I outsource most of the content for my blogs. When creating the briefs, the first thing that I mention is the number of words I need from the post. This is usually a range, such as 1000-1200 words, or 2500-3000 words. Our writers also know that they are free to go under or over the limit by 10% without having to ask about it first.
So, how to determine what range to put there?
- Content getting longer over the years
- So, is longer content always better?
- The same topic: different post length
- Why longer content is good (The pros)
- Why longer content SUCKS (The Cons)
- So what’s my preferred length?
Content getting longer over the years
I’m currently in the process of revamping the articles section of my flagship site. Most of the articles there are over a decade old. Some closer to two decades. Most no longer bring in any search engine traffic.
Article updates on that site were limited by platform issues. We’ve finally migrated the entire section over to WordPress quite recently, so it’s time to revamp it and get back to the race, competing over search engine traffic.
The first step? Properly audit that section. I created a list of all articles, including date of publication and length.
The results really took me by surprise.
You see, I was the main writer for this site, 10+ years ago. Many articles were doing really well in the search engines (hey, some of them are as old as Google itself!), and were very well received by our audience. My recollection of those pieces was that they were very good. Thorough articles, that really covered the topics.
Well, guess what? All of these articles were super-short by today’s standards. They were all under 1000-word long. Many of them were only 300-400 words long! No longer they lost their rankings over the years. No one in their right mind would expect to rank on Google with these short pieces.
So, is longer content always better?
Actually, there are other considerations. In fact, longer content has its pros and cons. And this is what I want to cover in this post. Longer content can be awesome – but it can also bring down your business if you’re outsourcing.
In a nutshell,
The pros of long content are –
- You have a better chance at ranking high on Google for lucrative keywords.
- The post covers more long-tail queries
- Longer pages will generate more ad revenue per page view.
- You’ll be deterring the competition.
The Cons are –
- You could wander off-topic and bore your reader.
- Long content is expensive to produce.
The same topic: different post length
First, let’s get one thing out of the way: You can control the length of your content.
If you’ve been doing this for a while, you probably already know that by now. If you’re not sure how that’s done, leave me a comment and let me know. I’m tempted to write a blog post just about that and could use the encouragement 😉
In short, with informational posts (which are my sites’ bread and butter), it’s often possible to answer the question in 100-200 words. Heck, sometimes a “no” or “yes” may be sufficient for some people.
However, you can take the same topic and elaborate in a meaningful and helpful way. Try to read your visitor’s mind, see what else about this topic they may be wondering about, and create an easy-to-follow, educational and entertaining longer essay, by incorporating follow-up questions.
Word count isn’t everything.
You can make a post longer by adding images (graphics and photos), videos, social media embeds, a table of contents, quizzes, you name it.
In most cases (though not all) the “word count” metric simply reflects the length of your post.
Why longer content is good (The pros)
Let’s take a look at the pros of producing long content.
1. Higher ranking on Google
I am not an SEO expert, but here’s my approach to this:
Google doesn’t really care about your word count. Google cares about user experience.
A great page is one that makes the user stick around and keep reading. Again, that doesn’t have to be only text, mind. It could be videos, images and anything else that pertains to the topic and gets the reader excited to learn more.
That’s usually easier to achieve with a longer page. I don’t think page length – or the number of words – is the main ranking factor. I do think it’s a ranking factor, due to the user behavior that post length generates.
2. Nailing more long-tail queries
As you go cover a topic more thoroughly, you will naturally cover more questions. Assuming this is quality content – with no fluff – you have to deliver fresh interesting information in every paragraph.
Someone out there is probably asking about those specifics and is likely to find your post. It all adds up towards driving more traffic to your page.
3. Longer pages generate more ad revenue per page view.
When people stay longer on a page, it makes you more money.
Here’s what it looks like. I went over to Ezoic’s Big Data Analytic and pulled the stats for one of my sites –
Clearly, the longer the content, the more reason there is for people to spend time on the page.
The longer people spend on the page, the more ads they’ll see. For two reasons –
- They see more of the page, as they scroll down.
- They may also hang around while those ads refresh, so you get more ad views from the same number of page views.
This isn’t a very cut and clear correlation because – as with everything – there are other factors at play here. The topic of the post affects revenue, probably more than anything else. Still, I pulled this from Ezoic’s Big Data too.
Note the average CPM for that site and that collection of long posts with higher-than-average RPM.
4. Deterring the competition
This is something that not a lot of people talk about, but I think it’s super important.
When deciding whether or not to cover a topic, I look at three things –
- How many people are looking for this topic?
- Can I create a great piece of content around it?
- Has anyone else already done that?
Let me focus on that third element.
Checking the competition is a crucial part of looking for keywords to target. And by that, I don’t just mean checking out that “Keyword Difficulty” score on Ahrefs or any other tool. Those tools could – at best – give you an estimate of the domain authority you’re competing against. That’s an important parameter but it’s not always the most important one.
There are two other things to look for – and you can only find them by digging into the actual search results.
First – are the current top results hitting the nail on the head?
Are they really a good match for the search term you’re looking into? In other words, do they answer the question, and would it be clear to the reader that they do, simply by seeing that title in the search results?
Second – is their content good enough?
And here lies the crux of the matter. To be efficient, you need to do your search analysis fast.
Since I’m doing my search analysis, I want to cover at least 5-10 terms per hour. That means I won’t have time to actually read the posts that are currently ranking high. I’m just going to skim them.
And if they’re very long – I’ll probably back off.
On the other hand, if they’re short, I’m going to try and beat them. Even if they’re an authority site.
The Arms Race effect
Many of my competitors are large publishers. They manage a portfolio of several large authority sites with thousands of posts in them. Their content managers probably go through the very same process, identifying thousands of phrases that were wide open. Up for grabs.
With such low-hanging fruit, they didn’t have to put a lot of effort (or money) into these posts. They leveraged their domain authority and created posts with 300-500 words. That was enough to the top spots on Google.
When I see these posts, I’m happy. Sure, I don’t have their domain authority, but I have enough of my own by now, to try and beat them with better posts. My posts will probably be longer, but that’s not the main point.
The point is that they’re better. They simply will have to be long to be better.
And it’s working.
This is an arms race of kind. I think posts on the Internet are getting longer, chiefly for that reason. The content may also be better, which is great, but the length is often the weapon.
A while ago, a friend of mine complained on Facebook about recipe sites. She mentioned how she hated it when bloggers feel they have to create a super long personal introduction/story, where all she needs is the recipe itself. I told her she can blame Google for that particular trend. The Arms Race for search terms is making all of us create longer and longer content.
Deterring your rivals
But here’s the thing. When I see a post that’s super long and detailed, I won’t even try to go against it. If they invested so much into that post, I just won’t go there. That’s too much of a high-hanging fruit, for me.
Sure, I could invest in a 10K post and try to beat a 4K one, but it probably would mean losing money. Even if – and that’s a big IF – I manage to get to the first place on Google, there had better be a LOT of search volume there to justify that investment. It’s just easier to go after that low-hanging fruit and knock down the shorter posts. More about that in a while.
I can only assume many other publishers are doing the same thing as I do. And that’s why this is another consideration in favor of longer content.
I may be able to get to no.1 on Google with 1200 words, but if the search term seems lucrative enough, someone could come along and try to win it over with 2500 words. Sometimes, it’s better to invest in a 2500-3000 word-long to beat a 500-word long one, just to scare off future potential competitors.
Why longer content SUCKS (The Cons)
Longer content is risky. If you’re looking for ways to lose money in this business, create very long content. Let me show you why.
1. Long content is expensive to produce
If you pay three cents per word (which I do), then a 1500-word long post is going to cost you $45. A 5,000-word long post will cost you $150. The price is actually higher because there are other costs involved (longer editing time, more images, more VA time, etc) but let’s just assume these costs for a minute.
Our business model assumes an average of 500 monthly pageviews per post, and an average CPM of $20. In other words, the average post should be making $10 a month. Many posts do better. Many tank and make almost nothing. These are just averages.
Making $10 a month, the average short post will cover the costs after just 4.5 months of ranking. After that, it’s all profit.
However, the long post that cost $150 to produce? Sticking to the average of $10 a month, that post will need to rank for 15 months before it shows a profit.
In theory, the longer post should have a better chance at ranking, and for more terms. As mentioned earlier, it’s also supposed to bring in a higher CPM, compared to its short siblings. And usually, that’s what happens.
However, when a long post tanks, you lose much more money. And since every post is a gamble, you need to think very carefully where you want to invest in a risky longer post.
That’s why I said it’s a good way to lose money. If you don’t know what you’re doing with keyword research and are just shooting at all directions to see what sticks, longer posts can keep you in the red for longer.
2. You could wander off-topic and bore your reader
To get a post to be over 1,000 words or longer, you need to really stay on top of things. You have to make sure to avoid –
- Writing meaningless fluff
- Becoming too repetitive
- Wandering too far off-topic
- Covering topics that you already have dedicated shorter posts for
And all of the above are even harder to maintain when you’re hiring writers. Freelancer writers need to get their word count and get there fast.
When writing your own content, you might be able to stop at 1,200 words and say to yourself that this is not really such a great direction for this post after all. A professional freelance writer isn’t likely to do that.
This means a longer post requires me to do some of the initial research and create a more detailed outline for the writers. This makes these posts even more expensive to produce (I consider myself to be the highest-paid person in this operation).
So what’s my preferred length?
I like to vary things. Generally speaking, about 70% of my content is on the shorter side. Not super short – just in the 1500-words area. The rest is longer content, with about half in the 2500-word area, and the rest going further high up in the word count. I rarely go over the 5,000-word point though.
Matching the weapon to the fight
Income school has a great web publishing course. In one of the lessons, Jim and Ricky teach you to match the content to the battle. It’s a very memorable video, where they actually and literally put on boxing gloves (available only to course participants, so I can’t embed it here).
They actually classify their content by length. As I recall –
- Response posts are 1200-2000 words long.
- Staple posts are around 2000-3000 words long
- Pillar posts are super long 3000+ words long
They make a very good point in that movie. Check out the competition. If you’re trying to snatch the top rankings from a small obscure site with thin content, a shorter response post would be enough. Going after a more substantial site with a very good post? You’re going to need heavy weapons for that, in the form of a staple or pillar post.
By the way, if you’re new to web publishing and need a good step-by-step course, I highly recommend Income School.
Don’t forget deterrence
This is my own addition to the mix. Even if I think a pistol will do the work, and you can knock down the competition with 800-1000 words – you may want to go longer. If the search term is lucrative (and most are) – investing in 1500-2000 words, may mean others won’t try to beat your post a year from now.
And considering the overall Arms Race, you may even want to go higher, just to really secure your top position. Just remember that word count is just one indicator of quality. Which should always be what you’re going after.