As an editor, there’s one question I get more than any other — and it’s the same one that grinds my gears more than anything else — “How long should my blog post be?”
Did Shakespeare ask for a word count? Did F. Scott Fitzgerald or Jane Austen? I’d bet money Ann Handley doesn’t.
At the risk of sounding like a pretentious writer, my response to this question is often “as long as it needs to be,” but I realize this isn’t helpful to anyone new to content marketing or They Ask, You Answer.
You’ve got someone owning your content. You’re committed to publishing on a consistent basis. You know what topics you need to cover, but are your articles where they need to be to accomplish your goals?
In my eight years behind IMPACT’s content and nearly a decade in content marketing, I have never held myself or others to a word count — a minimum or maximum.
Rather, I consider pieces complete when they answer all of the natural or obvious questions for the potential reader.
As marketers, we should aim to have a potential buyer to walk — or I suppose click — away feeling like they have enough information to take a next step, to feel like they can make an informed decision about what they just learned about.
In other words, your content should be as long as it needs to be to match what the reader was looking for when they landed on your site and answer the question at hand thoroughly and completely.
This is also one of the foundational ideas of They Ask, You Answer and is essential to building the trust needed to close a deal.
Sometimes it can be done quickly; at others, not so much. It’s subjective and, unfortunately, you can’t put a specific word count on subjective, but I realize this is frustrating, so I’m here to offer a bit more guidance.
In a fast-paced digital world where people just need to cry “Alexa!” to get answers to many of their questions, content creators often find themselves debating long-form content versus short-form content.
Which is more effective? Which should they be creating? And why?
Today, content takes many forms, but for all intents and purposes of this length discussion, we’re going to focus this article on just that — blog articles.
In this article, I’ll dive into:
What is long-form content?
What is short-form content?
The benefits of long-form and short-form content
How to decide your content length
Let’s get started.
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How long is long-form content vs. short-form content?
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of this digital debate, what exactly is considered long or short?
What is long-form content?
While, again, this can be a matter of opinion, blog posts with a word count of at least 1,200 are typically considered "long-form." (This is the length of most IMPACT articles.)
Those numbers are steadily increasing, however, as pillar content and content saturation have forced brands to “say more” to stay competitive and rank higher in search engines. (More on that later.)
Depending on the question or subject matter or existing ranking content, 1,200 words may actually be considered a short blog post, but in the last decade, we have found this word count is typically enough to do most queries justice.
What is short-form content?
On the flip side, anything less than 1,000 words is generally accepted as short-form content. In fact, at IMPACT, we very rarely publish a blog post that is shorter than 500 words, and that is only reserved for pieces supplemented by something visual like an infographic or video.
Some publishers go so far as to publish “snackable” content that is only around 200 words, but this is typically reserved for breaking news where details are still developing.
Far cry from the 300-500 word pieces you thought were novels in 2013, right?
Benefits of short-form content
In 2019, Buzzsumo found that roughly 75% of B2B brands are still primarily producing short-form content, and there are likely two primary reasons for this:
1. It caters to short attention spans
With modern consumers constantly on-the-go and multi-tasking, marketers have long assumed short-form content is the best way to provide information to people and keep their interest.
Popular social media channels have set limits with this in mind (i.e. 240 characters on Twitter, 15-second stories on Instagram on top of a 24-hour expiration) and, when asked, 39% of B2B buyers reported that B2B vendors could improve their effectiveness by creating shorter content.
People are busy. They want their answers quickly, and in theory, short-form content better enables you to cater to this.
2. It is quicker to produce
Let’s be real. Shorter articles are naturally quicker to turn around, and if you’re outsourcing them (which you shouldn't be!), they also tend to be more affordable. From a productivity standpoint, short-form content checks the boxes better than long-form does. It’s also less resource-intensive.
But what about from a return standpoint?
Although there is clearly demand for short-form blog posts and videos from audiences, the actual measurable return of long-form articles is arguably much higher. Yes, long-form requires more commitment and work on your part, but check out the benefits.
Benefits of long-form content
1. It performs better in search engines
With content creation a standard in most marketing strategies today, both content saturation and competition in organic search have significantly increased.
Since the mainstream acceptance of blogging for business in the early 2010s, search engines have become filled with articles trying to rank for every keyword under the sun — and, honestly, most of these suck.
People were able to game the system and rank by keyword stuffing their pages and metadata or simply being one of the early birds.
This led to a lot of noise and little in-depth information. So, Google had to pivot.
Today, Google no longer just looks at how many times a keyword appears on a page, but factors like the site’s overall authority, its speed, performance on mobile, related keywords, behavioral factors like time on page, and yes, you guessed it, content length.
When you ask the platform a question, it will return what it believes is the highest quality post that answers your question based on these factors.
In fact, a few years back, serpIQ did a study that found that this is true of content in the top ten results in general:
If we want to outrank our competition, we must create content of the highest quality. It must deliver more value than any of the other search results trying to rank #1 for the same keyword, and this often means being longer.
With longer content, Google can assume that the piece answers a user’s inquiry more comprehensively and, in turn, must be better.
Another reason long-form content may perform so well on Google is that it makes people spend more time on your website to consume it.
“If Google has the choice to show two articles for the same keyword, which one are they going to choose: The one where readers average 45 seconds on the page or the one where readers average 4.5 minutes on the page?” - Marcus Sheridan, Keynote Speaker, Author, and Partner, IMPACT
Google tracks how long a person spends on your website after clicking on a result. The longer they stay there, the more valuable Google assumes your page is.
Now, will readers read your magnum opus, word for word? Not likely, but if your piece is well-organized and engaging, it is much more likely to keep people on-page for longer.
“I’ve found that when it comes to ranking well around an informational keyword, long-form content always wins. I recommend that you create a list of at least three questions around a topic and then answer them in the piece. This can involve a significant investment in time and research, but creating high-quality content that shows your mastery of a topic should be your ultimate goal.” - Kevin Church, Director of SEO, IMPACT
2. More traffic, shares, and backlinks
The way I (and Google) see it, an article shouldn’t just be long for the sake of being long. It should be long if/when it does justice to the topic and provides the most complete answer to your reader.
And research shows this gets rewarded, even outside of search engines and my very critical eyes.
Long-form content allows you to take a reader from beginner to advanced material on a topic within one post. It enables you to address all of their questions in one place; no need to click onto another site or resource.
Providing that kind of value delights users and inspires them to share it with others on social media.
They also are more likely to link to your resource in their own articles, and, of course, more shares on social media and backlinks mean more potential traffic.
When I spoke to our Director of SEO, Kevin Church, he also echoed these findings saying, “Long-form content… creates more opportunities to create internal backlinks to relevant content, always a bonus when you want Google to understand your site’s structure and how each piece of content relates to others.”
3. Increases conversion rates
Long-form content can also improve conversion rates.
“The media would have us believe that people no longer have any capacity to concentrate. In reality, you cannot have a page that’s too long — only one that’s too boring. In the case of Crazy Egg’s home page, visitors wanted their many questions answered and that’s what we delivered.”
Now, the sweet spot will vary from audience to audience, of course, but data shows, it is certainly something worth testing.
So, think about who you trust in your industry? Who do you turn to when you need reliable insight?
In the inbound marketing world, HubSpot is the authority, but there are others, such as Neil Patel, Moz, CXL, and MarketingProfs. One thing all of these authorities have in common? They produce long-form content.
(Not that that means they don't create short-form content, as well, but we know them as thorough resources.)
When you can offer such complete coverage on a topic, this helps establish you as a knowledgeable expert; a reliable authority on everything in your industry. When you can speak at great lengths and in great detail on a topic, people are more likely to trust your expertise and, in turn, other things like your products or services.
The more people know they can trust you, the more they want to work with you, and producing robust content that answers your buyers’ questions helps make this happen.
When should you use long-form content vs short-form?
Frankly, it all depends on the topic and the intent and needs of the person reading it.
Every successful content marketing strategy has a mix of mediums and lengths.
For some topics, a useful, short blog post is going to be more valuable than a long blog post, while others need to be long to cover everything.
To help you determine which is right for the article at hand, consider three things:
What is your buyer’s goal when they search a particular phrase or keyword? What are they trying to achieve when they arrive on your article? What is the answer they are looking for?
Understanding your buyer’s search intent or question will help you determine the ideal length for your content.
As we’ve discussed, not all topics need that much detail. Some of the popular “news” that we see now (think celebrities and sports) barely require a photo and a bit of gossip to give people what they need then have them clicking onto the next thing. There’s just no time or space for a long analysis.
Some topics for your business may be similar.
For example, if someone searched “wedding planning checklist,” that’s what they’re going to be looking for — a checklist. What the user finds on your page should be the short and concise list they stated they wanted, not a novel. (Or at least offer that upfront, before going into greater detail.)
If someone searches The Big 5 topic “how much does hiring a consulting firm cost?,” they’re looking for a detailed explanation. You need to go in-depth if you’re going help someone understand all of the factors that go into this cost.
Think about the intent behind your focus keywords, and make sure the content you create delivers the value and answers expected.
Chances are you’re not the only one trying to get found or raise awareness for your product or service. You have to ensure that your content strategy stands out.
That’s why when creating content with the goal of ranking for a specific keyword, you need to check out your competition.
While tools like Semrush and SurferSEO can give you search volume and competition ratings, it’s best to go straight to Google and see what comes up when you search your desired keyword.
Take a look at what’s in the top search results and determine where you can do better.
One of the easiest ways is to go longer.
Length is often seen as a quality factor, so if the top search result you're trying to unseat is a high-quality, 3,000 word masterpiece, you likely won’t outrank it with a 500 word piece — even if you've used every SEO best practice.
“Some people just don’t consume long-form content. They might be too used to BuzzFeed-type articles that are broken up into tiny animated clips or sentence-long sound bites that make them blow air out of their nose quickly and then move on.”
If your long-form article is ranking number one, but data shows people aren’t reading or converting on it, and they’re converting very well on your shorter pieces, maybe long-form isn’t for them.
Test out different lengths and see which delivers the best results. At the end of the day, return is all that matters.
Quality always tops quantity
Long story, short (pun very much intended), at the end of the day, the best quality content will always perform best with your target audience and in search engines, regardless of length.
The goal of content marketing, especially in the They Ask, You Answer mindset, is simply to do justice to the topic and leave no questions unanswered for your buyer or new prospects by matching their intentions. This may be done in 600 words, or it may be 6,000, so don't get caught up in the word count so much as the value you are delivering.
P.S. If you’re wondering. This article topped out at just over 2,600 words. ;)