January 18, 2018

Ideal SEO Content Length: Flushing the Goldfish Cliché Down the Toilet

Your Audience is Smarter than a Goldfish - Act Accordingly

If you’ve been in the world of Marketing long enough, chances are you’ve heard someone say something along the lines of

“Make your content short and bite sized! With all of the distractions that surround us nowadays, the average attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish!”

We’re here to tell you that mentality needs to be flushed down the toilet. Immediately.

In fact, long form content has proven to be more engaging, more shareable, and better for SEO.

But alas, it’s not good enough these days to write 2,000 words and call it a day—and most content marketers don’t even come close to creating content that long.

That’s why we created this post.

There are a great deal of factors that go into defining quality long form content.

Today, you’ll learn everything there is to know about why search engines (and people!) love long form content.

You will also become an expert on the search signals and human preferences that help define quality, winning content beyond length.

Let’s get started!

The SEO Benefits of Long Form Content

Longer Content Produces Higher Search Rankings.

Simply put, studies show that longer content dominates page one of search rankings.

SerpIQ ran a study charting the top 10 results in search queries by content length.

Here’s the Graph:

graph of Average content length in top 10 search results

The first result typically has 2,416 words and the 10th result has 2,032 words. This shows that Google prefers content rich sites.

The fact that not one of the results on an average page falls below 2,000 words is pretty compelling on its own.

But here’s the deal:

Google doesn’t decide a page’s ranking by simply looking at its word count.

While content length is clearly correlated with better search rankings, the factors that actually help Google rank pages are merely made possible by long form content.

If that sounds confusing, it’s because there are a lot of moving pieces involved in the SEO performance of content.

Let’s explore some of these factors:

Longer Content Earns More Backlinks

Research shows that long form content has a greater probability of earning quality backlinks, which contribute significantly to improving search rankings. 

Here’s a graph from Hubspot that depicts the correlation between content length and backlinks:

graph of word count vs average linking domains

So why does long form content get more backlinks?

For one, good long form content tends to be more useful and comprehensive than short content, and the more useful and comprehensive it is, the more value it provides.

Google understands that users do not want to search for bits and pieces of information, gleaning tidbits of knowledge from numerous pages.

They want everything they need in one place.

Long form content, which tends to be more comprehensive on a given topic, has a higher likelihood of providing the answers that users are searching for, without forcing them to perform a mini research project every time a piece of short content falls… well… short.

Similarly, longer content is more impressive and tends to stand out.

According to Brian Dean,

They'll always be space for "Top 7 Ways to..."-type posts. But insanely long list posts will forever stand out based on the volume factor. There's something inherently more shareable (and linkable) about a list of 100 items than a list of 10.

Moral of the story:

Anyone can write a piece of bite-sized content in a short period of time with minimal experience.

But when confronted with a detailed, step-by-step list of “16 actionable SEO tips you can implement today to avoid the most common SEO mistakes”, why would anyone click on or link to a list of 5 tips on the same topic without step-by-step instructions?

They wouldn’t. No matter how Goldfish-like their attention span—because they want the best content available.

Let’s back up for a second.

It’s clear that longer content tends to be more useful, more impressive, and more comprehensive than short content, causing it to earn more backlinks.

But where do the backlinks come from?

Quality backlinks are generated when Link Creators—people in your industry that have the ability to link to your content—deem your content (or a part of it) to be valuable to their audience, and link to it.

The key word there is “value.” Short, limited content often simply fails to provide enough value to entice link creators.

Just as you create content that adds value and helps your audience, link creators want to link to content that offers their audience a reinforcement of their ideas, comprehensive knowledge, or supplemental information.

It’s in a link creator’s best interest to link to the best, most comprehensive piece of content on a given topic.

300 words just won’t cut it.

Longer Content Gets More Social Shares

And the numbers are pretty staggering.

Neil Patel of Quicksprout ran a study on how many social shares he earned with content longer than 1,500 words vs. content shorter than 1,500 words.

social shares vs content length graph

He found that his longer posts received an average of 68.1% more engagement on Twitter and 22.6% more on Facebook.

The correlation between social shares and content length is very similar to that between content length and backlinks.

This suggests that the average social media user values the same things as link creators:

They want to consume and share content that is both useful and comprehensive.

Both of those factors tend to involve a higher word count.

Google's RankBrain Rewards Long Form Content

Apart from backlinks and social shares, there are a variety of ways to understand why Google likes to reward long form content with good search positioning.

Based on Google’s RankBrain algorithm—a machine learning algorithm used to sort search results and better understand search queries—we can determine some notable ways in which long form content has an advantage over shorter content.

RankBrain is Google’s third most important ranking factor, so it has a massive impact on many aspects of search.

While RankBrain’s primary function is using Artificial Intelligence to help Google understand what people mean when they type in a particular search query, Google also uses it to measure an extremely important factor:

User satisfaction.

In other words, Google doesn’t just interpret queries and send people to a relevant SERP (search engine results page), it also determines whether or not the page’s users find hold content that satisfies them when they click on it.

Google uses a variety of metrics to analyze this, and they all just so happen to correlate with content length.

Let’s take a look.

Dwell Time

Dwell time is a measure of how much time users spend on your site.

It’s an important metric because it tells Google that your website (or a particular page on it) is worth spending time on—meaning it’s providing users with what they were searching for.

A short dwell time tells Google your page was either irrelevant to the search query or just plain bad.

It then adjusts search rankings for future searches accordingly.

Long dwell times correlate with....

You guessed it! Longer content.

Click Through Rate

Organic Click Through Rate (CTR) is a very important ranking signal within RankBrain.

CTR is a measure of how many clicks a page gets relative to how many impressions it receives (how many times it is seen in search on a SERP).

Google uses CTR data to understand whether a page appeals to users.

For example:

If a page on your website receives 3,000 impressions in a given month but only gets clicked on 10 times, you’re in trouble.

Google will see that as a sign that your page does not adequately fulfil a users search query and will most likely move the page down in search rankings.

CTR is defined in part by relevance to what users are looking for, but is also strongly influenced by factors like effective meta-titles and meta-descriptions.

In other words:

Content with a quality title tag and description tag will often have a better CTR than un-optimized content.

Ok, but what does content length have to do with this?

As we discussed earlier on, users react more favorably to impressive, original content that exudes utility and stops them from ever needing to seek out a similar resource.

Title tags and description tags appear directly on SERPs, and they are meant to be representative of what’s inside the page while enticing people to click on the search result.

Therefore:

Having longer content—and emphasizing the utility, comprehensiveness and value of that content in the page’s title tags and description tags—will lead to higher CTR, better positioning in search rankings, and more eyes on your content.  

And more eyes on your great long form content means more shares, backlinks and instances of high dwell time.

See? It’s all connected!

The Opportunity for Content Marketers

While internet users (and Google), have made it abundantly clear that they prefer long form content, the Content Marketing world seems to be lagging painfully behind.

Only 18 percent of companies’ blog posts are 750 words or more. Not even close to the average length of content on the first page of Google.

So what’s the problem?

Perhaps it’s related to the fact that 60% of content marketers say their biggest marketing challenge is creating engaging content.

That sounds like a pretty phenomenal opportunity for content marketers who choose to capitalize on what they’ve learned in this post (hint hint):

Google awards long form content based on the value it provides to users.

The Catch: Your Content Actually Has to be Good

As we’ve discussed, content length is part of the solution, not all of it.

Content length enables many of the factors that help to define quality content in the eyes of users and search engines:

  • Utility and value
  • Comprehensiveness
  • High dwell time
  • Compelling title and description tags

By harnessing these essential elements of quality content, and including them in a long form piece, content marketers can increase social shares, earn more backlinks and improve their overall search rankings.

Ultimately, average consumers of content will only have the attention span of a goldfish if they keep being exposed to the short, limited content that they’re used to.

Wouldn’t anyone?

If you provide them with something different—something that answers their questions, solves their problems, and makes them feel compelled to link and share—you’ll be reaping countless rewards in the form of user engagement, better search rankings, and brand visibility.

illustrated goldfish icon

Let's do away with the Goldfish Cliché

We've all heard it before:

“People have the average attention span of a goldfish, about 9 seconds.”

Sounds like a bunch of lazy content writers coming up with excuses. Instead of pandering to short attention spans, why not create more actionable, comprehensive content that gets people to pay attention?

Long-form content gets higher rankings.

The average content length for a web page that ranks in the top ten results for any keyword on Google has at least 2,000 words. The higher up you go on the search listings page, the more content each web page has.

The first Google result typically has 2,416 words.

more engaging
illustrated red clock
7:00
Posts that take about seven minutes to read are best for engaging readers.

The 10th Google result has 2,032 words.

This shows that Google prefers content rich sites.

more engaging
illustrated red clock
7:00
Posts that take about seven minutes to read are best for engaging readers.
more leads
illustrated star with text
9x
Long form blog posts generate nine times more leads than short form blog posts.
more backlinks
green graph icon
Direct correlation between the length of the content and the number of people who linked to it.
As you already know, the more links a web page has, the higher it will typically rank on search engines.
more shares
social media icons
68.1% more tweets and 22.6% more Facebook likes.
When you take into account that search engines take social signals into account when ranking sites, it reinforces why web pages with lengthier content rank higher.
more leads
illustrated star with text
9x
Long form blog posts generate nine times more leads than short form blog posts.
more backlinks
green graph icon
Direct correlation between the length of the content and the number of people who linked to it.
As you already know, the more links a web page has, the higher it will typically rank on search engines.
more shares
social media icons
68.1% more tweets and 22.6% more Facebook likes.
When you take into account that search engines take social signals into account when ranking sites, it reinforces why web pages with lengthier content rank higher.
Longer content creates the conditions necessary to reap numerous SEO benefits.
blue clock icon with checkmark
Google rewards sites with higher dwell time.
(the actual length of time that a visitor spends on a page before returning to the SERPs)
blue clock icon with star
Long-form content increases dwell time.
Because longer-form content tends to be more comprehensive, it keeps people's attention for a longer period of time.
star icon with upward trendline
Longer Content can raise Click Through Rates (CTR)
Detailed, more comprehensive content creates the opportunity for more compelling title and description tags, leading to higher CTR.
the CHALLENGE
pie chart icon

60% of content marketers say their biggest marketing challenge is creating engaging content.

the opportunity
yellow and white pie chart icon

On average, only 18 percent of companies’ blog posts are 750 words or more.

The Bottom Line

Content length enables many of the factors that help to define quality content in the eyes of users and search engines:

  • Utility and value
  • Comprehensiveness
  • High dwell time
  • Compelling title and description tags

With very few Content Marketers creating high quality long-form content, it's time to seize the opportunity and rise above the goldfish cliche!

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