Several studies have shown correlations between long-form pages, high rankings, and higher than average likes, shares, and inbound links. A 2017 SEMRush analysis found there is generally more content on higher-ranking pages, with content on the pages in the top three results containing 45% more content than those in the 20th position.
Another highly-cited 2012 serpIQ study showed the average length of content in the top 10 results contained more than 2,000 words, and a 2014 BuzzSumo study found that pages with more than 3,000 words get the most shares on social media.
The visibility of such studies has led to a perceived equivalence between long-form content and good content, prompting some marketers to recommend that all content be long. Such recommendations are off the mark. Long-form content, or any content for that matter, is only good if it serves visitors needs, answers their questions and is accessible.
Are content-length studies deceptive?
While multiple studies appear to provide compelling data that indicates you should focus your energy on long-form pages, it is important to look below the surface. Before you throw all your marketing dollars into one long-form basket, ask yourself the following questions about these studies.
1. What do you know about the data and keywords?
Many highly-cited studies pull from an expansive data set. For example, SEMRush looked at 600,000 keywords in its research. These hundreds of thousands of keywords may include queries about anything from food and travel to clothing to home repair. Can the keywords being analyzed in any given study offer pertinent insights into your firm’s keyword and content strategy?
2. Are the keywords studied relevant to my audience?
What if you replaced the keywords in a study’s data set with those that are highly relevant to your potential clients? Would the results be the same? This is an easy hypothesis to test on a small scale. Pick, for example, your firm’s top 10 keywords and perform a search for each of them. Then look at how many words the top 10 organically ranked pages contain for each keyword.
Do your results replicate the larger data set? Chances are that page lengths will vary greatly depending on the query and that some articles in the top 10 results will be quite short. The content lengths reported in a broader data set may skew longer because short pages are being grouped with 15,000+ word articles. The resulting average length may not be representative of a length that best serves your potential clients’ needs.
3. Is correlation the same as causation?
Since a variety of studies show that longer content performs well, it is easy to assume causation—that such content must be performing well because it is long. Assuming causation ignores the multitude of other factors that also affect search results.
Google does not simply rank pages highly because they achieve a perfect word count. Its algorithm also looks at technical SEO elements, like schema markup, page speed, and mobile-friendliness. And it considers more nebulous factors like quality, authority, and relevance. The number of ads on a page, and their intrusiveness, as well as things like keyword density, might affect listing placement. A long page is probably doing a lot of other things right if it is ranking on page one.
What should you focus on?
Put time and attention into developing content that will help your visitors. The following factors will help your pages rank well regardless of their length.
What is the substance of your article? What do you need to say? If you can say it in 150 words, then that is your ideal length. A 300-word page packed with facts that thoroughly answers a question is better than a 1,500 word article full of filler. Give your topic the space it needs, no more.
Who will be reading your content? What problems are you solving for them? Are they likely to be in a hurry, or are they willing to spend time on a page? If you can solve a visitor’s problem quickly, you should. If you are writing for people seeking answers to complex questions, cover the topic thoroughly. Your goal is to create content your visitors will actually read.
Your goals for the content
Why do you want people to read your content? In addition to getting leads, you could have several sub goals for your pages, like growing awareness of your firm, educating potential clients or convincing readers to download a resource.
You may, for example, be targeting visitors who want long, comprehensive information. Perhaps you want to attract prospective clients who are in the research stage of their buying cycle. Offering in-depth answers to difficult questions can help nurture trust with these users.
On the other hand, you may want to get a featured snippet for a certain keyphrase. This content would be more concise, answering one question quickly.
Content that matches your goals with searchers’ goals will be the most effective.
Formatting and readability
Content that is not formatted well can be difficult to read. Make sure your font is large enough for all devices. Put enough space between lines of text to make reading easy on the eyes, but not so much that the lines float apart. Chunk relevant bits of content together, and break longer content up with headings, subheadings, lists, and images.
Variety and context
Some keywords can be stated in a variety of ways and still retain the same meaning. For example, a piece about writing good email subjects might contain several versions of that idea, from “great email subject lines” to “engaging email subject lines” to “email subject lines that get clicks,” and so on. In these cases, there is some SEO benefit to adding length through keyword variety, especially if each iteration is shored up with relevant tips to provide context.
Other keywords, including many legal terms, are specific. There is only one correct way to refer to a sole proprietorship, or Chapter 13 bankruptcy, or a power of attorney, for example. The definitions of these terms are also precise. Context can be added to each keyphrase through the use of case studies and examples. However, there is no point in lengthening your page to provide more keyword variety; that content is simply irrelevant.
They key thing to remember is that you should write only the number of words that are necessary to adequately cover a topic. Arbitrary word quotas will only weigh your content down and cost you unnecessary time and energy.
If you are considering all the factors that go into creating successful content, your site will house pages of greatly varying length. Pages that contain answers to high-value but low-volume long-tail keyphrases may only contain 500 words. Articles that investigate a complicated topic may be over 5,000. Others that answer a short, concise question may only contain 100. Most lengths are fine, as long as the length is what the topic calls for.
In fact, you may be able to unseat a long page from a top ranking spot if you can cover the topic with fewer words but more depth.
Internet users are willing to read long content; the idea that no one will scroll through a long page is a myth. However, they will only suffer through long pages if they are full of information, not fluff.