How many words do I need to write to rank?

In this episode of Make SEO Simple Again, we answer the question ‘Does word count affect SEO?’

Watch the video below and stick around to the very end as I’ll analyze three keywords and their ranking pages to provide you with a data-driven answer to the question.

Content creating, or writing keyword optiimzed content for blog posts or pages is something you will find yourself doing quite a bit.

After all, search engines rely on having words on a page to provide it with context as to what the page is about, how it relates to the overall website, where it should place the page in its index of webpages, and ultimately, where the page should sit in the SERPs (aka, keyword ranking).

But how many words do you need to write in order to rank for your target keyword?

Does word count matter?

Tools such as SurferSEO seem to indicate so (see above).

Does long-form content perform better than short-form?

If so, why?

That’s what we’re going to explore today along with these topics:

  • Common mistakes when it comes to creating content
  • The role of content in SEO
  • Analyzing the SERPs to see if word count influences keyword ranking
  • What is keyword stuffing?
  • How to include keywords without falling trap to keyword stuffing

Let’s make SEO simple again.

Recommended reading: What is SEO?

Common content-creation mistakes

  • Repeating the primary keyword as many times as possible – classic keyword stuffing.
  • Writing too little – we call this ‘thin content’ in the industry. What this means is when you don’t have enough words to cover your topic adequately.
  • Writing too much – when you start going off on tangents and off-topic in hope of rank for more keywords.
  • Not answering the question – if you’re not answering the question your audience has, your content heps no one.
  • Not solving the actual problem – if you’re not solving the problem, your content serves nobody.
  • Blogging for the sake of blogging – creating new pages without a purpose.
  • Over-optimisation – when every heading contains the same keyword.

Where ‘content’ fits in with SEO

Google is one of the world’s biggest advertising platforms on top of being the most popular search engines.

Have you ever wondered how Google decides to show you certain websites over others?

Search engines try to match the best result for its users. For example, when someone in Australia searches for ‘best mattress australia’, the first page of the results page should be the best fit. That is, mattresses that are available to buy in Australia.

To do this, words on a page help search engines understand what the page is about.

Therefore, having relevant text and phrases is important to SEO. However, this does not mean you should repeat the same keywords over and over.

Case study A: why cosier.co ranks #1 (does its 5,000 word count play a role?)

Let’s take a look at our first case study Cosier.

For this example, we’re going to look at the keyword ‘best mattress australia’ and in this instance, the number one organic position is held by cosier.co.

Using a SEO tool called SurferSEO, the following graph is displayed for the keyword.

There appears to be a correlation between word count and SERP position according to this graph

As you can see, the graph appears to suggest that pages that rank on page 1 for the query have more words than those found on page 2-5 and it would be every easy to conclude that content length influences SERP visibility.

But let’s dig a little deeper to see why this particular Cosier.co page is performing so well and to do so we are going to look for the following things:

  • Keywords in the page title and meta description
  • Keywords in the URL slug
  • Keywords in H1-H6 tags

In addition to this, we’re going to pull the exact page contents into Clearscope.io and SurferSEO to evaluate their content grade.

And finally, we’ll look at page-level and domain-level backlinks to get a complete picture of the degree of optimisation has been done to this page.

This page shows evidence of on-page SEO

We found the exact keyword or partial matches of the keyword (‘best mattress australia’) in the page title, meta description and in the URL slug. We also found secondary keywords in the meta description which help add relevance to the topic of mattresses.

Someone has definitely done some onpage SEO to this page!

And when we pulled the page contents into a content-writing tool called Clearscope, we found that it scored very well compared to its competitors (see below).

Clearscope.io gives the page a high content grade

Cosier.co had used the majority of the recommended words/phrases and this is how it scored an A- content grade score.

The above screenshot also shows that it has well exceeded the recommended word count by 1,000 words and when compared to the pages that are in positions 2-4, we can see that Cosier has the highest content grade.

Compared to other pages, the content grade for Cosier.co is far superior but will scoring high in Clearscope guarantee Google ranking?

But what’s interesting to note in the above screenshot is that canstarblue.com.au has a content grade of B+ yet is in 5th position.

This suggests that content grade alone is not enough to make you rank higher in the SERPs.

SurferSEO’s True Density report reveals a very well optimized page

Next, we imported the same page into SurferSEO and audited it against the pages on the first page of the SERPs (see above).

Similar to Clearscope, SurferSEO confirmed that the Coiser.co page was not missing any major words or phrases that other ranking pages had.

Therefore, we can conclude that the page has content that covers the topic of ‘best mattress australia’ fairly well.

But as we saw from the canstarblue.com.au example that including the majority of words and phrases in your body content does not guarantee maximum visibility in the SERPs so we looked at the backlink profile of the page.

Essentially, we are trying to identify reasons why the page is ranking. So far, we know its onpage content is on point and if there is proof of link building, we can safely say that the page performs well due to these factors instead of content length.

Here’s what we found using Ahrefs (see below):

The page itself had only one backlink pointing to it.

Weird.

I then looked at how many backlinks the entire website has and this is the 1.26K number highlighted in the red rectangle above.

What this means is that the Cosier website has 99 unique websites linking to it through 1,200+ links.

Ahrefs also found that the homepage URL has 65 referring domains and 527 backlinks.

So what does this mean?

Why is a page that has only 1 backlink ranking so well?

In order to answer this, we need to inspect the website’s internal links to gain a clear picture and this is what we found (see below).

We crawled the entire website using Screaming Frog and then looked for all the pages on Cosier.co that linked to the mattress review page

While there were some instances of generic anchor text, we found a number of descriptive anchor text that incorporated the keyword. For example, the homepage and /review/ subfolder both link to the target page using the words “The Best Mattresses for..”

And that’s when the puzzle final comes together.

That is, although the page itself does not have links pointing to it, the homepage does. And Cosier.co passes link equity from these links from its homepage and other pages through to the mattress review page.

So to sum things up, we found evidence that the page has been optimized. Given our findings, we can conclude that the Cosier.co page is ranking for these reasons rather than due to its 5,000 word count.

Case study B: why theindigoproject.com.au ranks #3

In our second demonstration, we are going to examine the keyword ‘psychologist sydney’ to determine whether word count has anything to do with why pages rank well in the SERPs.

A quick look at the word count of page 1 results tells an interesting story (see below).

PS – we excluded the #1 result as it was a directory-style page from the Australian Psychological Society.

From the above graph, we can see that content length varies between the 8 pages and that the page in #5 position has the most amount of onpage words while the #3 position, held by theindigoproject.com.au, has a word count of around 800.

Again, we went through the process of looking for reasons why the homepage of theindigoproject.com.au was performing so well in the SERPs.

Was it due to content length or another reasons? Or possibly, a mixture of variables?

Here’s what we found.

We found evidence of keyword optimization in the page title and meta description
  • The page title and meta description definitely had been optimised for the keyword ‘psychologist sydney’.
  • They even went one step further and added relevant keywords to improve the relevance of what the page is about. Specifically, I’m referring to the words ‘therapist’, ‘counsellor’, ‘anxiety’, ‘stress’, ‘depression’ and the local modifier ‘Surry Hills’.
  • Since the page that is ranking was the homepage, there was understandably no URL optimization.
  • However, the page did not have a H1 tag and the H2-H3 tags found on the page were not optimized for the keyword.
  • When we put the homepage body text into Clearscope, we got a content grade of C- (see below).
Why is a page with a content grade of C- in position #2 for a high competitive keyword?
  • Clearscope also reported that the word count on the page was a little bit under the recommended range (see above).
Auditing the page in SurferSEO reveals many missing phrases from the content
  • Similarly, when we audited the same page in SurferSEO SERP Analyzer, many recommended phrases were missing from the content.
  • Therefore, we have gathered 2 data points from separate tools that seem to indicate that the coverage of relevant keywords on theindigoproject.com.au page is poorer than other results on page one of the SERPs.
Ahrefs shows that theindigoproject.com.au homepage has 113 unique websites linking to it
  • We found lots of high authority links from recognizable media outlets such as new.yahoo.com, nypost.com, smh.com.au, timeout.com, news.com.au, and businessinsider.com.au pointed at the homepage URL.
SurferSEO shows that theindigoproject.com.au has a lower than average word count on its page

So after our analysis, does the lower word count of theindigoproject.com and lower content grade seem to stop it from performing well in the SERPs?

Not really.

In fact, the links it has achieved through digital PR has definitely contributed to why it ranks in 3rd position without having optimised onpage SEO.

Case study C: why michaelhill.com.au ranks #1

In our final demonstration, we analyzed the SERPs for the keyword ‘engagement rings’.

Ranking in the first position is michaelhill.com.au, an Australian retailer with many locations across the country and is a well-known jeweller.

Here’s what we found (see below):

  • Page title, meta description, H1 and URL slug had evidence of keyword optimization.
  • C+ content grade from Clearscope and needed at least 500 additional words to hit the average word count.
  • Minimal page-level backlinks.
  • Has 1.5K referring domains.

While the content wasn’t amazing, the combination of internal links that pointed to this page and the CTR the page receives due to its brand recognition are probably reasons why it performs well.

Again, length of content had nothing to do with why michaelhill.com.au performs so well in the SERPs.

Word count is not a ranking factor or signal

From our analysis, it became evident that none of our findings supported the hypothesis that word count or content length had anything to do with whether or not a page performed well in Google search.

Instead, we found that links to the page or to the root domain can help, especially when the homepage and other pages link to the page using descriptive anchor text.

We found most ranking pages had optimized their page title, meta descriptions and URL slug with their primary keyword.

What this means for you is that you should be doing the same.

If word count doesn’t matter, how many times can I repeat a keyword in my content?

I suppose this is where I’m breaking off into a small tangent because one of the most common reasons why a page is stuck on page 2-3 is because the content has been over-optimized.

Here’s the thing – there is no golden ratio to how many times you can repeat a keyword before Google sees it as being over-optimized, And if there was such a thing such as keyword density, I doubt they would ever disclose it publicly.

So what does this mean for you?

When it comes to writing for humans and robots, the only rule is to write naturally.

That is, don’t force weird combinations of words that you wouldn’t say or write normally. Instead, let the words flow as they should.

For example, take the keyword ‘electrician michigan’. According to SEMrush, it has a monthly search volume of 110 (see below).

Keyword research tools can encourage keyword stuffing when used incorrectly

But when would you ever write these 2 words together?

Probably never.

instead, ‘electrician in Michigan’ or ‘electrician serving the Michigan area’ makes more sense.

But if you were writing content based on your keyword research, you could easily fall into the trap of keyword stuffing.

What is keyword stuffing?

Keyword stuffing is when you force words or phrases into your writing. Follow this link to see Google’s official interpretation.

Google’s definition of keyword stuffing as per its documentation

How to avoid keyword stuffing

There’s nothing wrong with incorporating relevant keywords into your writing. However, when you find yourself deliberately inserting words into your cop, you. may find yourself in trouble.

The trick is to cover a topic so that the reader is satisfied and the only way to achieve this is by being as in-depth as required.

Certain topics require a lot of explanations and examples while some topics can be adequately covered in a few paragraphs.

So when you’re writing content for your website, or updating a blog post, repeat keywords as many times as is required and make sure you write it in a way that makes sense to humans.

Going back to our earlier example of the keyword ‘electrician michigan’, here’s a classic case of keyword stuffing:

“I am an electrician Michigan with over 17 years professional experience. Are you looking for an electrician near me? I’m your guy. For the best electrician Michigan, call me for a free electrician Michigan quote.”

Here is a better way to rank for the same keyword:

“I am a registered electrician who has served the Michigan area for over 17 years. From Detroit, Grand Rapids to the smallest of towns, Omer, no electrical job is too small. For emergency lighting needs, cabling, home, rewiring and connection of new electrical appliances, give me a call for a free quote.”

See how the second version reads normal and the first one is just terrible , robotic and non-grammatical?

Summary

  • Use as many words or as little words as you need to cover your main topic.
  • However, if your website is relatively new and unknown to the public, you may have a better chance of pooling multiple subtopics into a single long-form piece of content.
  • This isn’t because more words = better performance.
  • More subtopics will strengthen the context and relevance to your main topic. This allows search engines to better understand where your content falls within its index and in the SERPs.
  • On top of this, optimise page titles, URL slugs, and heading tags, build credible links to your website and make sure you internally link.

Recommended reading: How to setup Google Search Console on your website

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