Word Count, Shmerd Count: A No-Bull Approach to Google’s “In-Depth” Articles
by Joel K

If you’ve read my “Who I Am” page or interact with me on Twitter at all, you’ll know that I spent over four years leading an SEO team before making the jump to copywriting. As such, I keep pretty tuned in to developments with the world’s biggest search engine and how that impacts my clients.

In August, Google rolled out a section of search results called “In-Depth Articles” in an attempt to serve up really detailed, interesting pieces on a particular subject. They show up in a pretty little box all their own, and because they show up for some really generic, broad keywords (like jobs, female anatomy, smartphone), some think it’s a pretty attractive placement.

And so began the rumours.

Elite Strategies wrote up an excellent post detailing how the majority of the results in the “In-Depth” articles section were major syndications. But then, along came Google’s  Pandu Nayakw, who wrote:

“I’m happy to see people continue to invest in thoughtful in-depth content that will remain relevant for months or even years after publication. This is exactly what you’ll find in the new feature. In addition to well-known publishers, you’ll also find some great articles from lesser-known publications and blogs.”

Hope was born. The average Joe could find themselves singin’ showtunes on the grand Google stage. Of course, the next question businesses started asking was: “How do we get in there?”

2,000: The Publisher’s New Lucky Number?

Elite Strategies also noted that the pieces featured contained “2,000 – 5,000 words” – an innocent enough observation that the general public swarmed on. Hubspot reported this stat, saying:

” To show up in these results, your content should reportedly be about 2000-5000 words — not all of it, but about 10% of your content should”

…and the Hubspot-faithful went absolutely bananas-bonkers WILD with it.

(Sidenote: Where on earth did that “about 10%” metric come from? And why “should” your content be that long, other than to hit a quota? Mysteries abound. I suggest ignoring it.)

Suddenly, most of the leads I’m getting are asking for minimum 2,000 word posts. And while I can understand the motivation, I want to ask y’all to pump the breaks for a second.

There’s more to this story. Let’s step backwards and look at what Google themselves have said about this new feature, and then put on our “Strategic Thinking” hats.

Google’s Guidelines for In-Depth Articles

Here are all of the factors Google told publishers to optimize for the “In Depth Articles” section. We can assume this is the tip of the iceberg since the search giant rarely ever gives away the farm:

1. Schema.org Markup

Big G would love it if you’d be so kind as to mark up your articles with the schema.org microformats for articles, including:

  • Headline
  • alternativeHeadline
  • image (if it’s crawlable and indexable)
  • description
  • datePublished
  • articleBody

2. Authorship

If you don’t know what Authorship markup is or how it can help you, there’s an awesome guide for that here.  And while it’s apparently not influencing search engine rankings right now (as per Matt Cutts, the voice-box of the Google Empire), it comes with some perks (like showing your image next to your search results, which can lead to higher click-throughs)

3. Your Logo

To tell Google what logo to use, you’ll need a G+ profile linked back to your website. You’ll then have to use organization markup on your onsite logo.

4. Don’t Put it Behind a Paywall

Google needs to be able to crawl and serve your content. Obviously, if you’ve gone paywall on ’em or restricted access, they can’t put your delicious content in front of hungry audiences.

5. Pagination & Canonicalization

Pagi-what? In plain English, pagination means how large articles are broken out and organize on your website. If your piece spans multiple pages, you’ll want to use pagination markup (rel=next and rel=prev) to help Google’s algorithm understand what pieces of content are related.

Canonicalization, apart from being an ugly mouthful, means telling Google the original source of a page. Again, you’ll want to mark up pages properly with “rel=canonical”. If that’s clear as mud, talk to your web developer.

Spoilers, Engines and Out-of-the-Blue Analogies

We can see that Google’s got schema and authorship on the brain and we also know that pieces that show up in “In-Depth Articles” tend to be very long and come from trusted websites (usually major syndications and big brands).

The logical conclusion is that if we write 2,000+ word pieces and mark them up properly, Google will shower placement upon us like the guests of an Oprah giveaway – right?

Wrong.

Interestingly, early studies show that very few of the results showing up in the “In-Depth Articles” section actually meet all of these criteria. What gives? And is 2,000 words a number really worth paying attention to?

Consider the following:

If I drive a 1998 Honda Civic and add a spoiler on to the back, will my car go faster? Well, maybe a little – but it’s not nearly the same as if I changed out the engine or upgraded the car.

If I write 2,000 words for your business, will that help you rank in the “In-Depth Articles” section? Well, maybe it’ll satisfy one “requirement” – but that’s ultimately minor to the big picture. Length is important (we need to be in-depth, after all), but it’s more a baseline requirement than a differentiating factor.

Put simply: It doesn’t guarantee anything.  Unless you do a lot of other things right, it won’t matter how long the piece is.

What Else is There?

Why does Google trust and display major syndications like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times? What is it about websites like TechCrunch or Vanity Fair?

  1. They have trusted, real-world reputations as content producers and enormous bases of online readers.
  2. They publish a whole lot. Usually, content is their entire business.
  3. They’re extremely well linked to, referenced and shared, with metrics that annihilate most corporate blogs.
  4. The content pieces tend to be more “Evergreen”, staying relevant for months or years after being written.

What we often forget is that Google is not a human who can read a piece of writing and understand whether or not the author is talented or if the piece was the most informative. It needs the help of other signals to determine the quality of a piece’s writing and information.

If we start pulling apart how humans recognize trustworthy publishers, we can understand how Google might look to identify trusted, share-worthy content.

You can’t push publish and pray a word count saves you. You have to send the same signals.

Work Behind the Word Count

To send those signals you need to do a heck of a lot more than write long blog posts.

  1. Do you have an amplification plan for getting your content out in front of the people who will read it, share it and link to it?
    This is one of the most common things the people who approach me to write for them are missing.
  2. Have you spent time building up a loyal community of readers? When you push publish, does anyone care?
  3. Does Google trust your website? Are you being linked to from other trusted, relevant websites in your niche? Creating content is not the only ethical way of building links or establishing trust.
  4. Do you have a trustworthy legacy of publishing industry-leading, original pieces?
Those are some big questions, none of which get solved by hitting a word count.
And frankly, before you go worrying about ranking in one more box cluttering up Google’s results pages, you should really ask:
Why are we writing in the first place?

Forests, Trees and Motivations

Let’s put the focus back where it belongs: on the people consuming your content. Your biggest reason for publishing content shouldn’t be to rank better. One of the most prevalent false beliefs out there is that rankings guarantee conversions. Don’t lose sight of the big picture.

The goal of content is to reach an audience and give them what they’re looking for; to captivate a market, communicate your message and move that customer further down in the conversion funnel.

Content should be aligned to where the buyer is in the buying cycle; it should come with a goal attached and a means of measuring whether or not that goal was accomplished, whether the goal was awareness or a direct sale.

Format and style should be dictated by the goal of the piece, not the other way around. Long content may not be the right solution for what you’re trying to accomplish. And if you’re fluffing up concepts to satisfy the cogs of an algorithmic machine, it may be time to re-evaluate your strategy.

Word count doesn’t matter if the content does what it’s supposed to.

Stop counting words, and start counting conversions.

 

 

3 Comments
  1. Patrick says:

    Great post Joel – and thanks for the reference (glad I wasn’t one of the bad rumors) 🙂

    I just can’t WAIT to see some sort of “in depth article” service that is basically someone who writes a 2000 word article. Loved your Honda Civic analogy.

    • Joel says:

      Cheers, Patrick! Thanks for stopping by. You guys were one of the first on the scene for that stuff, so it made for a great reference.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Ha. I love your headline for this one.

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