Is Word Count A Google Ranking Factor?
If you’re looking for a short answer, then no, word count is not a Google search ranking factor.
Google representatives have repeatedly said that the length of your written content doesn’t matter from a ranking standpoint.
They often point to the fact that to satisfy your users, you sometimes have to make the copy as concise as possible (think weather reporting). Other times, the copy needs to be highly comprehensive (think medical advice).
And since Google’s goal is to surface pages that leave users satisfied, it doesn’t make sense to use word count as a ranking factor.
But these statements didn’t convince everyone. Word count continues to be a metric that’s widely used for assessing content quality. And there’s a fairly good explanation for it.
Again, word count isn’t a ranking factor, and I don’t think it should be a ranking factor. But to make a stronger case for my argument, I want to look at the bigger picture and understand the position of those who do count words, hoping it would help them rank better.
In this article, We will examine:
- Some of the most popular pieces of content that analyze word count as a ranking factor,
- Statements from Googlers on the topic of word count,
- Mentions of word count in Google’s patents,
- Arguments for why word count might be a ranking factor, and most importantly,
- Whether it even makes sense for a search engine to make word count a ranking factor.
Word count research
There is a lot of research available on word count affecting Google rankings.
An example is a study by Backlinko that analyzed the word count of top 10 ranking pages for over 11 million Google search results.
Their findings showed that the average number of words on pages in the first ten search results is 1,447. The study doesn’t mention the average word count for the lower-ranking content pieces, but it’s safe to say 1,447 is a relatively high number.
Of course, it doesn’t mean that a higher word count automatically improves your chances of ranking top 10.
Backlinko’s previous research showed that longer content generates more backlinks. According to Backlinko, “content longer than 3,000 words gets an average of 77.2% more referring domain links than content shorter than 1,000 words.”
However, Ahrefs noticed a negative correlation between content length over 1,000 words and links, which means that the number of backlinks started decreasing in pieces of content with a word count over 1,000.
Whatever the case may be here, you can see that content length may correlate with the number of links which are undeniably a Google ranking factor.
So maybe it’s the links that make the long-form content rank well? It’s impossible to tell, especially since there are thousands of other factors at play.
HubSpot claims that “For SEO, the ideal blog post length should be 2,100-2,400 words.” This came from their study of the word count of their 50 most-read articles.
First, you can notice that their recommended word count is different from the previous studies. Second, they also mentioned another significant factor. They said that the word count of the articles ranged from 333 to 5,581 words, with 16 out of 50 articles being below 1,500 words.
The average word count with a significant standard deviation might give you unreliable data. For example, if one article has 400 words and the other has 7,000 words, the average would be 3,700. However, this number is not enough to tell you the best article length, and if you don’t see the whole picture, you will think that perhaps a 400-word article is too short.
Firstly, you can notice that HubSpot’s recommended word count is different from the one recommended by Backlinko.
Secondly, HubSpot mentioned an important factor – standard deviation. A high standard deviation means that there is a lot of variety in the data. Their most-read articles ranged from 333 to 5,581 words, with 16 out of 50 articles being below 1,500 words. It shows a lot of variety in length that you can’t notice by looking only at the average.
The average word count might give you unreliable results when you’re dealing with a high standard deviation in the data.
For example, if you have two most-read articles, one of them has 400 words, and the other has 7,000, the average would be 3,700. However, you can see that both of the word counts are spread far away from your average, so the standard deviation is high. In this specific situation, the average word count won’t tell you the best article length. After looking at only the average word count, you might assume that perhaps a 400-word article is too short to rank high.
Optimal word count according to content optimisation tools
Content optimisation tools like Yoast or SurferSEO analyze the word count of your articles to give you the final score.
The tools use different methods to define the number of words needed for an article. Usually, they determine the content length based on:
- type of content (e.g., general blog post, taxonomy pages), and
- competitor analysis.
The first method might not be reasonable if you consider that content length differs depending on the topic. The general type of content won’t give you any information about the subject or that author’s intentions. Therefore, setting up a minimal number of words based only on the type of content might not be helpful in any way.
The second method – competitor analysis – also seems unjustified. First, you should create unique content with your perspective, so adjusting your word count to your competitors’ content length might prevent you from being original. Secondly, basing the suggested word count on the average for already ranking content pieces presupposes that it’s the word count that made them rank well.
Google’s documentation on word count
Going through Google’s guidelines on quality, you won’t find anything specific about word count.
It’s worth mentioning that one of the first things you will find while searching through Google’s documentation is the fact that pages should be created for users, not search engines. If you focus on the user, there’s no point in thinking about how long your content should be – this should be a natural process based on the user intent you’re trying to address. If you’re making your content longer to please the search engines, not the users, you’re doing it wrong.
Another thing is confusing shorter content with thin content.
According to Google’s guidelines, thin content includes:
- Content generated automatically,
- Content copied (scraped) from other sites,
- Doorway pages, and
- Affiliate programs with no added value for the users.
As you can see, many factors determine thin content, and none of them relates to its length.
Additionally, in the guidelines, you can find this sentence:
“However, some site owners attempt to improve their pages’ ranking and attract visitors by creating pages with many words but little or no authentic content. Google will take action against domains that try to rank more highly by just showing scraped or other cookie-cutter pages that don’t add substantial value to users.”
So Google is aware that some people unnecessarily lengthen content without adding actual value because they think long content will rank better. Scraping content from other sites might be an extreme example, but it shows that Google doesn’t want people to make content longer just for the sake of having more words.
Besides looking at the Google Search Central documentation, I also went through Search Quality Guidelines. It’s a document given to Google’s Search Quality Raters – people designated to rate websites.
In the chapter about Page Quality Rating, we can find that one of the factors determining the quality of a page is its “Main Content Quality and Amount.”
“The amount of content necessary for the page to be satisfying depends on the topic and purpose of the page. A High-quality page on a broad topic with a lot of available information will have more content than a High-quality page on a narrower topic.“
This clearly states that even though the page has less content than other pages, it’s well written and considered high quality. In addition, Google’s Search Quality Guidelines emphasise that the amount of content depends on the topic, and serving less information doesn’t affect the quality.
Word count in Google’s patent
As a side note, an interesting metric related to word count can be found in one of Google’s patents.
In Systems and methods for improving the ranking of news articles, word count is mentioned in the context of the average length of a group of articles on a website. It’s one of 13 metrics that the patent suggests Google could consider while ranking news articles.
It’s interesting that Google may take the average length of all the news articles and not just the word count of an article. But it’s important to remember that it’s only one of the options, and we don’t know if and how Google uses them.
Arguments for word count being a ranking factor
Let’s steelman the argument that word count is a Google ranking factor.
In many verticals, you do need content that’s comprehensive to rank well.
Let’s say you run a small business and you have a website with a blog. Longer content that talks about your services thoroughly is very likely to rank better than short articles that don’t go into the details.
Moreover, if you’re a content marketer running campaigns for multiple clients every month, you’ll likely have greater success creating long-form content that blows your clients’ competitors out of the water with its comprehensiveness.
So there are definitely people that have a personal bias toward long content when it comes to ranking.
Now, how about some more objective arguments? These would have to consider Google’s bottom line – making users happy by serving fresh, relevant search results.
You have to acknowledge that for some verticals, making word count a ranking factor makes zero sense.
Take Wikipedia, for example. For so many topics, it’s an excellent source of peer-reviewed, extensive information. If you want to look up a definition, Wikipedia usually contains the “right” amount of content – if it were shorter, some aspects would be overlooked, and if it were longer, the information wouldn’t be as concise. Other sites might focus on different aspects of the defined entity and thus have less or more content. Still, the sheer amount of links and authority Wikipedia has makes it a good choice for the #1 search result for millions of queries.
On the other hand, Google has many ranking algorithms that only apply to specific types of queries or verticals. One example is Query Deserves Freshness (QDF), which is an algorithm that favours fresh content for some queries.
Could there be a mechanism for recognizing queries that call for using word count for ranking to surface content of a specific length? Probably. But even if Google were excellent at understanding when users need short or long content, using word count for ranking would come with substantial problems.
A search engine’s perspective on word count
Google states that its mission and goal are “to provide you the most useful and relevant information.”
Google wants to terminate the search in the most effective way, providing the best answer to the user’s intent. By user intent, we can understand the primary purpose the user has while searching a query.
You need to consider what can be helpful for Google to terminate the search. Can a specific word count help you provide the answer with your audience seeks?
Some users are looking for concise answers, and their queries can be answered in one sentence – longer content won’t provide more useful or relevant information. Others might look for comprehensive guides and won’t be satisfied with a short answer. If Google used word count as a ranking factor, it wouldn’t provide optimal search results for all the users.
Since word count doesn’t determine the quality of the article, its length doesn’t seem to be helpful for Google in any way in its goal to terminate the search.
Can a specific word count help you rank higher?
Word count is not a ranking factor, and it won’t help you rank higher.
Speculating about the possible benefits of a specific article length has no purpose. We need to keep in mind that we should first and foremost write for the users. The word count should be based only on the topic you’re covering and the user intent you want to answer.
Additionally, we need to pay more attention to the available research. If the results are interpreted or cited incorrectly, they may be very misleading. We don’t currently have the tools to isolate word count from other possible ranking factors and test its influence on Google rankings. We need to take a critical look at the methods used in the research, and their logic and be careful about drawing any conclusion.