There has been a lot of discussion lately about long-form content and how it is changing the content marketing playbook. By long-form, we are of course talking about blog posts that reach at least 2,000 words long. Yikes!
So, what should a content marketer do? Is long-form content really worth the extra effort? It seems that way.
SERPIQ recently completed an analysis of the top 10 search results for more than 20,000 keywords and revealed a surprising pattern. The length of content on the page had a direct correlation to the placement of the search results.
Average word count per page in relation to search page ranking. Credit: SERPIQ
Crap. We aren’t going to get out of the long-form content thing so easily, are we?
In addition, back in 2011, Moz found that there seemed to be a direct correlation between the number of back links (links to their blog post from other websites) and the overall length of the content itself.
Long-form content’s influence on back links. Credit Moz
They way things look, long-form content is more likely to be linked to from another site. The question is, why? Haven’t we been told over and over again that readers prefer content that is easy to digest and share? Why are Google and our blog readers both so attracted to long-form content in the first place?
These findings, of course, have lead to a lot of chatter about making blog posts longer than ever–simply for the search ranking factor. I suppose this is fine, but I don’t think length itself is really the point. Our goal shouldn’t be to arbitrarily make content longer just because Google may care–it is to lift the ban on long-form content in the first place. It’s time we give ourselves the freedom to “go there.” Stick with me on this…
Lifting The Long-Form Content Ban
If you think about it, we’ve (just as arbitrarily) given priority to the short and sweet blog post that barely tops out at 1000 words. What makes 500-700 words so great? The answer is simple–nothing. We’ve systematized our content. We’ve made a formula out of it, and where there’s a formula, there are lot of posers who like to copy and paste that strategy over to their own blog. The result?
Crappy content by the 500-word handfuls.
Of course, I only bring it up because one of the primary arguments against long-form content in the first place is the belief that longer content is frequently less good. While I am sure there are plenty of awful posts with more than 2,000 words, it doesn’t explain why Google is rewarding long-form content. It also doesn’t explain why long-form content appears to get so many more back links.
Curious about this, I took to Google on my own with the hope of better understanding how and why long-form content had been performing so well. My findings aren’t scientific, but they are telling.
First, I chose a handful (six to be exact) of keywords to test. I primarily used long-tail keywords that would demand written articles as opposed to shopping listings or event information. In short, I chose keywords that a content marketer might use as a way to gain inbound traffic. I then measured the top ten search results for each keyword, charting the number of words, page authority score, domain authority score, and total number of back links.
Going in, I had a few theories:
- That length of content would have a direct impact on search ranks. (More words == higher search)
- Long-form content would directly impact page authority scores, explaining the higher search placement. (More words == higher page authority)
- The “longest” pages would be within the top three spots in search rankings.
- Some pages with shorter copy would still rank well because of high page/domain authority or a large number of backlinks.
- Pages with longer copy would have more back links.
Overall, I assumed to find many of the same things that Neil Patel and SERPIQ had found, and to a certain degree I did.
Finding #1: Long-Form Content Does Ranks Higher
Yes, it’s true. Long-form content ranks higher on average than shorter pages. In my results, the pages in the top five (1-5) averaged more than 2,000 words per page. In the bottom half (6-10), the posts only averaged 1,400 words. Long-form content was absolutely weighted to the top of the list.
Finding #2: Long-Form Content Doesn’t Necessarily Rank First
Only two of my keywords resulted in a search with more than 2,000 words in the top search spot. This surprised me because there did seem to be a correlation between ranking and content length. Therefore, I expected the longer posts to be in the 1 and 2 spots.
It seems that for the number one spot, at least, Google still relies heavily on the domain authority of the site and values it over content length. In several cases, a site with a low word count and a high domain authority was able to maintain the top spot simply because of their authority in the subject. In other words, content length doesn’t guarantee a top rank.
Finding #3: Content Length Doesn’t Guarantee Rank
One thing that my research uncovered is that content length wasn’t necessarily connected to a specific page ranking. What I mean is that length seemed to be most influential in the 3, 4, and 5 spot. From there, it was actually pretty random, and not usually over 2,000 words.
There are no ranking guarantees with long-form content no matter what anyone says.
Finding #4: There Wasn’t Much Correlation Between Back Links And Content Length
On average, the pages with more than 2,000 words only had an average of 134 back links. On the flip side, pages with shorter content had an average of 1,396 back links. Remember, Neil Patel’s findings showed the exact opposite results.
In my findings, it seems that there was no direct correlation between back links and content length. Even more, it appears that long-form content can, in some situations, act as a substitute for a low number of back links.
Finding #5a: 500 Words Are Not Enough
All but one of my search terms resulted in an average post size of more than 1,000 words. In fact, of all results, the average post length was 1,700 words. That’s a pretty far cry from the traditional 500-700 word blog post. If 2,000 words isn’t the magic number, perhaps 1,500 should be.
Finding #5b: Video Wins Too
One thing that is worth pointing out is that in almost every search I completed, there was at least one spot reserved for a video. This was usually in the 3, 4, or 5 spot for each search.
Say Yes To Long-Form, Say No To Zombies
So, what gives?
Does Google prefer long-form content? I think the answer is a solid yes, but there are several qualifications. The thing that we have to remember is that Google doesn’t prefer long-form content simply because it is longer. Rather, Google simple uses content length as one of its many indicators of quality, and it makes sense.
I believe the reason that we see so many long-form posts in search results is because longer posts are often more valuable to the person conducting to the search. Think about it. If you are conducting a search on “how to kill zombies,” what kind of post are you going to be looking for? The 500 word overview, or the 2,000 word in-depth article with pictures and examples?
It’s a no brainer, and Google thinks so too.
Content length is a factor that Google takes into consideration, but that doesn’t mean you should let yourself become a 2,000-word writing zombie. Don’t misunderstand Google. They aren’t rewarding word zombies. Google is still rewarding content quality. Rather than seeing 2,000 words as the mile marker, see the quality level that results from that long of a post.
If there is any takeaway from this research, it is this: creating great content is still your number one priority.
One thing that we love to forget is that Google’s job isn’t to rank pages in a methodical and scientific way. Rather, it is to use science and methodology to rank pages in a very human way. In short, they are trying to connect their visitors to the most valuable content they can find. It only makes sense that much of that content falls into a category that required its author to spend more time on it than usual. After all, you can’t pull 2,000 words out of nothing.
Let’s break it down into a some simple do’s and don’ts.
- Do write high quality content for high-value keywords that make sense for your business.
- Do feel free to let your writing wander well past the 700 word threshold.
- Do make every effort to choose a topic that will allow you to easily reach the 2,000 word mark.
- Don’t force yourself to write 2,000 words when you don’t actually have anything to say.
- Don’t expect your content to rank simply because it is more than 2,000 words. Your content still needs to rock.
- Don’t let yourself turn into a word zombie. Please.
One of the big problems that we create for ourselves in content marketing is that we love to make rules. We love to decide how long a post should be, how many images it should have, and how it should be formatted for the user. I don’t have any real problem with these rules. In fact, I love to make them. The problem is that we don’t always know when to break them.
Breaking The Rules
When I was in design school, one of the many things that I learned about was the rules of design. There are theories (good ones) that can help you determine how type should look and how images can best be used to create balance and harmony. These are all fine rules, but the point isn’t to always follow them. The point is to know when to break them.
We need to break more rules in content marketing, and let ourselves go. We need to loosen up and starting doing whatever it takes to reach our goals for more traffic and better content without letting arbitrary rules get in our way.
Don’t skip long-form content because of an arbitrary rule someone made. Instead, understand long-form content has a time and place where it’s best used, and keep it as one of many content marketing tools at your disposal.
When Does Long-Form Make Sense?
On the Moz blog, Dr. Peter J. Meyers recently shared a great post about what he called “big content.” This type of content can take on many forms such as interactive guides, tools, ebooks, video courses, etc., but the #1 attribute is that it takes time and effort. Lots of time and effort.
As Meyers points out, while this type of content may take more resources, it can often pay off in the long term. He cites several big content examples that have resulted in sustained traffic for a long period of time, rather than a one time burst that we may get from a “normal” blog post.
A good example of this might be Hubspot’s Marketing Grader, which allowed users to analyze their web site in exchange for a simple email address. Big content like this provides user value, and can bring new traffic for a long time. Over the years, this tool has almost certainly brought Hubspot millions of page views and probably at least that much in revenue. How do we make content that can pay off like that?
My, what big content you have.
It may be a stretch, but I think long-form content is a small piece of the ‘big content’ idea.
It is about putting more into our content than we ever have before. It is about investing in our audience, in our business, and in our work to make sure that we bring the results and value that we constantly promise. Dr. Meyer’s ideas about big content are so interesting to me because they actually treat content itself like a startup enterprise, rather than just another blog post.
Content as a startup?
Long-form content and big content may take more effort, it may demand more out of you than every before, and here’s the real kicker: it may not work. Hours of writing and 2,000 words later you may not have much to show for it, but isn’t it still worth the risk? Hubspots website grader certainly was. Writing 500 word posts every day for year is a risky too, but you believe that content pays off, right?
It’s time to put your content to the test.