How word count affects your search ranking and why longer content tends to rank higher in search engines
In recent years, we’ve seen plenty of studies on the relationship between word count and search ranking. The general consensus is that longer content tends to rank higher but this doesn’t tell the full story – after all, Google analyses hundreds of signals for each query.
In this article, we explain how word count really affects your search ranking and how you should approach content length in your SEO strategy.
No. Word count is not a ranking factor in Google’s search algorithm and it wouldn’t make any sense to reward pages with higher word counts. Google spent years battling web spam, dodgy link building and low-quality content with algorithm updates, which would count for nothing if you could climb the SERPs by simply adding more words to a page.
If only SEO were that easy.
That said, word count not being a ranking factor itself doesn’t mean it isn’t important for SEO. In fact, word count has an indirect influence on a range of ranking factors and this is something you should consider with every piece of content you create.
Word count may not be a ranking factor but it can influence your search ranking in several, indirect ways. In recent years, there have been plenty of studies looking at the relationship between content length and search rankings and they all propose estimated word counts for high-ranking content:
All of these studies point to the same thing: that the average word count for content in the top ranking positions is generally between 1,000-2,000 words. But none of them offer any data that proves word count benefits the search ranking of those pages: all correlation and no causation.
In fairness, there are known benefits of higher word counts (in certain situations) but the priority is always what’s best for the end user. After all, if someone is searching for a quick answer to a question, why should they scroll through a 2,000-word essay to find the one sentence they’re looking for?
Producing content with higher word counts can have several potential SEO benefits, as long as the length is justified and doesn’t compromise other signals.
In theory, users should spend more time on a page with higher word counts, provided your content is engaging enough to keep them reading. Google interprets time spent on the first page as a key indicator of engagement and a signal that the page delivers what users were looking for.
This suggests the page is likely to provide what future users who type in the same or similar queries are looking for, meaning the page in question deserves to rank well for the relevant keywords.
Higher word counts allow you to go into more detail, which not only keeps users on the page for longer, but also has other benefits:
Again, the quality has to be there throughout in order to justify the word count of your content. Don’t simply produce content that’s longer than the pages you’re looking to rank about; offer more detailed, authoritative and valuable information.
Another benefit of producing longer content is that your target keyword is naturally included more often on the page. You’ll also end up using more variants and relevant phrases throughout the content, which increases search visibility and provides Google with more contextual information about your content and which queries it should rank for.
Generally speaking, longer content allows you to increase keyword density without venturing into keyword stuffing territory.
If you format your pages properly, longer content will also force you to include more subheadings. Placing keywords in h2 and h3 headings places more weight on those phrases and shows Google that the entire page is relevant to the topic you’re targeting.
Aside from creating more space for subheadings, longer content also opens up a canvas for more lists, blockquotes, images and other elements that enrich the page. All of these elements make your content easier to read, scan and scroll through.
You can also use these elements to guide users to the information that matters most and help them get more value from your page.
Now that we’ve explained the potential benefits of longer word counts (and the caveats), let’s talk about how you can optimise the word counts of your content for SEO.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that quality always trumps quantity when it comes to SEO and content marketing. It’s tempting to look for easy answers and aim for 1,500+ words on every post but higher word counts alone aren’t going to help you rank higher in search.
If you’re simply filling pages to hit a quota, you’re not going to get any of the benefits of longer word counts because users won’t engage with your content or return to your website.
Above all, the quality needs to be there on every page – from the opening sentence to the last. And, you also have to recognise that, for some queries, a shorter piece of content may be better for the end user.
Every piece of content you produce should have a clear purpose – both for you and your target audience. Let’s say you publish a study filled with first-party data and stats. The purpose for you might be to earn links from reputable websites but the purpose for the end user is to get valuable data insights on the topic of your study.
Whatever the purpose of your content is, the general rule of thumb is to fulfil this purpose in the fewest words possible. This applies to every piece of content you produce and every sentence it includes – don’t use 100 words to explain something that only requires 10.
Let’s imagine a different example: an instructional guide to help new users get started with a software product. The purpose of the software company is to maximise the percentage of new users that successfully set up the product and start using it while the purpose for the end user is to get the best use out of the product they’re now paying for. For example, Semrush has a ~3,000-word starter guide to help new users get to grips with its software.
In this case, you want to produce a guide that’s in-depth enough to cover every step of the setup process but also as concise as possible to provide clear instructions without any confusion.
We touched on this earlier from the perspective that longer content allows you to include more headings, lists, images and other elements search engines like to see on every page. However, it’s also increasingly important to use these elements properly and format pages correctly as your word counts increase.
Sentences and paragraphs should be short, concise and to the point. Break the page up with plenty of subheadings and include relevant images that add contextual meaning or support for the key points made in your content.
Make sure you understand how to use headings (h1, h2, h3, etc.) and include lists where possible to make key points stand out on the page.
While it’s tempting to try and produce long-form content for every page, you can miss opportunities to fill gaps with shorter pieces. Sometimes users simply want quick answers to questions and they’re not interested in scrolling through thousands of words to get it.
For example, if your industry includes a lot of jargon that could confuse potential customers, you might want to produce a glossary of definition pages of 300-350 words.
Alternatively, you might publish regular news content on your blog to keep your audience up-to-date on the developments taking place in your industry. News stories typically sit in the 300-500 range of word counts and you don’t really want to try and exceed this.
Be creative with your content ideas and try to publish a range of formats (blogs, news, video, etc.) and lengths.
Updating old content is a great way to boost the word count of pages and include more depth of information. It’s also a crucial part of keeping your content fresh, relevant and engaging to new users over time so you keep getting benefits from your content investment.
At Vertical Leap, we run a traffic light system as part of website audits to analyse existing content and look for opportunities to improve pages.
While updating content, make sure the key points outlined are still relevant and remove/update anything that’s no longer accurate or valuable. Also, remember to update stats, references and links in your content (try to link to external pages published in the past year or two) to show search engines your page is filled with the latest information.
As your content gets longer, optimise the page for navigation and extended scrolling. Include a table of contents and use anchor links so users can jump ahead to specific sections of the page. Use plenty of headings, sub-headings, lists, blockquotes and images to format the page for readability and include whitespace between every element to make each part of the page stand out.
As with most things in SEO, there is no single answer that suits every page you create. However, there is an ideal word count for each page you create and this question is easier to answer if you know what your target audience is really looking for.
Word count isn’t a benchmark but it is a tool you can use to influence the performance of your pages for important signals (eg: time on page) that tell Google your page deserves to be seen more often.
If you need a data-driven approach to identifying keyword opportunities and the ideal word length for each page you publish, you can speak to our search marketing team by calling 02392 830 281 or filling out the contact form below.
Kerry is Head of SMB SEO. Kerry started her digital marketing career with a web design company back in 1996, then moved in-house as a digital marketing manager before moving back to the agency fold with Vertical Leap as an SEO specialist in 2006, moving to the department head role in 2011. She currently lives in Bishop's Waltham with her husband and daughter.
Categories: PPC, SEO
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