As Google moves to become a "solutions engine" that answers questions rather than a "search engine" designed to find information, PM Digital VP Clay Cazier set out to analyze how Google's latest algorithms favor content that accurately answers queries.
In the white paper "How Google Answers Questions--Content Readability & Organic Rankings," Cazier analyzes organic search rankings in Google's U.S. index to see how readability scores from query results correlate to successful rankings. His group created twenty questions that ask "how to," and compiled Google AutoComplete's top ten suggested questions for each.
Researchers then queried Google.com for the top thirty organic rankings associated with those two hundred questions. For example, the top five auto-completions were "how to tie a tie," "how to take a screenshot on a Mac," "how to twerk," "how to boil eggs," and "how to make French toast."
Through a bit of math and analysis, Cazier explains in the white paper how researchers scored and compiled in a database about 6,000 URLs. The most interesting findings, however, analyze whether high word counts on a Web page correlate to organic ranking success.
Most search engine optimization experts explain that marketers should write enough content to make the point without regard to how many words appear on the page. "Should a page have 350 words or, say, 600, for the best chance of attaining a top 30, 20 or 10 organic ranking?" asks Cazier in the white paper.
The results in Google's top three organic positions have the highest per-page word count of the data sets. "Copy length does appear to correlate with top organic rankings for the types of questions under investigation," Cazier writes. "The analysis becomes more complex when we consider that the average word count of all pages with top 10 organic rankings is actually lower than all other data sets and those with rankings between 10 and 20, and even 20 and 30."
Cazier explains that the average page does not contain between 350 and 500 words. Even when assuming 28% of the pages being analyzed have word counts from navigation text, the data still points to at least 1,679-2,312 words per page as a target for achieving the kind of user experience needed for top rankings.
The white paper also goes through Flesch Reading Ease and Gunning Fog Index scores, readability results, and how this all contributes to rankings.
Overall, the study reveals:
1. Wikipedia and content supplied by Google, such as Google Images, Google News, and YouTube, are the most visible pages within the engine's top three organic ranking positions.
2. Video, PDF, .EDU and .GOV sites do not play as large a role in organic rankings as question-and-answer sites like Yahoo Answers, and Answers.com.
3. Content requiring twelve to fifteen years of education correlates with organic ranking success.
4. There is a correlation between more than 2,000 words and top organic rankings, but it's also important to avoid writing more than required to get the point across.