Word Count: Bigger is Better

In the world of SEO, longer is better. Every correlation study on rankings finds a meaningful correlation between total word count (or number of characters) and rankings.

This make sense when you look at it from a machine point of view: an algorithm doesn’t actually understand what’s written on a page. If you have a page all about volcanoes the algorithm can pick up from keyword usage, titles, URLs and other signals that yes, this is a page about volcanoes. But it doesn’t know how good the article is, other than it comparing it to other articles that have lots of authority signals.

So now let’s say we have two pages about volcanoes. All you know is that they both include volcanoes in the titles, URLs and the copy of the text. But one article is 100 words, and the other is 1,000 words. Which do you think is more likely to be useful to someone searching for volcanoes?

Probably the longer one.

And this appears to be exactly how Google works. Your page’s word count should be as long as possible while still being quality, useful content, and while still giving a good user experience.

Don’t Add Words: Add Useful & Readable Words

Certainly any copywriter could give a 5,000 word description of every product on your site, but it would read like a weird stream-of-consciousness ramble, the Ulysses of product descriptions. Further, no shopper wants to read 5,000 words to figure out if this is the right toilet cleaner.

But, you can almost certainly write more than 50 words about that toilet cleaner. In fact, getting up to at least a couple hundred words is probably pretty easy and still useful for customers; more useful than the 50 word description.

Be the Best

So when you’re writing the content for your pages, try to keep the word count on the higher end of the appropriate range. It helps not to think of hard word counts (which encourages fluff) but instead take the mindset that you want an in-depth discussion of the topic. You want to be, in essence, the best place on the entire internet to read about your keyword — you’re trying to rank better than everyplace else, after all, which means you really should be better.

The great thing about this approach is that a longer, more in-depth article is exactly the kind of thing that attracts that very important long tail. After all, the more you say, the more chances you have of hitting certain word combinations that someone out there will type into their Google search box (or put another way: the more you say on a topic, the more likely you are to answer a question someone has).

For example: you have a page about how to make a bed. You could probably cover this with 50 words in a handful of bullet points with a couple illustrations. Congratulations: you have done the bare minimum to complete your task and produced a mediocre guide.

Problem is, no one is Googling to find a mediocre guide. They want the best.

But what if instead of just the basics you discussed the differences between king-sized beds and twin beds? Or also talked about making the bed for a crib? You could discuss the differences based on how many layers of blankets, duvets and pillows you have; hospital corners vs the fastest way to make things presentable. Maybe you could give a quick and dirty 30-second version of making a bed, contrasted to a making beds for royalty. How to get the sheet so tight that quarters bounce off of it.

This longer version covers the same ground as the short version, but it also does much, much more. It’s actually more useful to users because it gives more options and answers more potential questions that a reader might have. It doesn’t extend the word count with fluff, but instead talks about useful information, and now people searching specifically for king, crib, duvet, pillows, hospital corners or whatever are also going to have a chance to find your article, as well as just those searching for your head term “how to make a bed.”

And we have to remember that it’s not just about word count; it has to be useful word count. Content without value is spam. If you’re just filling words with fluff, restating the same thing three different ways, then your website is filled with spam.

Keep User Metrics in Mind

Remember that it’s not just about topicality, and in fact it’s not just about authority. Those pesky user metrics pop up as well, meaning your text must perform well with users. You absolutely do not want them going to another site to read another article on the same topic after reading yours — yet another reason to be as in depth as possible.

But that also means you cannot have a giant wall of text (though to be fair, that’s decent description of this very article by now — illustrating how different content presentations are appropriate for different topics and audiences).

A Story of Word Count Data

I was working with a content team that tended to write incredibly short pieces of content (rarely over 100 words; it was not uncommon to have 30-word “content” pieces).

They believed that shorter content was better: more digestible, more modern internet age. They were reading advice for sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy while writing for a major ecommerce brand.

I dug into some data for them by building a list of every possible guide (buying guide, how-tos, etc) that was relevant for the site and had any kind of search volume at all. I then pulled up a list of the most popular articles on those topics based on which had the most social media shares.

It turns out the most shared articles had an average word count of 700 words. (It’s also worth noting the average #1 ranking article in Google for that list had an average word count of 1,000 words).

They thought by making things shorter and simpler they were making it better — but in fact looking at the data showed that their readers wanted more information, not less. Making their articles more comprehensive was better for SEO and for their readers.

Now, this isn’t always the case, but looking at the length and detail of both the top ranking pages and the top socially shared pages can be a good guide. Just be sure not to fall into the trap of cherry picking just the longest or shortest find. Look more for how detailed and comprehensive the popular stuff is rather than just at raw word counts.

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