From the 10th page of Google to the first page of Google with simple content edits.
Understanding your readers’ needs for a particular keyword or topic is essential for SEO. Content that is not aligned with the reader’s needs, is too long, or too in-depth can hurt your rankings in Google. Poor SEO rankings can be attributed in some cases to content that is too long - longer content is NOT necessarily better for SEO.
It's somewhat counterintuitive, but there are good reasons why reducing the amount of content on a page can improve your SEO position in a Google search results page. And in this post, when I refer to SEO rankings, I’m referring to the traditional organic page rankings that Google provides as below, not all the other places you can rank in Google.
For example, shorter content can make your content easier to read and digest, which most users want. Additionally, by reducing the amount of content you have on a page, you can focus on making sure that what remains is high-quality and relevant. That’s good editing.
Of course, this doesn't mean that you should start randomly deleting large chunks of your website's content to improve its readability and boost your rankings. The key is to be strategic about it.
Stay with me here…
Case Study Example
Before editing, this page ranked for 62 different search phrases, BUT its average position was buried on pages 9 and 10 of Google, where nobody would ever see it. And it was a competitive topic - many of the search phrases averaged $13 - $15 per click. Higher cost-per-click in Google Ads typically means it's more competitive in SEO too.
But we felt this post should have been ranking well from the beginning - at least it should have appeared on the 2nd page at a minimum (or so we thought). The post was insightful, had valuable information, was in-depth, thorough, and included everything we thought the reader wanted to know about this topic. But it never ranked well. Why was that?
After simple keyword research in Google, we discovered that the trends in content length (i.e., word count), style, and tone among the top-10 ranking pages were very different from our page.
So, based on this qualitative research (along with our go-to SEO tool we use here - affiliate link), we took a chainsaw to the content and started editing. By the time we were done, we had reduced the page’s content length by a massive seventy percent (70%). Once we had done that, its rankings immediately skyrocketed on average position, along with its impressions and clicks for important search terms in Google.
Here's the results from Google Search Console on the average position pop. Keep in mind, the page ranks for dozens of terms so the average position varies greatly among them. However, for the primary keyword we wanted to rank for, the page crawled up from page 10 to page one in Google.
Additionally, Google rewarded the site with more impressions and clicks.
The Reason Why Reducing Content Improves Ranking
There’s one big reason why. Google’s algorithm - it always wants to bubble up the most helpful content it can to searchers; otherwise, people won’t return. Does your content satisfy that goal? Is it the most helpful? Content that is too long may take too long to read, be too complex, or just cover too much of a topic and frustrate the user.
How To Determine If Content Length Is A Ranking Problem
First, Who Is the Customer Persona for the Content?
The first step is asking yourself, who is the audience for this content? What are their behaviors and lifestyle, demographics, interests, and likes? Your content style should align with the persona’s lifestyle, needs, and knowledge level.
For example, if the persona is busy and, on the go, make the content easy to read and digest. If they are engineers, perhaps it needs to be more technical.
Next, Evaluate Top 10 Ranking Page Content
Now it’s time to do a bit of qualitative research.
First, assess the top 10 ranking pages. Assuming you don’t have access to professional SEO tools (the SEO tool we use at 39 Celsius is here - affiliate link), search in Google for some of the terms you think your post should rank for. While doing your research, pay attention to the following:
What are semantically related terms, you ask?
Semantically related terms are sub-topics that are similar to another topic. For example, a page about SEO would likely have many semantically associated terms on the page, which could include keyword research, internal linking, on-page SEO, and more.
So, when studying the top 10 ranking pages, make notes of the sub-topics each page covers. Are you covering the same sub-topics? Do you have those semantically related phrases on your page? Consider subtracting content from your page that is not covered by the others. Perhaps there are topics that would be better as stand-alone pages? If yes, consider removing them.
Timing - When to Reduce Page Content?
How soon should you wait before editing your content length for SEO?
If Google has your page indexed (you can check by Googling the page URL), and you have many of the other SEO components of ranking a page implemented (i.e., on-page SEO, internal linking), and your research uncovers that the other ranking pages are far shorter, then it’s likely time to consider editing your content for brevity. I have a good post here on how to update content for better SEO that you should read as well.
In our content example above, the content was way too long. So, we shaved approximately 3000 words off it, going from 4500 to 1500 words.
Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to this process of shortening content to rank better. As with many things in SEO, there are numerous shades of gray.
Ideal Content Length for SEO
There is no general guideline for the ideal content length. Ranking online is relative to the competitive environment for that phrase. So, if your competitors are writing 1000 words and are covering X, Y, and Z sub-topics on the page, you should be similar, not exact, but similar. And then, ask yourself: how can I improve my content? Can you elaborate more on a particular sub-topic, add additional images (tables, charts, infographics), improve page load times, embed a YouTube video to improve SEO?
Caveats to Shorter Content
When doing your research of the top-ranking pages, there are situations where the top pages just don't have enough content and you can swoop in and write a lengthier post that will skyrocket to the top. For example, for this page on my site related to SEO services in Temecula, most of the competing pages had extremely thin content (some only had 2 or 3 paragraphs of text - clearly not very informative). We wrote double or triple the amount of content and our page soared to the top, which prompted others to re-write and add more content to their pages.
In any event, remember SEO is a process. If you're unsure of how to proceed, you can test a strategy and measure the impact. Afterall, part of effective SEO is continuous improvement - make a change, measure the results, rinse and repeat.
So in conclusion, there are no hard and fast rules for content length. And there’s no recommended general word count for any post or page. Ranking is relative to your competition for a particular phrase. And you can learn a lot about how to perform better just by studying Google’s search results pages.
The top 10 ranking pages are a benchmark for you. Keep your ideal customer in mind when writing or editing your content, and ensure your content is comparable in length, tone, readability, and sub-topics with the top-ranking pages and you will be in the game. There is far more to SEO, such as, internal link building, on-page SEO, but the above process will ensure that at a minimum you're on-page content will be in the game.
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