When building websites, people often make the mistake of assuming the content should always be short.
The common perception is that people don’t want to read too much text on the web and so people redesign their websites often cutting out volumes of pages and shortening content.
While there is no exact answer on how long a blog post should be or how many words you should put on each webpage, there is some compelling data that shows more in-depth content ranks better and converts better.
Rather than re-creating the many posts that have covered this topic in depth, this post will give you some practical steps to take in regard to determining the perfect length for your content.
Step 1. Use data, not opinion
Don’t make the mistake of using only gut instinct when determining content length.
Did you know that there are tools that can help you determine how long your content and how long the content of your competitors is?
If you want your pages to rank well in the search engines, then you need to know on a keyword by keyword basis, how many words are in the top ranking pages before you determine your content length.
If search rankings are not important to you, then you can skip this step but most people want rankings as well as conversions, so let’s look at how this type of tool can work.
The screenshot below is from the free bulk web page word count checker.
I was just using this tool the other day to help determine why one of our clients is not ranking top 10 for the term “dog bite lawyer MA”.
You can see in the image that the number one ranking page has the most content / words on the page. Now it’s very clear that this isn’t always as perfectly symmetrical as this, which you will see in detail, in a minute.
In this case, the top three ranking sites have a clear descending order in terms of who has the most content. The first site has the most words on the specific page ranking for that term, the second website ranking has the second most words on the page and the third ranking site has the least amount of words ranking on the page.
Now if it were only that simple, everybody would just pile on more words. Thankfully, Google is smarter than that and it also looks at other factors such as how well the content is written, if people link to the content, if the content is easy to read, if it has multimedia elements, if it includes bulleted lists; and even if this doesn’t directly impact the rankings, if it is being shared socially.
So the length of the content alone isn’t the primary factor in determining rankings but it certainly is important.
Here is an example of pages ranking in the opposite order with the shortest amount of content first.
So never assume that one thing is right in every situation and it is often best to make sure to write content that covers your topic completely and uniquely regardless of other factors.
Step 2. Put it in the context of the theme of the website
Once upon a time, in the mid-1990s, if you put more keywords in your meta-keyword tag you would rank better.
Eventually Google revolutionized search and focused instead on how many links you had to your content.
It also started to completely ignore the meta-keyword tag and gave significant credit if the page had good keywords in the right places, such as in the title tag, the heading tag and repeated throughout the copy. This is still important in most cases but now does much less on its own.
Eventually, after people completely “gamed” the system by manipulating their back link profiles and cramming keywords into every crevice of their websites, Google had to come up with a better system.
In 2011 the Google Panda algorithm started to look at content with much greater scrutiny in regard to if it is thin or weak content and if it is truly original vs. duplicate content.
It was always the case that you should have original content on your website that cannot be found on other webpages but Google Panda really drove this nail deep.
In fact, Panda 4.0 is being called the topical authority content update by some. Razvan Gavrilas of cognitive SEO says,
“Content Based Topical Authority Sites” are given more SERP Visibility compared to sites that only cover the topic briefly.(even if the site covering the topic briefly has a lot of generic authority). More articles written on the same topic increase the chances for the site to be treated as a “Topical Authority Content Site” on that specific topic.”
He also offers this example of a topical authority site – emedicinehealth.com – winning after recent updates:
And he shows visually how they have a robust content architecture with good usability:
In addition, Panda is now part of Google’s core ranking algorithm, so it is not going away any time soon.
Google Penguin in 2012, for the first time, REALLY clamped down on websites that manipulated their link profiles and therefore those types of tactics stopped working.
Matt Cutts of Google has said that even a few bad links or a few duplicate content pages can harm your rankings, so these factors can’t be looked at casually.
So where does that leave content marketers and SEO’s in terms of building a plan of what to do?
Start by having authoritative content that truly covers the topic deeply and that is unique to you, not only as a company but as an author who wrote the page.
The search engines now lean more in the direction of ranking pages that have more in-depth and better content than merely ranking pages that do a good job with on page optimization and link building.
So now, more than ever, you really need to look at the amount of words and the quality of content on the pages that are ranking for the exact keywords you want to rank for.
I can’t go into the much more of the details here but it’s obviously more than just the words on one page for a given topic that makes you rank.
Continuing with the law firm example above, if you want to rank for “dog bite lawyer MA”, you would be foolish to think that you can do it all with just one page.
You need to look at the amount of website pages, resource pages and blog posts that your competitors have that are ranking, along with the amount of back links and social shares they are getting.
We will get into that level of topical authority and content silo building another time but it’s important to note that it’s not only important to look at the depth of content on one page but you will need to put it in the context of the entire theme and amount of quality content across the entire website.
Keyword optimization therefore is therefore turning into topical authority optimization.
Step 3. Map out your content based on your actual off-line sales pitches
Stop for a minute and imagine how you close a deal off-line when selling your services and/or product.
Does it take you 5 or 10 minutes to close a deal?
Well that is how long it takes at most to read the typical 500 word website page.
How can you assume that is enough content to even get someone interested enough to contact you?
Here is an amazing case study of how conversion-rate-experts.com dramatically increased the length of the landing page for the search engine software giant MOZ and made them $1 million a year.
How did they do it?
They surveyed past and present customers, became a customer themselves and documented the sales process of the founder Rand Fishkin.
“We learned from face-to-face selling. Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz, could easily sell the service face to face at conferences but commented that he wished his website could be as effective. We therefore asked Rand to pretend we were the prospect while we recorded his approach. We then compared what was on the current website with the details Rand used to sell Moz face to face. This technique enabled us to identify what was missing from the website.”
It is also kind of interesting that the page on their site describing the case study is about 3,000 words…
If you want to test what works best, using Google Adwords, to send people to different styles of pages, such as a long content page vs. a short content page, can be a great way to go.
You will be able to determine what converts better and then mimic that on your website, at least from a conversion perspective and balance out the size of the content that is ranking well in the search engines.
If your competitors have longer pages and your tests using paid Google ads show that customers convert better with longer form content, then by all means you have 100% permission to completely ignore your boss or anybody telling you to keep it short.
Step 4. Listen to what the industry data surveys say because they are not subjective
Below is a quote from the first item on the content portion of the highly respected Searchmetrics annual SEO data analysis:
“When it comes to search rankings, the importance of good quality, relevant content cannot be understated. Once again this year we have carried out detailed analyses of key content ranking factors including word count and Flesch readability. The aim is to give a clearer insight into which aspects of content in particular can improve the overall ranking of your site. As the trend away from keywords and towards relevant content continues, high-ranking sites are shifting their focus from using keywords based on search queries to trying to understand the user’s intention as a whole.”
Partly, this section is saying that on page keyword edits need to be done but are just a small part of making deeper content silos, to prove topical authority and that the average top ten ranking page is 1,285 words or greater.
Here is another study from 2012 that showed similar findings:
John Lincoln writing for search engine land recently shared the following quote in his post titled: The SEO And User Science Behind Long-Form Content.
“According to Kevin Delaney, the editor-in-chief of business news site Quartz, articles that range between 500 and 800 words are least likely to be successful. As a result, he’s encouraged either short form or long-form content — but nothing in between.”
So what do you do about it?
For starters, adding content to thin pages is good, as well as adding:
- More text, depending on what is ranking number one or an average of the ranking pages – since what ranks 5 through 10 often needs more content to compete with brands who often easily rank 1 through 5, according to the study
- Scan and skim friendly elements such a shorter paragraphs and breaking up the formatting in various ways
- Bulleted and numbered lists
- More photos
- Video when it is available
- Making it more legible to a lower grade level
- More semantically related keywords
- Decent size font
- Helpful internal links
- Trust factors / page specific testimonials, reviews and or fresh comments etc.
- Make sure that each page of important content is part of a category of pages around that topic
Recap from the Searchmetrics study that shows how important this issue is, as part of their overview of findings:
“The 5 most important take-home lessons from Ranking Factors 2015
Relevant, holistic content is more important than ever
Ranking factors including word count and Flesch readability both increased this year, indicating in general longer texts that are easier to read. The trend away from keywords and towards relevant content continues amongst high-ranking sites.
User experience – beyond the desktop
Responsive web design may be having a positive effect on rankings. Optimizing your site for different end devices will continue to grow in importance. (P.S. Don’t miss the Searchmetrics mobile ranking factors study due later this year).
Keywords are becoming increasingly obsolete
Whether internal or external links or domain names, keyword correlations across the board are decreasing. Additionally, increasing numbers of high-ranking URLs are not using the corresponding keyword in the body or description.
Backlinks – correlations are decreasing
While backlinks still show quite high correlations with rankings, the times of unnatural link building and maybe of links in general are or may soon be over. In general, year-on-year correlations in this category are decreasing and our data suggest that this downward trend is set to continue.
Social signals – a bonus for organic rankings
The question remains open as to exactly how social media signals such as likes, tweets and +1s boost rankings. Nevertheless, social signals remain important for brand awareness and help to drive organic traffic to top ranking sites.”
Note how the first and third item relate to the issue of content length and keywords.
Now you have a few methods to ensure that your content is the right length for your customers and the search engines at the same time.
Coming up shortly I will write a follow up post about a common SEO question: how long should a blog post be?
Content marketing is currently a very hot tactic but if you jump on board without being armed with the right technical knowledge, your content will be like a tree falling in the woods that nobody hears.
What methods are you using to improve your content length?