Is it finally time to remove recommended word count from SEO briefs? This writer says unequivocally YES.

I’ve considered myself a writer for as long as I can remember. It was the pre-teen past-time, the dream career throughout high school, the major of my university degree, and the day job by the time I reached my mid-twenties. One thing I know how to do, and do well, is tell a story.

But then I decided to get mixed up in this thing called SEO, and for a good while, telling a story became secondary to writing “for the spider”.

Of course, being a good writer who still wanted to be proud of the work I produced, I would do everything I could to still write something valuable, and when I started managing a team of copywriters I always encouraged them to do the same.

I quickly found the best way to do that was to learn as much as possible about SEO. That way I could properly scrutinise an SEO content brief and ensure the recommendations made sense, from Google’s perspective, from a storytelling perspective, and ultimately from our clients’ and their customers’ perspectives.

And now I’m here to shift your perspective on word count in SEO.

Or maybe you already agree and you just want to find a good way to argue your case. Either way, you’re reading the right blog.

So what’s the deal with word count recommendations in SEO briefs?

SEO strategies have changed a lot over the years. I entered the industry post-Panda and Penguin, so thankfully I didn’t have to suffer through the years of keyword stuffing, but I’ve worked in agencies where tracking keyword density was the norm – long after it should’ve been scrapped – and where the skyscraper technique for copywriting was employed as standard.

Both methods go against every good writer's natural instincts, as well as what we know to be true about Google’s search algorithm.

Focusing exclusively on word count now, Google’s John Mueller has confirmed that it is not a ranking factor. Rather than looking at word count, Google looks for relevant, original and high-quality content.

So if that’s the case, why are copywriters still receiving briefs that ask for 1000 words on topics where there’s barely 300 words to write about? Why does Screaming Frog identify “thin content” and Yoast provide word count recommendations?

There are a few reasons.

It can help you rank for more keywords.

The more words you write, the more likely it is that you’re covering topics that will appear for long-tail keywords and other keyword variations. The question that nobody asks though, is are these keywords actually worthwhile?

It feels like less effort than off-page and technical.

A small business may not be able to afford to make technical changes to improve their website. A larger organisation may have a long approval process where stakeholders don’t understand the value of SEO. Seems easier to just create content, right? And the more words… see above point.

It can make it easier for the writer.

Seems backwards, I know, but hear me out. It’s true that writing 1000 words is more time-consuming, but for some writers it’s often easier than writing 300 words. That’s because writing clearly and concisely is a skill, one that even the best writers struggle with. Let’s be real, there’s a lot of fluff I could remove from this blog and the message would still be the same. The more words you write, the easier it is to get your point across. As for whether anyone will read it…

Long content ≠ quality content

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for long content. In fact, only a few months ago I received a brief for a blog with a recommended word count of 500 words – and I ended up writing twice as much. There was just so much to say!

And that’s the point I’m trying to make.

The word count should depend on:

  • The topic (and by extension, the keywords)
  • The industry
  • The format (is it a product page, a service page or a blog?)

I’m not against looking at what your competitors are doing for inspiration, but it shouldn’t be the sole factor for your word count.

So, how should copywriters be briefed on SEO content?

Ditch the word count recommendation. Trust that your writer will do what’s right for the topic.

Call me bias, but I truly believe writers are the bridge between worlds – they understand what the client wants to share, and what the user wants to find, and they do their best to meet those needs.

If your copywriters are in-house, it’s worthwhile getting them involved in the SEO process. Why keep them siloed if they’re meant to share the same end goal? If you’re briefing an external writer, it can be a little harder to ditch the word count, as payment is often a set rate per word. It might be worth looking at a range to allocate budget, or have a more in-depth briefing process to ensure everyone is on the same page.

In any case, the more information the writer has, the better the content will be, and the more likely it will be to rank on Google – regardless of word count.