When I began my freelance content creator career I had just come off a long stint in marketing. For 15 years I worked in an environment where the message mattered most and the more concisely you could present that message the better. For a long time, SEO didn’t exist, and neither did social media, so the focus was print. There was no algorithm to write for, and no length restrictions other than how big the print piece was.
As I left the marketing world, writing for the Web was becoming more of a common practice. Content was still holding onto its print practices, and many people wrote directly to their audience without taking SEO elements into consideration.
Today, it’s a different story. Just as newspaper and magazine pieces of old required strict word counts for publication, so too does online writing, to maximize optimization in search results. It’s not a new concept for me. I studied journalism in college, and wrote to a word count often. I even worked on my high school yearbook where we had very limited space. The challenge today is word counts are getting longer, and not everyone knows how to fill out a piece.
Concise vs lengthy
Looking back to most Web content from the last two years, you’ll see a distinct style — short paragraphs, a lot of bulleted lists, and content broken up by many subheads. Writers got good at conveying a theme in as few words as possible, with writing similar to a soundbite than an informative paragraph. Content averaged around 700 words. That was the magic number most clients wanted for content length. It’s a very manageable length if you’re writing to a very specific topic.
Today, the algorithm has changed and with it the preferred length of content. According to Hook Agency, the best blog length for SEO in 2019 is right around 1,700 words. Over twice as long as what people were asking for just a few short years ago. Today, Google’s algorithm wants more content, and blog posts over 1,000 words are doing better, on average, than those under this benchmark. This creates an entirely different type of piece. Now, instead of zeroing in on a very specific topic, you need to get broad. If you’re writing about how to create a budget, your piece may also need to include content about the average cost of everyday items or ways to shop frugally in order to get your piece long enough. Too many bulleted lists can mean you don’t have enough words since you’re trading in complete sentences for fragments. It’s a whole new ballgame and not everyone who thrived in the shorter format world can make the transition.
One of my current projects has illustrated this new shift in content length. Working for a website that regularly publishes content, I’m now going back and refreshing older, existing content. Informative pieces that ran on the short side of the content scale are getting a major facelift in length. When all is said and done, most of these pieces seem completely new. The original content usually only serves as a starting point for the longer piece, since it’s not enough material to even flush out half of the new piece. The general thrust of the information is the same, but there’s just a lot more content to the content. Expect to see opportunities like this pop up more often as more and more companies realize they need to extend the length of their content to keep it alive in search results.
This potential excites me. I am more comfortable when I have a longer word count to work within. I’m naturally verbose. Whether talking or writing, I can say it well, but it takes a while. I actually found myself having to heavily edit content in the past to cut it down, whereas now, I usually sit in the sweet spot for content optimization.
Word count ranges
This brings me to word count ranges and how to work with them. If you’re lucky, and you get a writing assignment with a word count associated with it, you’ll get a range. Otherwise, you end up with a specific word count you need to reach. I always feel more pressure with a single number to write toward. When working with a word count range, always shoot for a final piece that’s somewhere close to the middle. A lot of my content now has a range of 1,001-2,000 words. I try to get most of my pieces around 1,400 at a minimum.
To make this an easier process, I usually start with at research stage for a piece. I create topic headers for anything I can think of that’s related and relevant to the topic. I then collect information to write a section on each topic and prioritize them. If my length looks good once I get through all the essential topics to cover, I might leave some material off. If I need extra content to fill out the length, I have it at the ready. This strategy enables me to have a less stressful writing experience where I’m not bogged down by word count checks.
If you’re an overachiever, working with a word count of any kind, you might feel the compulsion to give them a little extra. While it definitely showcases your skills, you’re giving them words for free. You deal in words, they’re your currency. Don’t give any away for free. I can count on one hand the times I’ve exceeded word counts. It usually happens during the editing process, where I’ve crafted a complete piece and the client wants a little more, so we edge above the word count. It’s okay if it happens once in a while, but I wouldn’t make it a habit to give anything away for free.
The future of online content
As a writer, it gives me great pleasure that it’s still accurate to say, “Content is king!” Even as we shift to a digital world where shorter attention spans initially influenced more concise content, Google’s algorithm has spoken. It’s time for all of us writers to go back to our roots and retool the art of the long form piece for the Web.