Word counts for online content, especially blogs, used to average between 300 and 600 words. Bloggers, marketers, and content creators believed that it was more important to say something in as few words as possible to keep a reader's interest. The last thing anyone wanted to do was bore a reader with too much information and lose them to a competitor's site where the user could find what they wanted in a "short and sweet" format. This trend has come and gone, however, in favor of lengthy content with word counts easily exceeding 1,500 words.
A study from 2012, which is still quoted by authorities, showed that the top ten results on Google were for content that had 1,500 words or more. The average word count for Google's top ten results was around 1,800 words.
More recently, Backlinko.com did a huge study of 1 million Google search results. They found that ”longer content tends to rank higher in Google’s search results. The average Google first page result contains 1,890 words.”
Moz did a similar study, where they found longer content attracts more links than shorter content. Moz found that when they "looked at the impact of content length on the correlation of shares and links. [they] found that content of over 1,000 words had a higher correlation but the correlation did not increase further beyond 2,000 words."
The primary reason for this shift in word counts is likely due to the many changes to Google's algorithm, creating an "intelligent" web crawler that examines and ranks content based on its value to readers. The algorithm perceives short content to be less valuable because it doesn't provide as much information to searchers, and the primary goal of Google's algorithm is to ferret out online content that is hyper-relevant to their search queries. Longer content presumably contains more authoritative and informative data, which means the searcher will spend less time searching and more time happily perusing the top page result they selected from their Google search.
It is a fallacy, however, to assume that your content is required to have a certain number of words to rank well on search engines. Short content (500 to 1,000 words) can rank just as well as medium-length content, and extremely long content (4,000 words or more) can rank extremely poorly. Word count is not the only factor taken into consideration when pages are evaluated for page rank by search engines. There are dozens of other attributes about your page that have an impact on your search position, and some of these attributes weigh more heavily than word count by a long shot.
Some important things to keep in mind when writing your content include:
- Avoid keyword stuffing, especially if you are trying to do it for artificial inflation of your page rank. Google's algorithms have been honed to look for keyword stuffing and you can actually be penalized by search engines for using this tactic.
- Keep the fluff out of your content. Internet users and searchers have a short attention span, so they don't want to wade through paragraphs of garbage to get to the gold mine. If something does not need to be in your content, take it out.
- Do your research - keyword research, that is. Before scattering a collection of keywords throughout your content, make sure they are relevant to the topic and are placed in a natural way. Readers can tell if words appear to be placed for marketing or SEO purposes, so add them where they flow in the most contextually appropriate way.
- Use long-tail keywords as much as possible. As search engines become more aligned with natural speech and language usage, searchers are phrasing their queries in more natural ways, so it is important to use keywords that match those queries. Long-tail keywords are always better than short ones, because people often search in the way they'd speak.
- Break up your content with paragraph separation, bullet points, lists, or white space. By making the content more readable, you're making it more appealing to your readers.
- Leave out technical terms and phrases unless they are necessary to the content. In most cases you should be writing for people who are new to a topic, so your content should be written with that in mind. Most searchers are beginners, hence their search for answers in the first place.
- Focus on one topic. By making your content specific to one subject, you are also making it hyper-relevant to specific searches. When you whittle down your topic to only one, you are also making it easier to come up with long-tail keywords specific to that certain subject.
- Write with your audience in mind. You might be following all the standard guidelines for making your content appealing to search engines, but you still want to write for your readers. They are, after all, the ones who will truly be the judge of how popular, appealing, or valuable your content may be through backlinks and shares (something search engines cannot do - yet).
This still likely leaves you with the question - how long should your content be for marketing and SEO purposes? It should be as long as it needs to be to fulfill its purpose. While this might seem like the kind of vague response you'd get from a mystic on a mountain top somewhere in Tibet, it's actually a rather simple answer. Some topics require lengthy and well-researched long-form content to provide all the details needed to answer a searcher's question or meet their need. Other topics can deliver everything someone might need to know succinctly, in 500 words or less. There truly is no optimal word count because not all content is written about the same topic. Whether you are writing the content yourself or you are using a writing team, freelance copywriters, or a professional content creation agency, there is a point where all that needs to be said about a subject has been said. That is the optimal word count.