Want the Best SEO, Social, Conversions & UX Results? Use Long-Form Content

Last week Jay Baer,  a social media and digital marketing influencer, published a thought-provoking post titled ‘Your Blog Post Is Too Damn Long.’

His main point is that in the content marketing arms race, where the prevailing wisdom (and research) dictates that longer content has greater impact, maybe we’ve gone too far? In fact:

  • Wouldn’t brands be better offer publishing more, shorter posts?
  • Wouldn’t it be better for their readers / customers?

As Jay says:

“…at some point, there is a practical limit to that kind of content, is there not? If your “blog post” is the same length as many ebooks available on Amazon, might you be swamping your audience’s informational boat a bit?

As a marketer, my thought is that the authors of these very, very, very long posts would actually get more bang for their attention-seeking buck if they broke this content up into pieces. More chum in the water, so to speak.

I suppose I should test this concept, but to me I’d rather publish “24 ways to rewrite your headlines for success” on Monday, followed by “24 more ways to rewrite your headlines for success” the following Monday, and “The final 25 ways to rewrite your headlines for success” on the third Monday. Isn’t having three solid pieces a better plan than the single bite of the apple provided by the “73 ways…” approach?

Or maybe I just don’t get it? Maybe longer is innately better every time, and in all respects?”

It got me thinking, as I’ve always erred on the side of longer = better.

So, has it gone too far? Would brands, readers and the internet be better off if we dialled back from the ‘more is more’ mindset? Or does Jay just not get it?

I’ve broken the answer up into 4 main sections: SEO, Social, Conversion, User Experience. This is because most businesses producing consistent content marketing will most likely have a goal that it improves their search rankings, gets shared on social, and converts (leads, sales etc.) while offering a good user experience to their readers.  Most likely they’ll have all 4 goals.

Enough preamble, here we go…

SEO

There is a whole ton of research and data to back up the idea that if you want to rank higher in search engines, then longer will win out over shorter posts.

CoSchedule found that “the pages in the top five (1-5) averaged more than 2,000 words per page. In the bottom half (6-10), the posts only averaged 1,400 words. Long-form content was absolutely weighted to the top of the list.” (1) Moz has also found a similar correlation before.

Long-Form Content Ranks Better for SEO

Now we all know correlation doesn’t equal causation, so why might longer posts rank better in Google than shorter posts (or a series of related shorter posts as suggested by Jay).

There’s three main reasons imho.

  1. Longer form content is more likely to garner quality backlinks (and the related SEO juice) because it’s preferable to link to the definitive resource on something than just another ‘10 x, y, z’ linkbait list. I know I’d choose the most complete and authoritative source on a subject to link to, and that’s hard to achieve in shorter posts.

Just take a look a tBrian Dean from Backlinko’s latest post ‘SEO Tools: The Complete List (153 Tools Reviewed and Rated)’. I mean that’s an impressive feat, something genuinely valuable, and most likely the single best resource on the web on that topic now. Why would I link to anything else like the ‘top 5’ followed by the ‘next best 5’?

  1. Secondly, directly related to this idea of authority is the likelihood that longer form content will actually answer users questions. By taking the time (and words or pictures) to break an answer down and answer it thoroughly, rather than providing a short high-level overview or summary, users will be less likely to skip back. This gives Google the signals it needs to judge the quality and usefulness of the content, which in turn will help it rank higher.
  2. Thirdly, if you broke down your longer piece of content into a series of shorter posts, you’re just confusing Google as to which one is the best – or primary – destination when it matches a users query. Is the first, second or third in the series the one they want?

Packaging them all together into a single, definitive post and destination helps avoid that confusion and gives a clear answer to Google – and the searcher – as to where the answer to their query lies.

Social sharing

Research also shows that longer content (over a 1000 words) is more likely to go viral and to win more social shares.

Long-Form Content Gets More Social Shares

However there are a couple of caveats to this idea that longer form content dominates on social.

The first is this finding from the Quartz Editor Kevan Delaney which shows that shorter, micro content can also get a lot of social traction. It’s just those ‘in-betweener’ content lengths of 500-800 words that get the least social love.

500-800 Words Perform Least Well

The second is that although people may share long-form content, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve read it, with this study from Chartbeat’s Tony Haile showing there is little to no correlation between what people share and what they read.

No Correlation Between Social & Reading

So well-shared long-form content does not always mean well-read long-form content.

Why would long-form content generally outperform shorter content, potential broken into a series of related posts? I would argue it’s because:

  1. It’s more useful again. If you’ve finished reading a ‘so-so’ piece of content (perhaps it’s not even complete), would that motivate you to share it? Certainly not as much as a really top-notch, well researched and informative piece of content. That would motivate me (and others) to share, because we’ll want our social networks to get the same value from it as we did. As a bonus it probably makes us look smarter too.
  1. The other issue for me is that tweeting out a series of closely related posts might feel a bit repetitive and potentially confusing. I’d much rather keep things fresh on my social feeds, so tweeting out one link to an amazing resource would generally be favourable to tweeting out several same-y links. And that’s on Twitter where volume is fine.

On networks like LinkedIn, I’d definitely not send multiple updates about essentially the same things from the same publisher; I’d be much more inclined to just share out the really impressive (long-form) content instead.

Conversion

Once again, there is good evidence to show that longer copy also helps to sell.

Neil Patel has a nice write-up about this on his QuickSprout blog, where he ran A/B tests that showed his long copy outperformed his short copy by 7%.

He also saw an even more stark differential on Crazy Egg, where “the long-form version of the homepage converted 30% percent higher than the short version.”

Why?

Well as David Ogilvy once wrote, “All my experience says that for a great many products, long copy sells more than short … advertisements with long copy convey the impression that you have something important to say, whether people read the copy or not.”

Relating this back to content marketing, and specifically content giveaways for lead generation,

if I’m going to hand over my email or other contact details for a ‘free download’ then I want to feel it’s substantial and worth it.

A 10 point checklist probably won’t cut it compared to a 10,000 word eBook that promises to fully educate me on something.

There’s also the likelihood I’m going to have discovered the content by searching for it on Google, and given longer content ranks better, I’ll probably assume it’s good, because organic Google rankings convey an implicit sense of credibility and trustworthiness. Like they’ve earned their place at the top.

And the longer content has yet another advantage working for it – it’s likely to have more social proof thanks to having a larger number of social shares – another reason visitors will be more likely to convert.

User experience

Finally, just because all the data looks good in terms of SEO, social sharing and conversion, we should also still be mindful of long-form content and the user experience.

Do people really want to wade through a ton of text all the time? Don’t Millennials crave short, impactful and snackable content?

While it’s true nobody wants to read a 5000 word opus every time they open a browser or click a search result, there are some reasons to believe that long-form content does deliver a favourable user experience more often than not.

First of all, longer posts allow for more granular explanation. This is good for beginners, which is the most likely the target audience for many businesses looking to grow their top of funnel awareness. Newbies need topics broken down and explained in detail, without large amounts of implicit understanding needed to follow along.

Of course, highly detailed posts can always work for experts and advanced readers too, with the content taking the time to diver deeper into a subject and satisfying the need for that next level of knowledge.

Longer posts are also better suited to become resources and reference posts (bookmarked, saved etc), because it’s so much easier to do this if it’s all in one place, and not split up over several pieces of content.

It can also feel more click-baity to split something into multiple pages when it could naturally be contained in just one. This is because those multiple pieces of atomised content are generating more pageviews (and ad impressions), which has been a past complaint against some publishers who rely on advertising dollars. They sacrifice the user experience for pageviews, which is something a single piece of long-form content doesn’t do.

That doesn’t mean it has to be one long wall of impenetrable text. With many subheadings, images, short sentences and short words long pieces of content can actually become easy to scan, digest in small chunks and refer back to over time.

Of course long content isn’t always the answer

Jay makes a great point, which is that it can often take more time to put together a highly curated list than it does to just throw everything in with no filter or thought for quality.

As the famous saying goes “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.”

The problem is if you see a list of 5, 10 or even 20 things, more often than not there’s no real evidence or indication that the final list is a result of painstaking research and having disregarded 10x that number of potential other candidates for the final cut.

Instead it can look like an incomplete and slightly lazy ‘me too’ piece of content (and particularly when compared to something that seems far more comprehensive).

So my suggestion is, if you’re going to create highly curated, shorter content – which is definitely very valuable – you need to a) show your justification for picking those finalists; and b) ideally give an indication of how many potential options didn’t make the cut. You could even list them underneath the main post, just in case someone is curious and wants to the see the full list.

The case for long content also doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be atomised, repurposed and supported by complementary micro content. However that should all point back to the ‘mother ship’ – the main long-form post – so it should be ‘as well as’ and not ‘instead of’’ it.

Probably the main reason I would advise against creating long-form content is if you don’t have much to say. I really can’t stand those posts where they’re 70% filler content, just for the sake of hitting a 1000 or 200 word limit, when the crux of the useful content is a fraction of the total word count.

Either do more research and make the whole post killer; or keep it short and sweet. Don’t dress it up in banal introductions and irrelevant tangents. No one will actually reward you for that.

Conclusion

For me the data makes for a slam-dunk, cut-and-dried case in favour of long-form content where you have something valuable to say.

It’s not to say there isn’t a place for short, well curated content; or supporting microcontent…but right now at least, the internet is ruled by long-form content; and so businesses wanting the best results for their content marketing campaigns would place the smart money there.

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