09 Mar 2020

Content Length and SEO: Does it Really Matter?

One of the debated topics among marketing professionals is the role that content length plays in search engine performance. Many SEO experts argue that longer content is better, and rightly so. There is a breadth of research that shows a direct correlation between word count and rank.

For the most part, the data is consistent: The higher the average content length, the higher the spot in the SERPs.

However, we have all spent time clicking through a search engine results page only to discover a top-ranking url that has minimal word count or little-to-no useful information. Even worse, some of us have taken the time to read through a long piece of content only to find the text repetitive, obvious, or so, so boring.

What’s with that? For anyone who has done the work to create a piece of high-quality, in-depth content, seeing shorter content still climb into those top spots can be frustrating. But it’s important to remember that although lengthy content tends to perform better in search engine results, word count is not a primary ranking factor in Google’s algorithm.

For those of you who took 10th grade statistics, remember the phrase: Correlation does not equal causation?

To those of you who were asleep in the back row, it means there might just be something else going on.

 

 

And there is. There are a variety of ranking factors that search engines consider, and there’s no magic looking glass to see through the SERPs into what exact combination of factors went into Google’s placements.

We also can’t know whether the users who arrive to our websites via search have time for a lengthy or brief answer. But what we can do is examine their search terms, clicks, session times, and conversions, and with a little inference, get a sense of the kind of content they like, and whether they have eyes for the long or the short stuff.

Depending on your industry niche or what you’ve been reading, you may already have a firm stance on whether you think longer content is an important factor in your content marketing strategy or whether you think it’s all been stretched a bit out of proportion.

One thing is indisputable: Google consistently shows its searchers longer content. But the more important question is why, and what that answer means for your own content creation practices.

What we Know for Sure About Content Length

In 2018, Search Engine Journal asked their users what word count they perceived as a good rule-of-thumb when trying to get content to rank. As you can see, their answers were not unanimous.

Recommended Content Length - SEJ Survey Says Poll Results

Despite the disagreement on the word count sweet spot, plenty of user science has been completed to measure the relationship between content length and search engine performance. 

In summary, here are the conclusions we can confidently make about the outcomes long form content has in relationship to search.

Better Ranked Sites Tend to Have Longer Content

If we look to Google to give us a hint into the ideal word count for online content, it provides us a much clearer answer than the content creators above. In a study of more than 20,000 keywords, serpIQ found that the average number of words for the #1 url was 2,416.

serp iq content length

 

Although we know there are other ranking factors that likely attributed to the top websites earning those coveted rankings–such as domain authority, website performance, and backlinks–the correlation to longer posts is undeniable. 

However, it’s important for content creators to remind themselves that it isn’t necessarily the length–but the topical authority that those long articles and blog posts exhibit–that qualifies it for those top spots in the search rankings (more on this later).

Long Copy is More Likely to Earn Backlinks

Research shows that lengthier content also earns more backlinks.

Why? Because everyone from bloggers, to journalists, to academics, now use hyperlinks as a form of citation. If you provide a long piece of in-depth, valuable content, other webmasters and online writers will want to link to it as evidence of their arguments, ideas, or interests.


graph of word count vs average linking domains

 

Unlike word count, backlinks are actually one of the primary ranking factors Google uses to determine search results, because backlinks show that websites have proved themselves to have expert credentials and knowledge. 

The length of the content, then, allows more space for writers to provide the quality, in-depth material that other sites want to link to.

Longer Content Establishes Expertise that Leads to Conversion

Longer, high-quality content also generally leads to better conversions. In experiments of longer and shorter home pages, Marketing Experiments found that the longer content converted better by approximately 45%.

This data can feel counterintuitive, because we humans have been getting accused more and more often of having shorter attention spans due to mediums like the internet.

But in reality, users, algorithms, and content marketers are all becoming more sophisticated and efficient in how they search. When users come across a page with a lot of content, they don’t usually read it all. 

They scan.

Long copy gives the impression of expertise, credibility, and extensive knowledge on a topic. When users are scrolling, they are also scanning, and more content gives them something to scan through. For this reason, webmasters are more likely to project in-depth expertise through long posts and landing pages.

Users are always more likely to convert when they feel a website is an authority on the product or service they provide. Lengthy content will always project the authoritative image that boosts conversion rates (unless it lacks topical relevance).

People Engage More Regularly with Longer Content

Finally, the data also tells us that people are more likely to engage with and share longer content. According to CopyHackers, long-form content of more than 1000-words consistently gets higher average social shares.

To understand this, imagine how you spend your time on social sites in comparison to search engines. When you enter search queries into Google, you are more likely looking for a specific solution or answer to a need, desire, or problem.

But on social media sites, you are more likely browsing.

Imagine the difference between running into the store to quickly pick up something during the workweek versus leisurely enjoying the outdoor mall on a Saturday afternoon.

Longer content thrives in social media shares because like those webmasters linking back to authoritative content, social media users also want their social shares to be perceived as valuable and useful to their followers.

Essentially, longer content makes everyone look good.

 

What We Know About the Short Stuff

Despite all the credential-building and keyword-including that long copy allows for, shorter content can still, and does often, rank well.

Since the Panda update, Google has made it harder for thin content to rank. But again, correlation does not equal causation. Short-form content isn’t always thin, and can include valuable, useful information to searchers.

And because search engines still crawl and index short posts and web pages, we do know that search engines are paying attention to short content. Therefore, short-form content will sometimes appear in the top spots of certain queries. 

For example, enter in the name of a popular writer or journalist into the search bar, and the Google search results will likely include recent highlights of their Twitter feed. 

Yes, Google crawls and indexes those tiny 280-character tweets.

 

However, it’s much more difficult for short content to accomplish the SEO tasks that long-form content can, such as earning backlinks, boosting conversions, or establishing credentials and expertise. Combined, these factors all have the long-term benefit of building the domain authority and google ranking of a site over time, and of increasing that site’s likelihood of consistently appearing in SERPs across a variety of search terms.

So, if short content is going to rank, it needs to be unique or extremely valuable to users.

Sites with Higher Domain Authority can Get Away With Shorter Content

If Buzzfeed or Forbes decides to share a shorter article, it’s likely that their content could still make it to the first page of the search results.

Because again, content length is not actually a ranking factor.

This means that websites with higher domain authority can ride off their past history of backlinks, relevant keywords, and topical authority shown through previously published longer articles and blog posts. The reality is, every time a site with high domain authority creates new content, they carry the advantage of their past credentials with them into the rankings.

This is why when you are crafting content, it’s ideal to target those long-tail and conversational search phrases that are less competitive to rank for. Until you build up your own site authority, optimizing content for more reachable search terms is a far more useful strategy.

Featured Snippets are the New “Short Stuff” of Search

 

 

Ever since Google introduced Featured Snippets in 2014, it now provides short summary answers to question-based keywords.

 

When Google highlights answers to users specific questions, searchers who only need a quick fix can get the information they need without ever having to click through search results. 

This makes search much better for users, but doesn’t necessarily help webmasters striving to get organic traffic (unless you are the website that happens to make it into the coveted “Position 0” spot). According to a study of 2 million featured snippets by Ahrefs, 8.6% of all clicks go to the featured snippet.

Until recently, urls that were in featured snippets also occupied the number one ranking in the SERPs, giving them the opportunity to capture loads of traffic. But Google introduced an update in January of 2020 that removes these duplications of position 0 and position 1, meaning the previous clearcut advantages of Position 0 might soon change.

Other Ways Google Handles the Short Stuff

There are other ways that Google tries to give short, easy answers to its users.

  • Rich Answers are direct factual answers at the top of the search page
  • Knowledge Graphs are infoboxes with information gathered from a variety of sources
  • Rich Snippets appear as normal search results but with additional data displayed, like ratings, prices to products, or ingredients in a recipe

Like featured snippets, all of these provide short answers that prevent searchers from ever having to actually leave Google’s url.

Google is continually discovering ways to give users quick answers in those moments when users want them, and it will only get better at doing so. 

Currently, only about 12% of search queries result in featured snippets, meaning there are plenty of moments when users still need to click through the urls presented to them in SERPs to get the answers they need. It also means there are plenty of moments where users want to do the work of exploring good content in the form of longer, in-depth material.

But overall, Google will continue to get better at knowing when searchers prefer a quick answer, and not necessarily a wide range of search results with long content. For this reason, prioritizing longer content is continually going to be the best way for webmasters to approach content creation, as Google is on track to handle the short stuff entirely on its own.

What This Means for Your Content Creation Practices

The challenge for the average webmaster is that they don’t have an entire department of bloggers and content writers to pump out long form content in a steady stream. It takes time to generate a lot of content, and if SEO success equals a daily blog or article of 2000 or more words, the average webmaster may not feel like they can accomplish it.

Not right away, at least. But the more you see the power that consistent and longer posts play in helping you appear in search results, the more you may prioritize diverting resources to hiring a content writer or content marketing team. 

But until then, here are a few ways to think about content length in relationship to the SEO resources and capabilities you can implement right now.

It Always Comes Back to Target Keywords

It’s hard to make it through any SEO article without some mention of keywords. The keywords we choose to incorporate into our content, and the target keywords we choose to optimize for, need to be strategic. If you are going to invest the time it takes to produce in-depth material for your website, you want to make sure you have a smart keyword strategy.

Creating a cluster or list of relevant keywords to your website’s niche is an important part of giving options for your content team to work from. Doing keyword research to learn which given keywords are more or less competitive to rank for will also help, because the content you do have time to create will do more work for you once its published.

 

 

Think Less About Content Length and More About Topical Authority

Although content length is correlated with higher rank, it doesn’t cause it. What really matters to Google is topical authority, and it’s much easier to show that authority through long articles and blog posts with multiple headers and keywords.

Topical authority is how well and in-depth your website covers a particular niche. So if you cannot realistically write 2000-word articles every week, why not try for a weekly post of 800-1000 words that cover a variety of topics that are within your keyword cluster?

For example, an interior design company could create a content calendar using topics and keywords within their niche: How to choose the right paint color, the pros and cons of decorating with wallpaper, whether or not to install your own flooring, or how to remodel your bathroom on a budget. Even if these weekly posts are only 1000-words, Google indexes them and begins to see the website as a place of a niche focus with relevant, valuable content.

Get Excited About Your Potential for Backlinks

As mentioned earlier, long-form content earns an average of 77.2% more links than shorter content.

 

Long-form content generates more backlinks than short blog posts

 

So instead of trying to fluff up your content to the 2000-word mark, analyze whether the way you have composed, structured, and written the content makes it worthy of linking back to. Readability is important to your users and to search engines, and articles that have compelling headlines, easy structures, and a creative use of images, videos, or infographics are more likely to be seen as valuable to other webmasters as well.

As you begin to get in the habit of consistent content practices, producing 2000-3000 word articles may become more realistic. Until then, don’t stretch out your posts just to hit a magic number. The reality is, 1 good backlink is more valuable to your search engine performance than a 1000 unnecessary words–every time.

If You’re Just Starting Out, Avoid Shorter Content

Websites with low domain authority should avoid short content, including a shorter homepage and landing pages. You don’t want to run the risk of Google flagging you for thin-content or duplicate content right off the bat, and those early decisions you make in your website content creation have a lot to do with your ability to drive consistent traffic in the long-term. 

In general, you still want to prioritize readability and quality over word count, however, waiting two weeks to publish a longer article may be more valuable than pushing out 250 word pieces on a day-to-day basis. In the early stages of SEO, you need longer legs to get over the initial hurdles.

 

 

Achieving higher rankings will never occur overnight. One piece of long content is not going to catapult you straight to the first page of Google results. It’s just not going to happen.

But a steady stream of long-form content will significantly serve your goals in the long-term. If you put in the effort and have some patience, you’re bound to see results.

So…What’s the Ideal Content Length Already?

The first rule of negotiation is don’t follow the rules, so we’re not going to.

Sorry to disappoint. But as we mentioned 2,711 words ago, you should be thinking less about the number of words and more about whether you have satisfied both your target audience and search engines’ needs. 

In the end, it’s always quality that matters. As long as that is your end goal, your content length can vary along the way.

Manick Bhan
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