A client once said that our landing page copy was too short to possibly rank.
They read a blog post. To thousands of SEOs, this post is law. It also happens to be dead wrong.
Long-form content. 10X content. Skyscraper content. It goes by many names.
This post by serpIQ went viral and it changed the industry. That site is now defunct, but it can be seen here.
It suggests that there's an ideal number of words for better rankings. Determined by correlation across many SERPs. They argue that their data-driven conclusion is better than opinion. I disagree.
I'll show you why. That client of ours: I searched the target keyword for this landing page. We were chasing an aggressive (but attainable) ranking. I popped open the top 25 results into 25 tabs. I pasted their copy into Google Docs to get their word counts and averaged them in a spreadsheet.
238 words per page was the average. Mostly homepages. The #1 ranking looked similar to google.com with under 50 words. The dedicated landing pages weren't much longer. This occurred in the M&A space, which has no shortage of organic marketing budget.
I showed them this. They couldn't be swayed. I also showed them hundreds of #1-position, 2-word rankings that we'd held long-term. More of the same. We parted ways with that client. Don't feel bad for us; we earned spectacular rankings for one of their competitors soon after.
This is what makes SEO so hard: too many bad sources of information.
I know what you're thinking. At least, it got me thinking.
What's the real ideal number of words for SEO?
Maybe if the conditions had been different -- like, say, we were trying to rank an article instead of a B2B offer.
Maybe if they looked at the median and not the average.
Not many possess the big data needed for this type of study. It takes big resources to scrape all of Google or all of the web.
Moz has them. They looked at this too.
It looks like longer content tends to earn more links.
So maybe Google isn't looking at word length at all. Maybe, just maybe, if you put more work into creating content, you put more work into promoting it, too?
I know that I would.
I know that I have, actually.
Northcutt.com has one 20,000-word article. It's our longest. It skews the hell out of a study based on word count averages. It's got custom jQuery filters, granular embed codes, and had applied every other link building trick in the book. I never shut up about it:
— ᴄᴏʀᴇʏ ɴᴏʀᴛʜᴄᴜᴛᴛ ✂️ (@corey_northcutt) March 21, 2018
It's in my e-mail signature. It's on our homepage. It's cited every time our staff gives SEO advice.
I even wrote another post talking about all the work that went into launching it and how that permanently grew traffic northcutt.com.
Do you know what else?
It's not the most popular piece of content on northcutt.com.
Would you like to know what is?
Two lines of PHP code.
A tiny scrap of copy.
I wish that was a joke. Believe me. Do you know how much longer I spent writing and promoting 20,000 words? Our #1 performer took 20 minutes to create.
It's not even close. My Google ranking factors fact check permanently elevated our search game. It's been translated into at least 5 languages and earned hundreds of amazing links. Rand Fishkin, Barry Schwartz, Martin MacDonald, and at least a dozen other "SEO celebrities" promoted it.
And it's our fifth most popular piece of content.
What does it all mean?
What if the ideal length of content for SEO is the one that solves a problem best?
Coming from an SEO consultant, that sounds like a copout. It's not as impressive as fancy graphs.
It's still true.
Think about it. If a problem can be solved perfectly in two sentences, do you want to read two thousand? Is that what you'd be more likely to link and prefer having been shown by Google?
I doubt it.
The truth is that not all problems are the same. When this study first appeared, we looked into it for all our clients. Thanks to all of the uncertainty caused by serpIQ, most crawlers added word count features soon after.
At over 20 large brands, not one of them had their longest content performing in their top 5. For most, those pieces didn't even appear in their top 20.
Go ahead. Take a look at your own content. I bet that you'll find the same.
Too lazy for that? Fine. I'll show you ours.
We write produce plenty of "epic" pieces here. Overall, plenty do well. Here's a complete crawl of our site sorted by the most word-filled pieces.
I can slice our Google Analytics data using Advanced Segments to track only organically acquired sessions.
Check this out.
It's all dumb SEO tool linkbait without much copy. In part, because it's a blue ocean; most SEOs have marketing degrees instead of IT degrees so there's less competition. Only when we get to #26 in Google Analytics do we start to see blog posts. It's not among our 26 longest articles either.
It's just a short list of websites.
Plenty of our blog posts draw thousands of eyeballs year after year. There's no correlation to content length.
Look at your own data. We've looked at dozens and the result is has been, overall, the same. In Google Search, on average, longer content is performing better. Google Analytics pretty much never replicates that and professional SEOs know it.
If cognitive dissonance is making your head explode right now, remember: these are different datasets. Both can be true. The reason is that correlation is not causation. More words suggests more overall effort and not all queries are the same. Google Analytics reveals the success of short vs. long content production as a whole while the serpIQ study does not.
Longer content doesn't guarantee rankings. Shorter content isn't kept from them. People rag on churning out badly written 500-word posts in this age and rightfully so. You can't Fiverr your way to the top anymore.
Content should be as long as a problem merits. One legit insight from serpIQ's data can be made: we're no longer living in a world where just putting a few words on a page seals you #1 rankings.
You need to solve a particular search's problem best. That's it. When you do, most other factors work in your favor. Google only has one goal, really: reward the publisher that provides the most popular, relevant, and enjoyable experience.
They're often not great at doing that. Very much not. But their end game isn't a secret.
If you focus on length over giving the best answer, you're swimming upstream. Sometimes the best answer is 50 words. Sometimes it's 50,000. At one time, Google would only index the first 200 words of a page, which became 10MB in 2015, which became 100MB in 2017. So long as your overall ratio of thin content isn't an issue and pages load fast, content length doesn't matter much anymore.
In my experience, solving the problem behind most search queries is done best between 500 and 2,500 words. More often on the lower end. If you can write more while still offering value and staying on point, do it.
It's a mistake to cut your content at exactly 500 words.
It's also a mistake to write to hit an epic length. Those correlation studies don't tell you the whole story. Experience and watching your analytics will. The web is littered with 10,000-word articles that nobody will ever see.
Content length doesn't matter for rankings. Better content does.
Don't believe me? I'm not one to take SEO advice from Google without testing. But now that we've looked at the data, here's Google's John Mueller to drive it home.