The Myth of Content Length & SEO: Why Long-Form Content Isn't Always Better

Published: May 10, 2019
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When asked whether long-form content ranks better, most people fall into one of two camps. They either believe it, or they don’t.

We’ll take a long, hard look at the issue of content length, quality, and ranking to understand whether there’s any validity to this claim. Specifically, we’ll look at:

  • the origin of the idea that longer content is better
  • the danger in following this advice
  • evidence that shows how dramatically word counts vary between search terms
  • what the optimal blog post length is for SEO.

Where did the idea that longer content is better come from?

According to a study by Orbit Media, the average length of a blog post increased 42% between 2014 and 2018. What used to take 808 words to explain now generally takes 1,151 words.

How did this shift in content length begin?

First, back in August 2013, Google published a post titled, “Discover great in-depth articles on Google” on its official Search blog.

Google Search Blog announcement

In it, Google announced a new search results feature called “in-depth articles.” This feature was a response to their observation that 10% of searchers required “more than a quick answer.”

A year later, as the Orbit Media study observed, average content length had crept upward since the post was published. And although this feature is no longer available in the search engine results pages, marketers continue to create content with ever-increasing word counts.

Adding fuel to the fire, SEO studies on content length versus ranking gained significant traction among content marketers during this time, all of which concluded that long content ranks better. Each study included an impressive graph showing pages’ word counts falling as their position in Google worsened—implying that content with less words performed worse in Google’s search engine results pages.

But a closer look at this graph revealed something interesting.

Backlinko word count graph
Visually pleasing as this chart may appear, the difference in word count between the #1 ranking page and #10 is only 200 words. (Image credit: Backlinko)

The difference between the word count of a blog post ranked #1 (1950 words) and one ranked #10 (1750 words) was only 200 words. This difference amounted to roughly 10% of a total article, or the length of a concisely written intro and conclusion. In other words, the difference in length was marginal at best.

The graph is visually so impressive that it’s easy to miss this critical detail. Unfortunately, it has led to the perpetuation of the SEO myth that long content ranks better.

Why the Idea that Longer Content is Better is Dangerous

Most marketers typically have a fixed budget for content creation. Yet it’s business considerations, not content length, that drive the availability of those funds.

Following the “long content is better” mantra poses a risk. With this misconception, you’re forced into producing longer content, albeit with the same budget as before. Consequently, in this scenario, the only variable that can change is price-per-word.

While we all love a bargain, in the hyper-competitive world of content creation, you get what you pay for. Although you may be getting more content for the same money, it won’t necessarily be better.

Why is this?

Simply put, word count is a poor KPI.

As we’ll soon discover, every search term is unique in terms of average word count. As a result, the length of content required will vary with the target term.

Using an arbitrary word count is a poor use of your content budget. You’re either paying too much because the article is unnecessarily long, or you’re paying too little because the content isn’t long enough. Later, we’ll see how that can impact its ranking potential.

The Ideal Word Count Varies Dramatically

The thought that there can be a singular ideal word count is rather simplistic. Think about all the different industries, markets, subjects, and their associated content—they’re far too diverse to assign one optimal word count.

Establishing ideal content length for particular industries is a step in the right direction, but it’s not good enough. Word count can vary significantly between search terms within the same industry.

Let’s look at some data put together with the help of MarketMuse.

MarketMuse word count data

The table above contains a set of keywords spread among four industries: banking, e-commerce, travel and health insurance.

Every keyword includes an average word count, as calculated by MarketMuse in its analysis of top-ranking pages for that keyword. The average length, standard deviation, and the difference in word count between the longest and shortest pieces (represented as “min/max difference”) are calculated for each industry.

There’s nothing special about the keywords chosen for this analysis; they were picked randomly. The only thing in common is that they all get some organic search traffic. Although it’s a small sample, it’s enough to illustrate several important points.

Ideal content length as a general metric isn’t very useful.

Even with a cursory glance, it’s obvious there is a significant difference in content length between industries. For instance, the average length of banking-related content is 1,167 words while for e-commerce, it’s 2,081—nearly double.

Ideal content length based on industry doesn’t help much either.

For all sectors included in this data set, the standard deviation is around 50% of the average word count. This number indicates a notable variance in word count from one search term to the next.

The min/max difference reaffirms this observation. This calculation is simply the difference between the largest word count and the smallest word count in the search terms for the industry.

In the banking industry, the smallest word count is 331 for “money converter,” while the largest word count is “credit cards canada” at 2,849. The difference between the two is 2,518.

Notice that the calculated difference for all four industries is above 2,000 words. Content length varies too much between search terms, even within the same industry, to be useful.

Pick an arbitrary content length, and you could end up spending twice as much as necessary, or nowhere near enough.

So How Long Should Your Content Be?

Given the extreme variation in average content length from one search term to the next, there’s only one solution. Content length should be based on the keyword being targeted.

A content intelligence platform, like MarketMuse, makes it easy to determine the average content length as well as the ideal word count for any topic about which you wish to write.

This calculated metric provides guidance on how in-depth the content needs to be for a given search term. Some topics require nothing more than a quick answer; others don’t.

You can calculate this manually if you have the time. Take the content from each of the top 10 or 20 results and paste it into a word processor. Grab the word count of each piece and put that into a spreadsheet to calculate the average of the results.

That figure provides a quantifiable judgment of how long your content should be for a particular search term.

Keep in mind that having a target word count, backed by data, is just the preamble to creating great content. Don’t confuse content length with content quality.

What Content Quality Means From a Search Perspective

John Mueller, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, said it best in a Twitter exchange in 2018:

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

Although Google may have more than 200 ranking signals, it’s safe to say that word count isn’t the most important factor considered. RankBrain, part of Google’s core algorithm, uses machine learning to understand more about the intent behind search terms and order search engine rankings based on these discoveries.

The search engine’s goal is to provide the most relevant results that match the intent profile of a given search term. If a few hundred words suffice, so be it.

In 2018, Google confirmed that it had added a new layer in what is known as its Knowledge Graph to better understand content. Specifically, this Topic Layer looks at patterns to understand how subtopics relate to one another so that Google can “more intelligently surface the type of content you might want to explore.”

No doubt, the search engine has been busy learning to match search queries with high-quality and relevant results. But understanding what searchers want has nothing to do with content length.

Final Thoughts

Studying the content length of articles ranking for your target keyword can be useful for understanding the depth necessary for exploring a subject.

However, rather than having a flat word count across the board for all of your content, your content’s length should ultimately be tied to a specific search term. Doing so can maximize your content budget while ensuring every article covers its given topic to an appropriate degree.

About the Author

Stephen Jeske is a content strategist for MarketMuse, the content intelligence and strategy platform that accelerates content planning, creation, and optimization. Connect with Stephen on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter at @stephenjeske.


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