
Just the opposite, long term keywords are keywords that will be important to your business for the foreseeable future. This can include terms like “criminal defense law” or “bankruptcy laws in oregon”.
These will follow the same principles as the short and long tail keywords as outlined above. They are distinguished only because they are in sharp contrast to short term keywords in terms of their usefulness, search volume, and longevity.
Another important keyword to consider is product or service defining keyword. These are a little more complex, but they tend to be associated with searchers who are already in the midst of making a purchasing decision.
For our legal example, we will focus on terms such as “best chapter 11 bankruptcy attorney” or “need an attorney to file an appeal”. As you can see, these terms are far more specific in nature, and the searcher is most likely no longer in the research phase of their decision.
These keywords, from an SEO standpoint are important, but a high volume of content is not needed to rank for them. Simply be sure to have them included in static, evergreen content on your site so when someone is searching, they find you.
As for PPC, you will get these keywords at a lower cost, primarily because of the very low search volume associated with them. Also, it is no big secret in the PPC industry that the majority of firms do not use keywords this detailed in their planning for accounts (at Karasin PPC, we do, but we are an exception, not the rule).
I suggest bidding on keywords like these, as they can enable your ad to appear at a crucial moment in the sales process, and give you a leg up on your competition.
Another, specific type of keyword is a customer defining keyword. In an ideal world, you have a profile of your client or customer set up. These keywords will enable you to hone and center your content or ads to this audience. Examples might include “divorce attorney for men” or “high net worth bankruptcy attorney”.
There are several law firms that handle divorce cases for only men or only women. There are plenty of bankruptcy attorneys that focus solely on Chapter 7 versus Chapter 11 or 13. There are business bankruptcy attorneys. Define your customer and create content tailored to them. Focus on the keywords that describe them, and you will be able to climb the SERP quickly, as the vast majority of advertisers focus more broadly.
For PPC, again, you are looking at some lower cost per click (CPC) metrics, as well as some higher conversions. Because most consumers consider their situations unique, they often will click on ads or content that speak directly to them. Or, conversely, if your ideal customer is a woman, men will not needlessly click on an ad geared towards women, keeping your clicks from going to waste.
Defining your customer is essential in business, and creating content specific to them is a fantastic approach for both SEO and PPC.
The last two types of keywords are important, but sometimes may not be applicable in all situations. Use them to your advantage, but don’t get too hung up if they don’t seem necessary.
Latent Semantic Indexing keywords (LSI) are a type of keyword that enables you to broaden your horizons. Think of them like a root, and then the other keywords as a tree with limbs, branches and leaves.
It sounds complex, but it is more simple than you might think. Let’s take the term “bankruptcy law”. Now, LSI keywords for this might include “Chapter 11”, “Chapter 7”, and “Chapter 13”. It is really more of a method of discovering keywords than it is a type of keyword.
LSI is a great way to help you develop content for your SEO, and also a fantastic way to discover new keywords for your PPC campaigns.
Finally, we look at intent keywords. This is a simple one, but can have a major impact on your SEM, so it is important to understand. Intent is just what it sounds like. So what types of intent are there when someone is using a search engine. They could be researching a topic for a college term paper. They could be gathering information to make a purchase decision. They could already know what they want or need, and are simply looking for a provider for it.
Using our legal example, it is key to determine what kind of content you want to provide to various search terms. For example, you might want to have some informational pieces on bankruptcy laws that could be used by both the student writing a paper, and the business owner who is in a slump.
You can use the keyword types we discussed earlier to help you focus your content based on intent. From an SEO standpoint, it is important for your content to have depth and weight. Therefore, blog posts with a lot of information on a topic will get ranked higher than a simple squeeze page with a form on it.
Conversely, it isn’t a great decision from an ROI standpoint to drive paid traffic to a long-winded blog post with no CTA. You’ll want to focus your ads and your Ad Groups around more “purchase intent” keywords than “research” or “informational” keywords.