Size matters, but not as much as you think. When it comes to SEO, long-form content appears to reign supreme – but this is obscuring the real reason that some posts do better than others.
Picture a piece of perfect content in your mind. Now try to determine its word length. Is it a short and sweet 500 words? Is it a 2,500 word deep dive?
You probably can’t answer that question, and that’s okay – it would be pretty weird if you could.
Obviously, the quality of a piece of content can’t be determined by its length. Maybe that 500-word piece barely scratches the surface of its subject, or maybe it concisely summarises the exact information you were looking for. Maybe the 2,500-word piece is an in-depth and on-point exploration of the topic, or maybe it’s a meandering waste of time that has the distinct feeling of a student feverishly trying to hit a word count.
There are people who will tell you that your posts need to fit within a certain word count to be ranked on the first page of Google’s search results. These people are wrong, but they’re not intentionally misleading you – they’re just misinterpreting the data.
What do the numbers say?
There have been a number of studies into the ‘optimal’ length for a blog post, and the available data does suggest that long-form content, on average, earns more engagement and higher search engine rankings than shorter content.
In 2019, SEMrush analysed more than 700,000 articles as part of their Global State of Content Marketing Report and found that ‘longreads’ of more than 3,000 words receive 3 times more traffic, 4 times more shares, and 3.5 times more backlinks than articles of average length (901-1,200 words).
A similar 2019 study by Backlinko analysed a whopping 912 million blog posts, and found that posts longer than 3,000 words attract an average of 77.2 per cent more backlinks than content shorter than 1,000 words. The same study found that the ‘ideal’ content length for maximising social shares is between 1,000 and 2,000 words – articles of this length attract an average of 56.1 per cent more social shares than content that clocks in at less than 1,000 words.
An earlier study by Backlinko in 2016 examined 1 million Google search results, and found the average word count of a Google first page search result was 1,890 words.
In 2017, Influence & Co analysed more than 4 million pieces of content, and found the average word count of pieces that received at least 1,000 social shares was 800 words. Similarly, Ahrefs’ analysis of 2 million websites in 2018 concluded that the median length of a top-performing article was at least 800 words.
In 2015, Moz analysed over a million websites and found that posts over 1,000 words consistently received more shares and links than shorter posts. That same year, Hubspot analysed 6,000 of their own blog posts and found that those between 2,250 and 2,500 words brought in the most search traffic. The same study found that posts over 2,500 words were shared the most on social media networks and earned the most backlinks.
While the numbers vary from study to study and year to year, the point is that you’d be hard-pressed to find any reliable data that indicated shorter content performed better, on average, than long-form content.
Why does longer content perform better?
It’s easy to skim the figures above and conclude that if you pad your blog post out with filler content to get it up to a certain word count, your site will soon be listed on the first page of Google’s search results. You can probably already taste the champagne and caviar that comes with this achievement.
But correlation doesn’t equal causation. Just because the most successful posts tend to be longer, on average, doesn’t mean that every long-form post will be a winner. For this data to mean anything, we need to understand why longer content tends to perform well.
There’s been very little research into why this is the case. It is technically possible that Google’s algorithm is inherently predisposed to favour longer content, but it seems far more likely that this content is simply better at satisfying searcher intent.
In their 2016 study of 1 million Google search results, Backlinko and data partners SEMRush, Ahrefs, MarketMuse and SimilarWeb confirmed that backlinks are an extremely important Google ranking factor, and domain diversity – the number of different sites linking to yours – correlates with high Google rankings more than any other factor.
As noted above, longer content also receives more shares on social networks than shorter content, which is another factor that Google takes into account. It’s probably not the case, then, that Google is arbitrarily taking posts with higher word counts and putting them on the front page – instead, the search results reflect the fact that real, flesh-and-blood people are sharing, linking to and engaging with these posts.
It makes sense that longer content would resonate with readers, even as our collective attention span gets smaller. Long-form content can, in theory, cover a topic in greater depth than a shorter post, creating a perception of higher quality and authority. Long-form content has the potential to keep the reader on the page longer – another big plus in Google’s eyes – and it can give the reader the satisfaction of feeling like they’ve just devoured something epic, leading to a higher chance of them sharing the post with friends and colleagues.
In short, it’s not that longer content is automatically ‘better’ content – it’s that longer content tends to lead to more backlinks and engagement, which leads to a higher ranking.
So… does my post need to be long or not?
There is nothing intrinsically valuable about a long piece of content. In reality, what gives a piece of content value is how relevant it is to the reader.
Google’s John Mueller has tweeted that the correlation between content length and performance is overblown. “Word count is not indicative of quality,” he wrote in 2018. “Some pages have a lot of words that say nothing. Some pages have very few words that are very important and relevant to queries. You know your content best (hopefully) and can decide whether it needs the details.”
I agree with you & Mihai :). Word count is not indicative of quality. Some pages have a lot of words that say nothing. Some pages have very few words that are very important & relevant to queries. You know your content best (hopefully) and can decide whether it needs the details.
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) July 24, 2018
Earlier this month, Mueller tweeted that matching the word count of top-ranked posts will not, in itself, help a page to rank.
Having the same word-count as a top-ranking article isn’t going to make your pages rank first, just like having a bunch of USB chargers isn’t going to get you to the moon. But, I’m still tempted to buy some of those USB chargers…https://t.co/TIuJHwHufn
— 🍌 John 🍌 (@JohnMu) February 8, 2020
Similarly, Google’s Quality Rater Guidelines don’t say anything about word count. Instead, pages are to be evaluated on whether or not they “achieve their purpose”.
Instead of stretching and diluting your content for the sake of meeting a specific word count, let search intent be your SEO lodestar. Think about the questions your target audience could have about the subject you cover, and give them the best answer possible. If that requires a 3,000-word ‘ultimate guide’, that’s what you should do – but if you can comprehensively cover the topic in 300 words, then that’s fine, too.
SEO guru Rand Fishkin, the co-founder of Moz and founder of SparkToro, coined the term ‘10x Content’ to describe the type of content required to rank highly on competitive search engine results pages. Fishkin’s criteria for 10x Content – literally content that is ‘10 times better’ than the best result that can currently be found in the search results for a particular keyword – are as follows:
- Provides a uniquely positive user experience through the user interface, visuals, layouts, fonts, patterns, etc
- Delivers content that is some substantive combination of high-quality, trustworthy, useful, interesting and remarkable
- Is considerably different in scope and detail from other works on similar topics
- Loads quickly and is usable on any device or browser
- Creates an emotional response of awe, surprise, joy, anticipation and/or admiration
- Has achieved an impressive quantity of amplification (through shares on social networks and/or links)
- Solves a problem or answers a question by providing comprehensive, accurate, exceptional information or resources.
You’ll note that none of the criteria relate to word count. Fishkin provides 119 examples of 10x Content here, and they run the gamut from lengthy features to interactive tools and infographics.
It’s worthwhile to be aware that longer posts tend to perform better – if only to know that you don’t need to worry about being constrained by short attention spans, and you should feel free to write as much as you need. Ultimately, however, content isn’t good because it’s long, short or any length in between.
The goal of your post should be to satisfy readers and generate backlinks, shares and engagement, and if you can’t do that, there’s no magic number of words that will make up for it.