How to Determine Optimal Content Lengths (and Why Longer Isn’t Always Better)

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The other day, I searched online for a recipe for a chicken dish. One of the top three Google links seemed promising, so I clicked through only to find myself reading seven paragraphs about how picky someone’s toddler was before the chicken dish was even mentioned. Then I had to scroll down another few miles (okay, slight exaggeration — but only slight) before the recipe showed up. By that time, I clicked away to find the recipe on a site that kept things more concise.

This is a trend I’ve noticed on food blogs and many other websites, and I think it partially comes from people trying to bring up the word count on their pages. Because SEO wisdom right now says longer is better, right? It’s true, but it’s also not true for every scenario, and a lot of factors go into making the type of quality content that performs well in the SERPs.

Modern SEOs and SEO content writers need to know how much to write for each piece, so we break down the truth about content length and how you can choose optimal word counts below.

A Quick Overview of Current Conventional Wisdom on Word Counts

In an article for Torque, Nick Schaferhoff provides a comprehensive breakdown of what various SEO experts and data powerhouses say about how long your content needs to be. The bar comes in fairly high, with most sites such as BuzzSumo, Medium and CoSchedule calling for content between 1,500 and 2,400 words for optimal performance in Google searches.

While Neil Patel points out that different content lengths perform better in different industries and SEMRush reminds content creators that quality is more important than length in the grand scheme of the search results, conventional wisdom does seem to have a consensus.

Longer seems to be better. Most experts are recommending at least 1,000 words for optimal performance.

Why These Benchmarks Aren’t the Be All, End All

Every one of those experts will be the first to tell you not to take their numbers as a final say on the matter, though.

Yes, research is important, and you should always understand what the trends are for content marketing in general and for your industry specifically. But you don’t write content in a vacuum made solely of word counts; you write content for actual users, who you need to keep in mind. You also have to consider the topic at hand, the time you have to create the content and what your budget is — these can all impact content length.

And not every piece of content needs to be written to the benchmark average.

CoSchedule research notes that content that comes in around 2,500 words tends to perform best in the search engines — but that doesn’t mean every page or piece has to be 2,500 words.

  • A product description for a white cotton t-shirt should not be that long.
  • A blog about how to wash a white cotton t-shirt is going to be full of unnecessary fluff if you try to get it to 2,500 words.
  • A buying guide that discusses all the varieties of white cotton t-shirts and how to find the right one for you could, however, reach 2,500 words without being riddled with nonsense.

Padded Content Doesn’t Do You Any SEO Favors

But if 1,500 or 2,000 or 2,500 words is where it’s at SEO-performance wise, why can’t you make your basic t-shirt description that long?

It’s true. Most writers can meet the word count quota on any type of content by padding. That means including irrelevant information, repeating the same types of phrases and statements, and saying everything the longest way possible.

Our Director of QA and Enterprise Production, Lisa Rohner, calls this Peanut Butter Writing and gives this example: “I love peanut butter sandwiches because peanut butter sandwiches have a lot of peanut butter in the sandwich.”

That’s 18 words that give you five words of information and no additional value. You don’t want to engage in Peanut Butter Writing, and here’s why:

  • People generally don’t appreciate it. Online searchers may be busy, and they don’t want to parse through the fluff to find the information they’re looking for. PB writing makes it more likely they’ll bounce to find what they need elsewhere.
  • It reduces the authority of your brand. That means people are less likely to return to your site, share your content or link to it.
  • Users can only handle so much. Even if someone makes it through one PB writing article on your site, they probably won’t seek out more. Which means you aren’t going to get traffic flowing across your site internally.
  • Fluffy writing isn’t as strong, so it’s less likely to convert.

All of these things can bring down your behavioral stats, such as the time people spend on your pages and bounce rate, and that impacts your RankBrain score. It also makes it less likely that people would link to your content. Both of these can negatively impact your rankings in the search results.

ALSOCopywriting for SEO

Choosing the Right Word Count

If you’re not sure how to choose the right word count, you’re not alone. Our writers consistently notice that clients order content with word counts that seem much too low or too high for the needs of the project. Usually, it’s because clients are trying to do the right thing, SEO-wise, and are basing word counts on some of the conventional wisdom discussed above.

But there’s a better way. Here are some tips for coming up with the right word count for every project.

man ready to learn about content length

1. Consider the topic and outline.

If you want to cover three basic talking points in a blog post — for example, three reasons to buy a kite this summer — you probably don’t need 3,000 words. That’s 1,000 words for every reason! Conversely, if you want to cover 10 ways to care for carpets, you’ll probably need more than 300 words. Otherwise, the writer has to wedge each tip into 30 words and skip the intro and conclusion.

Start by sketching out a simple outline, assigning each component a word count and adding it up to get a total. For example:

  • Blog post: How to buy a book for a child in your life
  • Introduction – 50 words
  • Seven tips – 100 words each
    • Find out what reading level they are
    • Discover some of their interests
    • Choose nonfiction or fiction
    • Choose whether you’ll buy online or in the store
    • Talk to book store employees for recommendations
    • Buy something from an author or series they already read
    • Consider the parents or guardians when you buy picture books
  • FAQ section with three questions – 300 words
    • What are reading levels and how do they work?
    • How can you learn more about kids books on Goodreads?
    • How much stock should you put in Amazon reviews?
  • Conclusion and call to action – 75 words
  • Total word count: 1,125

This outline easily supports the word count ordered because each of the tips and FAQs can be appropriately handled, without fluff, in about 100 words. An outline helps you determine the right number of words, but it also helps keep the writer on the appropriate path and away from padding.

Need help coming up with a topic? Ideation 101: How to Develop Strong Article Themes that Work

2. Complete competitive benchmarking for your industry.

Neil Patel provides some information on how long content should be for various industries. It makes sense that a blog in the tech industry shouldn’t look the same as one in the medical or fashion fields, and Patel’s numbers can be a good starting guide.

But consider conducting benchmark research to help you understand the type and length of content that is performing in your niche right now. Some tools you can use to see how your content stacks up against the competition (or build strong outlines and develop winning SEO ideas) include:

These tools look at the content that’s currently ranking in the top 10 results in Google for the term you’re targeting and tell you how long your content should be to outperform those. In most cases, creating longer content than your competitors should be a big priority for you.

Additionally, they tell you which topics they cover that you should also address. In most cases, these top 10 results don’t cover ALL of these topics, so if you do, your content should outperform those.

Here’s an example of what a report for the term “peanut butter sandwiches” looks like:

SEO Content Report for the term "peanut butter"

You’ll see a list of semantically related words (topics) that you’d want to explore in your article. Build these into your outline so you naturally discuss them.

You’ll also see it recommends your content be 651 words or longer.

In most cases these topics are semantically linked to your main topic, so covering them should add value for your readers. This is a great way to increase your word counts by finding additional related topics to cover, and it’s unlikely to result in you adding fluff.

And, there’s a lot of evidence that Google ranks semantically complete content well, as it delivers a high topic relevance in most cases.

While the tools above can help you identify these keywords as a part of their competitive benchmarking, you can also use tools like LSIgraph to just find these related topics.

3. Consider the type of content page you’re ordering.

Finally, the type of page you’re creating tends to dictate length. Again, with the caveat of “don’t take anyone’s word for this, do your own research and testing,” here are some common lengths associated with various types of content.

  • Blog posts: 300 to 2,000 words; ensure the outline and topic is appropriate for the word count
  • City (or local) pages: 300 to 800 words
  • Landing pages: 400 to 1,000, again depending on the type of content you want to cover
  • Product descriptions: 50 to 300 words, with only the most complex or unique products needing the higher end of the word count
Fast typing

TL;DR: There’s No Easy Answer

Choosing the right word count comes down to an awareness of the market and an understanding of the content creation process. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help managing your content processes or ask your writer for suggestions on word count.

Eric Hoppe

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Eric has been working in marketing and product management for over a decade with companies in the software, eCommerce and content creation spaces. He’s particularly drawn to both content marketing and SEO and is excited that the two areas are increasingly converging. While he’s pretty serious about marketing, he does love to drop a great dad joke on occasion.

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