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Long-form vs short-form content: which should you create in today’s digital world?

Long-form vs short-form content: which should you create in today’s digital world? Blog Feature

Ramona Sukhraj

Associate Director of Content, Strategized Initiatives That Increased IMPACT’s Website Traffic From ~45K to ~400K

August 31st, 2020 min read

As an editor, there’s one question I get more than any other — and it’s the same one that grinds my gears like no other  — “How many long should my article be?”

Did Shakespeare ask for a word count? Did F. Scott Fitzgerald or Jane Austen? I’d bet my 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 let me explain.

In my over five years behind IMPACT’s content, I have considered pieces complete when they answer all of the natural or obvious questions for the potential reader. 

🔎 Related: What are The Big 5 business questions that drive traffic, leads, and sales?

We want someone 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. 

(This is also one of the foundational ideas of They Ask, You Answer).

Sometimes this can be done quickly; at others, not so much. It’s subjective and you can’t put a specific word count on subjective. But I realize that answer is annoying, especially for reluctant writers and content creators, 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. 

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?

While, again, this can be a matter of opinion, blog posts that are at least 1,200 words 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. (More on that later.) 

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 post that is shorter than 500 words and that is only reserved for pieces supplemented by something visual like an infographic or video. 

Far cry from the 300-500 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 articles 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, 93% of B2B buyers even say they prefer shorter format content according to the Demand Gen Report 2019 Content Preferences Survey Report.

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, they also tend to be more affordable. From a productivity standpoint, short-form content checks the boxes better than long-form does. 

But what about from a return standpoint?

 

Benefits of long-form content

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 work on your part, but check out the benefits.

1. It performs better in search engines

With content marketing a standard in most marketing strategies today, both content saturation and competition 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

🔎 Related: Real Talk: Is Blogging Dead for Marketing? 

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. So, Google had to pivot. 

Focused on the user, as the search engine has always been, it made several algorithm changes to bring quality content to the top of its search rankings

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, related LSI keywords, behavioral factors like time on page, and yes, you guessed it, length. 

Today, when you ask Google a question, it will return what it believes is the highest quality post that answers your question based on these factors.

For many questions, the answer may appear in a featured snippet (getting there is a whole other optimization lesson), but the one that appears here (and in the first spot below it) is on average, long-form content, over 2,000 words. 

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: 

long-form content vs short-form content

If we want to outrank your 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 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 pages on the page?” - Marcus Sheridan 

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.

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). 

According to The State of Content Marketing 2019 by SEMrush, long reads of 3000+ words get 3x more traffic, 4x more shares, and 3.5x more backlinks than articles of average length (901-1200 words).

This is up even from the already impressive lift BuzzSumo found in 2014

long-form content vs short-form content

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. 

3. Increases conversion rates

Long-form content can also improve conversion rates.

Website optimization tool Crazy Egg saw its own conversion rate increase by more than 30% percent when it increased length of a landing page by 20x. 

long-form content vs short-form content

According to the Crazy Egg blog: 

“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 very from audience to audience, of course, but data shows, it is certainly something worth testing. 

4. Positions your brand as an authority

Think of the most trusted names in your industry. Who do you turn to when you need trusted advice?

In the inbound marketing world, HubSpot is the authority, but there are other authorities in the digital marketing space, such as Kissmetrics, Moz, ConversionXL, and MarketingProfs, and one thing all of these authorities have in common is 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 speak at great lengths and in great detail on a topic, people are more likely to view you as an expert in it. And the more people think you know your stuff, the more likely they are to trust you and your business.  

When you can offer such complete coverage on a topic, this helps establish yourself as a knowledgeable expert; a reliable authority on everything in your industry.

 

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 strategy has a mix of mediums and lengths. 

For some topics, a short, useful post is going to be more valuable than a long 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:

  1. Buyer’s intent
  2. Competition 
  3. Audience preferences

Buyer’s intent

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? 

Understanding your buyer’s search intent 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 sport) barely require a photo and a bit of gossip to get people onto the page then 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 doing to be looking for — a checklist, not a novel. What the user finds on your page should be the short and concise list they stated they wanted. (Or at least offer that upfront, before going into greater detail.)

If someone searches “how to write a blog article,” they’re looking for a process. You need to go in-depth if you’re going to tell someone how to do it correctly.

Think about the intent behind your focus keywords and make sure the content you create delivers the value expected.

Competition

Chances are you’re not the only one trying to get found for your product or service. 

When creating content with the goal of ranking for a specific keyword, you need to check out your competition. 

While tools like SEMrush 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.

Audience preferences

As Ramsay of BlogTyrant advises, ask yourself what does your audience respond to? 

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, but are 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 audience and in search engines, regardless of length. 

The goal is simply to do justice to the topic and leave no questions unanswered. This may be done in 600 words or it may be 6000, So don't get caught up in the number of words so much as the value you are delivering. 

P.S. If you’re wondering. This article topped out at just shy of 2200 words. ;)

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