Is Long Form Content Really Superior to Short Form Content

28/10/2018

One common piece of advice that you’ll often hear when it comes to content marketing is “write long form content”. Experts left and right will tell you that “a 2000-word blog post is superior to a 500-word one” or that, you should write at least 1,000 words, if not more for your article to be really useful and engaging to your readers.

The problem is, there’s been a lot of bad advice when it comes to content marketing that we still take for granted. Also, as content marketing evolves constantly, a lot of times what worked before no longer works today. The advice to write long form content has been parrotted time and time again, to a point that we no longer think about it, but just do it.

So, is long form content really superior to short form or is there more to it that meets the eye?

The Case for Long Form Content

Content marketing experts like Neil Patel argue that long form content is more likely to get you online visibility in terms of backlinks to your content and shares on social media. In addition, another reason they advocate for longer content is that it increases your authority on the topic and works as a proof of your industry expertise.

Of course, I’m not saying these experts pull these claims out of thin air. There has been a lot of research into what would be the ideal length to get your content on the first page or top 10 results of Google search. In that regard, Moz and BuzzSumo did a joint analysis of 1 million articles of different types and sizes and came to a conclusion that long form content gets more links and shares that its short for counterpart. For instance, of 489,128 articles they analyzed, more than 85% had less than 1,000 words, but the story is much different when you count the shares and links. The longer the content, the more it got shared or linked, as the table here shows:

Length (words) Total Shares Average Referring Domain Links Average
<1,000 2,823 3.47
1-2,000 3,456 6.92
2-3,000 4,254 8.81
3-10,000 5,883 11.07

Does that mean that you should write as many words as you can? Not at all. Hubspot analyzed its own 6,000 blog posts and found that their sweet spot, where they get the most organic search traffic is between 2,250 and 2,500 words.

Hubspot Word count vs average organic traffic

Now, so far we talked about content length in terms of word count, but what about the time readers spend engaging and reading that content? Granted, every person reads at his or her own pace, some faster, some slower (the average reading speed is about 2 minutes per page, or 400-500 words, according to ExecuRead), not to mention that we take longer to read something that is more complicated or that we have no prior experience with. In that case, we take around 5-6 minutes to read the same amount.

Medium, a popular publishing platform, did a little digging of its own on this and found that the best time for a blog post is 7 minutes, after which the reader’s attention will inevitably start to decline. Now, I find that very interesting because in a way it clashes with the preposition that longer is better. If we take that an average person can read 500 words in 2 minutes, in 7 minutes, they would be able to read 2*3.5m * 500 = 1,750 words. Significantly less if the topic is technical or complicated.

Medium optimal post 7 minutes

Now, of course, there is a caveat to this and it is that there is no real sense in chasing those “magical” 7 minutes and aiming for your every piece of content to ge that long. If you write a really good post, people will be happy to spend more than 7 minutes reading it, whereas if your post is bad, they won’t waste a minute of their time on it.

Finally, another argument for long for content is that Google’s RankBrain algorithm seems to like it more. What this algorithm looks for, among other things, is user satisfaction and one of the main factors it uses to measure this is how much time someone spends on your content. Google reasons here that the more time a reader spends on a particular page, the more useful to him it is and therefore he will be more satisfied. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the connection between time spend on content and long form content.

Size is Not Everything

There you go! Case closed. Long form content is superior, experts say so, stats say so and Google’s AI also agrees. Time to wrap up this post and call it a day. Well, not before we hear the other side of the story (and besides I haven’t reached 1,000+ words yet).

Length isn’t everything when it comes to content. Yes, on average, 2,500 word post beats a 500-word one in every way, including organic traffic it gets, social shares, links, engagement, time spent on the page, user satisfaction, you name it. But that’s the problem with “average”. What defines an “average user” or an “average industry”?

Going back to Neil Patel, he also looked at how long your content should be based on your industry. Here’s what he found:

  • Gadgets: 300-500
  • Fashion: 800-950
  • Tech: 800-1,000
  • Recruiting: 900-1,000
  • Home & Garden: 1,100-1,200
  • Food: 1.400-1,900
  • Retail: 1,500-1,700
  • Film: 1,500-1,700
  • Travel: 1,500-1,850
  • Manufacturing: 1,700-1,900
  • Real Estate: 1,800-1,900
  • FinTech: 2,000-2,150
  • Healthcare: 2,000-2,150
  • Finance: 2,100-2,500
  • Sales: 2,500-2,700
  • Marketing & Advertising: 2,500-3,000

As you can see, there are plenty of industries that work very well with less than 2,000 and even less than 1,000 words. Some, like Gadgets, perform quite well with just a few hundred words on average. On the other hand, there aren’t that many for which optimal word count beats 2,500 words, which, again a lot of studies take as the best for links and shares. In fact, only Sales and Marketing & Advertising fall into that category, which personally leads me to the conclusion that those studies are in a way biased toward these industries. If a content strategist does an analysis of 100 websites and 50% of them have marketing as their main topic, while the other industries are spread to the remaining 50%, than the result will surely tip in favor of marketing & advertising.

“But wait!”, I hear you say, “What about the attention span? Did you know that the average Internet user has an attention span of a goldfish?”. Yes, I heard all about it. What of it? This has nothing to do with the reader, but with what they are reading. Most content out there is, frankly, bad and people don’t want to waste time with it. That’s why they click away, not because they suddenly saw something shiny and need to go after it. So stop using this as an excuse and start making some better, more useful, engaging and actionable content that your audience will appreciate and spend time on.

Concentration (and we need that to read a full, 2,000+ word article) is a tricky thing and there’s a lot here that you as a content writer can’t really affect, such as how interested someone is in the topic in the first place, their environment, inside and outside distractions like sudden bursts of daydreaming, phone calls, emails, and so on and, of course, the actual time they have to devote to that content.

On that note, I do see some merit in creating scannable content, but you do have to be very careful with it. It’s very easy for the reader to miss out on something very important if you didn’t nail the scannability part well. So, how do you create scannable content? By adding these 6 elements (courtesy of HubSpot):

  1. Whitespace.  Blocks of text are really difficult to read, so you need to break that with bullet points, subheadings, images and so on to make your content more manageable for readers
  2. Subheadings. Subheadings are important, especially if you’re writing long form content and your topic is a bit more complicated. By using them. you can split one big topic into more sub-topics and give the reader a better idea what comes next.
  3. One point per paragraph. Each paragraph should tell a point of its own and it should focus on a single point.
  4. Inverted Pyramid. If you’re a student, this might counter everything you’ve been told about how to write. There, you start with the argument and move towards conclusion. But the audience that you’re writing for there and the audience that you’re writing for on the Internet are very different. In a college, it’s the job of a professor to read and make sense of your paper, but that’s not the same for your Internet reader. In fact, since they are more interested in what they get out of it (benefits), it pays to start with that and then work backwards, like in an inverted pyramid.
  5. Highlighted text. Highlighted text, such as bolditalic and so on is a neat way to trick the eye and the brain to pay more attention to what you want. That’s why you’ll often see important elements emphasized this way in your study texts or in an online article. Because, for a millisecond, the eye will pause on it and the brain will note that as something important, whereas it might simply breeze through the text before and after it.
  6. Bullet points and numbering. Finally, bullet points and numbering also make content more scannable and easier to read. For example, if we go back to the optimal word length for specific industries, I could have presented this in a regular format, one industry after another, but it wouldn’t have nearly the same effect as a good old bullet point.

Length, however, is far from the only factor that Google will look into when ranking your content. Although the algorithm is changing all the time and evolving to provide better user experience and fight black hat SEO, we can identify the most important Google ranking factors, besides page content length as:

  • Page speed
  • Page content quality
  • Security (HTTPS)
  • Quality backlinks
  • Social signals
  • Mobile-friendly
  • Domain age
  • Optimized images

You’re going to need all of these (and probably some more) to get your content in the top 10 results on Google. Personally, I believe that the most important factor of them all is quality. But it is also the trickiest to get since it is not fixed like having a mobile-friendly, secure or fast website. It doesn’t depend on some code, but how much you as a content writer really know about the topic and whether the reader finds this useful. If you get this down right, that will bring social signals and quality backlinks with it.

In other words, quality trumps quantity. Your aim should be to create quality content, not long content.

Is There a Place for Short Form Content?

Long form content gets more organic traffic, more shares, more backlinks, etc. So what is there left for short form content? Is there even a place for it? Of course there is.

There are still plenty of bloggers that create posts between 500 and 1,000 words. In 2017, according to Orbit Media’s research of over 1,000 bloggers, 45.9% of blog posts had 500-1,000 words, followed by 25 between 1,000 and 1,500. However, as that analysis shows, there is a steady decline of short form content, whereas more and more bloggers now write long form content. The number of posts with 2,000 or more words increased 6x between 2014 and 2017, showing a clear trend toward creating longer content vs shorter one.

Orbit Media avg blog post length 2014-2017

This doesn’t mean that you should completely dismiss short form content as it can still be a very useful part of your content strategy. But not if you do what 90% of bloggers out there are doing and create poor quality content that is just a rehash of 10 other blog posts before yours. If you do that, of course the reader is going to tune out. That is where the short attention comes from.

Short form content can work only if you make it interesting and useful to your target audience. Where I think it beats long form content is sticking to the point. With shorter content, it is much easier to focus on a single topic, question or idea, without the risk of watering it down, whereas bloggers who create long form content often fall into the trap of losing their point and meandering aimlessly.

Shorter content also lends itself better to being funny and direct, which the audience likes. That makes it ideal for social networks where content is consumed at a much higher pace. Per Brandwatch, the average user has between 5 and 7 social network accounts and spending 116 minutes per day (35 on Facebook). That gives a clear advantage to faster, more scannable, short content over long form content on social networks.

Wrap Up

Yes, there are plenty of reasons to create long form content, many of them well-documented. But that doesn’t mean you should blindly follow that trend. Length is likely to help you rank better on Google, get more shares and more backlinks, but it’s not going to help you if the quality of content you create is bad and if your content isn’t properly tailored to your target audience and marketing objectives.

Or, as Steve Rayson, head of BuzzSumo puts it:

The average shares for long form content are only higher because there is so much poor quality short form content, and this drags the average for short form content down,” says Rayson. “Inherently long form is not better, in fact many of us prefer the author to take time to make content shorter. I did an analysis of the posts of the top 100 Mar/Tech blogs and 81 of the 100 most shared posts had less than 1,000 words. Short form can be very powerful.

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