I’ll start with the eternal question.
Which is better— long-form content or short?
When you run a SaaS blog you’ll find yourself in many situations when you want to tear out your hair.
For some inscrutable reason, content marketing isn’t bringing the fabled results.
Instead of spending hours at something that isn’t bringing you any returns, why not take a step back and analyze why your efforts don’t bear fruit.
I’ll not only take a look at long and short content pieces but also analyze what makes content work.
Research on length vs shares
Moz, after analyzing 1 million articles found that long form content gets higher shares across verticals.
Perhaps detailed analysis, use of examples and some altruism to reward the writer may be the factors behind the increased share numbers.
We don’t know. We have the data and it says go long.
First is, articles that drumbeat a successful case study on how posting long-form content brought them shares, likes, and hits have worked too long and too hard at creating great useful content even when they didn’t have an audience of crickets.
As Brian Dean from Backlinko puts it, “If you’re serious about generating high quality links, you need to be very systematic with how you create and promote your content.
Otherwise you’re taking the “cooked spaghetti approach”: throwing a bunch of stuff against a wall and hoping something sticks.”
With so many blogs publishing so much content, your spaghetti won’t stick.
Research on length vs rankings
No one really knows if long-form content actually causes higher rankings. Correlations aren’t causations. Inferences can be drawn but we’re never sure.
Let’s look at the studies.
A study from 5 years ago by serpIQ that tracked 20,000 keywords brought to light that content for the top 10 results always exceeded 2000 words. In fact the link on the top had an average of 2416 words and the 10th spot featured an article with an average word count of 2032 words.
But a recent, 2016 study by Cognitive SEO complicates things.
Shorter articles seem to rank higher according to the study.
But that’s when more data comes into play.
Most articles that make up the sample size are between 100 and 5000 words. Just 5% of all articles analyzed are under 100 words. The same thing holds true for articles going above 5000 words. Plus 5000 words is a rarity with only 3.5% of articles exceeding the limit.
Even though shorter content ranks well, they do so in their right context. Google+ posts, tweets and Facebook notes are by design intended to be short and are the right candidates to fall in the group.
Just because we have some data that tells us that short posts also tend to do well on search engines doesn’t mean that’s actually going to be the case for your blog.
Things get interesting when we analyze content that range from 1001 to 5000 words which makes the bulk of the content online.
Barring a few aberrations longer content ranks better.
You’re on the safe zone with worded content.
Another advantage to long-form content is for many industries you’re able to cover a wide range of keywords in a 3000 to 4000 word article. You can and should spend time elaborating each point.
I stress on this point because such content is likely to get higher rankings now and in the future. Thanks to voice search and smartphones more and more people are voicing search terms instead of keying them. And since they speak, they’re more inclined to phrase search terms precisely how they’d converse in the real world. The practical implications of which are a notable and exponential increase in long tail keywords.
Long form enables you to cover many such long-tails and gives ample opportunities for Google to look for phrases and combine words that fit the query.
How should you determine content length?
The yardstick of length shouldn’t be site rankings, an increase in social sharing or links.
Those are wrong drivers. What should actually drive your decision is whether the content provides actual usefulness to people?
If not start snipping.
The characterization might be a bit hazy. So here’s something more to assist you.
Dig into your analytics data to find out which content is working for you.
Based on your findings, build on what works.
What is useful content?
Here’s one: Okdork’s post on ways to generate 40000 visitors is actually a great piece of content that lists actual examples you can swipe.
Paragraph after paragraph the author excites and engages you with the many examples and case studies and ideas that you can directly implement for your site.
What’s long-form content?
It’s content that ranges from 1000+ to 5000 words for all practical purposes. You should cover a variety of sub-topics that branch out from the core theme and provide analysis and examples.
You could also attempt articles that are greater than 5000 words and running into 10000 words. If you want to review a product in in-depth detail, this is the way to go.
Where is shorter better?
Sites like Buzzfeed drive a great deal of traffic to their sites and most them aren’t very wordy. Clickbait headlines, emotionally charged topics build suspense to the effect that the kind of audience who visit these sites can’t resist themselves from clicking.
This article from Buzzfeed barely covers 80 words, at most 100 with all the subheadlines and the headline combined but is not only trending on the site today with 1,096,872 VIEWS but also has garnered 14,000 shares on Facebook and 84 links.
Seth’s post with the headline “But what will I tell the others?” ends with 57 words. That’s about it. It also got a few hundred shares, Seth being Seth. That piece ranks for the term but what will I tell others and results from sites like BibleHub that that quote Bible verses are far behind.
As author Rob Marsh so succinctly puts it, “Seth outranks God in Google. And he does it with very short content.”
The post was written two years ago and Seth still outranks God.
In another instance, Sole Bicycles’ found that its blogposts on best cycles weren’t just going to cut it. Their core audience wasn’t digging content on content marketing or SEO tactics either.
They were quick to realize that traditional blogging isn’t working for them.
So they switched sides and constructed a strategy aligned with what they audience would love.
Having discovered that listening to music when cycling was a favorite activity of most cyclers they created mixtapes and gave them their own spin and a unique name Fixtapes.
These tapes were free to download and the readers received them with great gusto.
The only piece of written content on their blog is the image description.
Thanks in part to their customer-centric blogging they sell 15000 bikes a year.
Plus annual pre-blogging revenues have risen from $650,000 in 2012 to $2.1 million in 2014.
Glen from Detailed experimented and succeeded at taking his blog to 80k visitors per month with really short pieces of content.
It was a bold experiment from his incredibly verbose contributions spanning 5 to 10k words on Viperchill and Gaps.com.
The truth of the matter is content worked.
How does this apply for your business?
If yours is a business where being Verbal Kent doesn’t help— shift gears.
Make long articles easy to read
Don Marquis says it best, “If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; but if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.”
There are different ways you can take the effort out of a really long article.
Our brain likes things on which it doesn’t have to expend a lot of energy.
Our brains are wired this way to keep us sane and to expend only as much energy as required and nothing more— a trait from our collective cavemen years. Our brain filters out information that it considers extraneous.
Provide a short summary
To lessen the impact of a wordy 4000 pound article provide a TL;DR version of your long-form content . This could be the key takeaways.
Another way is to spice things up with alternate forms of content like infographics, videos and podcasts.
On the online edition of CNN you get to read a gist, a short summary of the highlights of the article. This summary atop gives readers a quick glance at what the news is about.
On a slightly related note, BBC’s bread and honey are feature stories but they also have this collection of 1 minute news videos that summarize news items for you and is particularly popular.
BBC’s 2 minute summary podcasts too are popular.
Supplement long-form articles with easy to digest content like Infographics and two minute videos.
Why do we like list-based articles?
Much of our liking has to do with how we tend to process information. As a species we tend to organize things and we tend to remembered, numbered points.
Listicles can be skimmed easily without missing out on all the key points. The brain tends to recognize patterns, and the predictable structure of listicles makes them easy to understand and digest.
Information that’s disorganized distracts us. But put that into a nice little list and we’re homies.
This also has to do with the tendency of our brains to try to understand information as soon as we see it.
That one’s reason why images and videos work really well. We’re immediately able to apply context to the information that surrounds if there are visual cues to guide the way.
When trying to process words and we tune into the difference between them.
Listicles take away a lot of the hard work involved with that in clearly differentiating between points with an easy to read numbered list.
Even computers can’t beat us when it comes to distinguishing between different things.
Listicle headlines are pretty straightforward. It shows potential readers what the content is all about, giving them an idea what to expect right away.
Listicles are also easy to understand thanks to acing the aforementioned points and they often give what’s promised.
A listicle on traffic tips will give 10 tips that are immediately useful to the reader.
Listicles also save readers some time. Instead of looking at different sites on what he should do to drive traffic read one and get everything you need. No fluff. No time wasted.
The Missing link
Your approach to long-form content might be a bit flawed if you consistently produce verbose content but add nothing new.
Content should be original, chock full of insights and relevant examples.
Content that’s not bound to help people should cease to exist.
Useless content won’t gain links, shares, rankings or grow your business.
The gist is both long-form and short articles work really well in their right context. I’ve used examples like Buzzfeed but any business willing to ditch the traditional blog set-up will find alternate forms of content useful.
They can help attract and retain an audience where text miserably fails.
The way to win is find out what works is to experiment and create your brand voice.