Why Good SEO Can Lead to Bad Writing
Quick note: I'm not trying to get this article ranked. This one's just for you.
The rules of sitewide SEO are like highschool romances: confusing, fickle, and relentlessly annoying for those trapped in them. As soon as you feel safe, Google rolls out an update leaving you alone and broken-hearted.
Fortunately, my job as a content writer is more simple: I need to create articles that are fun for my audience but also make Google happy. The audience part is straightforward. Be engaging, write clearly, and make sure your readers are learning the thing you promised to teach them. Google, on the other hand, is more technical. You need to know how to craft your heading titles, meta descriptions, alt-text for images, etc. Check out any beginner guide to SEO on Moz, AhRefs, of SEMrush and you can have those nailed down in a couple of weeks.
But there’s always been one rule in SEO that I’m torn on: the fact that long form content tends to rank higher. Today, I’m going to look at why that sucks for modern writers. Is bigger really better for Google (or is it just the notion of your ocean)?
If you’ve studied content marketing for even a day, you’ve probably run into this question: “How long should my article be to get that coveted #1 slot?”
Unfortunately, there’s no clear answer to this. Even though Google’s John Muller clarified that “word count is not a ranking factor,” even he would be hard-pressed to deny the data. SEOcopywriting.com recently addressed this issue and cited the following support for why it’s best to write longer content:
- HubSpot analyzed their own articles in 2017 and found that 25000 words typically ranked highest
- BuzzSumo and Backlinko found that longer posts got more backlinks (which makes a lot of sense and probably didn’t need a full study)
- Viola Eva in a Search Engine Journal Article (2019) argued that longer content ranks better
- Ahrefs says that long form content tends to rank higher on Google (no link was provided to this study, however, so take it with a grain of salt)
The same SEOcopywriting article (which is a killer read, by the way) says that sometimes shorter copy can be better for obtaining the ‘Zero Position’ in Google and that at the end of the day, you should focus solely on your readers.
In other words, as they say, “Write as much as you need to—and not one word more.” This is great advice. The only problem is that on a practical level, it doesn’t work that way. Longer form content does in fact harvest more backlinks, produces more conversions, and gives you the chance to put in more secondary terms related to your target keyword. The bottom line is that long form content gives authors more opportunity to impress Google who is, typically, less forgiving than readers. And that’s a damn shame. Especially for writers.
Good writing involves going back through your work and chopping out unnecessary words; it means taking 8 pages and magically turning them into 3; it means ruthlessly getting rid of “fluff” and bulk as if they were a spreading cancer to your body of work. But when you assume that you need at least 1000 words to rank on Google, you have no incentive to make those cuts.
In the end, this aspect of SEO can lead to some really weak writing.
Here’s a real-life example of good SEO gone bad
We’ll be looking at an article written by the SEO guru Neil Patel. Now, to be fair, I don’t dislike Neil nearly as much as most other SEOers. But I get their frustration. He can be very cheesy (though, to his credit, he’s cheesy all the way to the bank). When I type, “Does longer content rank better in 2019” into Google’s search bar, Neil Patel is unsurprisingly the first to arrive. Let’s look at the first 187 words of his article:
“If you read this entire article, it will take you 10 minutes and 13 seconds.
But guess what. It took me 21 times that long to write it.
When you stop and think about it, really good long form content takes a lot of time to produce.
There aren’t many people who can plop in their chair, bust out a 2,000-word article in an hour, and get on with their day.
For most of us, it takes a solid two or three hours to create a piece of good content that hits the 2,000-word mark.
So let me ask you a question. Is it worth it?
I’m being totally serious here because you might just be wasting your time. Have you thought about that?
Could it be that your 2,000-word articles aren’t even worth the time and effort that you put into them?
That’s kind of a depressing thought, I know. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to answer the question head on. No pulling back. No hesitation.
Is longer really better? Is it worth it? Are you wasting your time?
Then, I’m going to give you a surefire formula for not wasting your time when you write articles — a powerful method that will make your articles rank on top.”
Holy. F#$%ing. Shit. That’s some bad writing. The tone is warm and conversational, sure, but he could have pruned the entire introduction down to this:
Writing long form content takes several hours for most of us. But after all that hard work, you may be left wondering, “Is it even worth it?” That’s the question I’ll be tackling today before providing you with a powerful formula for creating long form content that consistently ranks on top.
I took the 187-word introduction and turned it into a crisp 51 words. Go reread it. After cutting 73% of the text, I made the exact same point. Nothing was lost. Nothing.
And that’s my problem with focusing on word count as a ranking factor. It disincentivizes good writing habits and leads to long-winded, poorly constructed sentences. Allowing your writing to get as sloppy as the example above is simply a slap in the face to your readers and their time. So what is a writer to do who wants to rank?
If you are a content writer working toward getting ranked on Google, remember the following:
1) Yes, longer articles probably have a better chance of building links and ranking higher. There doesn’t seem to be a specific word count, but if you’re writing an article and it’s less than 1500 words, you’re probably leaving some stuff on the table. You’re either not the expert you thought you were or you need to dig deeper. 2) Shooting for longer content is not an excuse to produce a stack of bloated sentences. You still owe it to your readers to prune, hack, and cut all the fluff. Your readers’ time is just as valuable as yours, so don’t waste it with rambling.
Both of the above statements are true, and they should both be adhered to strictly. If you are going to commit to producing long form content, great! But you still owe it to your readers to write it well. If you’re unsure how to do so, here’s the strategy I use in my professional writing: Rather than thinking you need a minimum of 1500 words for the whole piece, you can break your topic down into 3-5 sections and give yourself a maximum word count of 300-500 words for each.
When you shift your mentality from “I need to have X amount of words…” to “I can only have X amount of words…” your writing will get a lot cleaner. This strategy needs to be adapted according to your topic, but it is suitable for most types of content.
**(Oh, and all of those words should, obviously, be working together to do at least one of three things for your reader: entertain, teach, or engage).**
Final words Remember, good writing is short. Hence the old joke by writer Blaise Pascal, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
So when you sit down to write your next piece of long form content, your overall word count should come second to ensuring that every word actually counts (oops…apparently some of Neil’s cheesy-ness rubbed off on me).