How many times have you come across a variation of the following statement? Long-form content gets more social media shares, earns more links and dominates search engine rankings.
Considering this advice, you might have been slapping together 2000+ word articles – sometimes even expanding them up to 10,000 words or more – for almost every keyword you target. But how important is it to have these many words on a page? How much does a typical visitor read from such long articles? Let’s start by exploring some industry studies where the principle of writing long-form content originated.
Data-Driven Studies Around Long-Form Content
In this section, let’s look at five prominent companies and their research around the length of content. Here’s the first one:
Brian Dean, in his analysis of 912 million blog posts, found that long-form content gets more links and shares than short-form.
In a 2013 study conducted by Medium, the platform found that the optimal stories that capture the most reading time (on average) are seven minutes. Most people read at a speed of about 250 words per minute, so that time would accommodate an article of about 1750 words. Photo-heavy stories are likely to get the average down to even under 1000 words.
For longer posts, the study claimed that the median time spent decreases. But they were also likely to be one of the posts that perform exceedingly well.
Buzzsumo and Moz
A 2015 analysis of 1 million articles by these two companies found that:
• Eighty-five percent of published content is under 1000 words (and it excludes videos and quizzes)
• Long-form content tends to get more shares and referring domains.
In their analysis of 2 million keywords (chosen at random), Ahrefs found a correlation between content length and rankings – but the median length for pages at position one came in at about 800 words.
Orbit Media conducts an annual survey of 1000 bloggers to create a blogging statistics post. As per its latest reports, the average climbed up to 1,269 words in 2020 from 808 in 2014.
The data around long-form content, for the most part, paints a clear picture: it pleases social and search algorithms. But what does Google say about this?
Google’s Take on Word Count and Comprehensiveness
The search giant never talks about the length of content in its guidelines for webmasters. Indeed John Muller, a search advocate at Google, had once quipped that “word count is not indicative of quality.”
If we take a first-principles view of search engine ranking factors – the basic building blocks that we know are true – it’s all about serving the users. Thin content that adds little value to them is a big no. You should just try to satisfy the searcher’s goals through your page’s content as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
The Self-Serving Marketing World of “Original Research”
The legend of “long-form content” mostly started taking shape when Brian Dean, who runs an SEO training company, introduced marketers to “the skyscraper technique.” With a catchy name, it called forth marketers to write “longer” articles.
As follow-ups to this blog post by Dean, numerous other marketers then took out data sets, surveys and other research methodologies to arrive at the same conclusion: “longer is better.” However, interpret the results of such studies with a pinch of salt.
Orbit Media’s founder, Andy Crestodina, shares how his research is based on a survey of respondents that are “self-described bloggers.” He also mentions that the data “is heavily populated with my personal network, which skews toward LinkedIn users, B2B marketers, and people in the U.S.”
This indicates the problem with most original research conducted by SaaS companies: It’s majorly biased and based on correlations.
See, dispelling a content marketing best practice such as “write long, 2000+ word articles” is more memorable than dispelling “write comprehensive content.” It simplifies the complex pretext of satisfying search intent and staying relevant to your audience.
Even without scientific evidence, findings like these make for great reference material for other marketers who want to further their arguments and ideas while writing. Such original research is now touted as a great way to get backlinks and establish yourself as an authority in a niche.
Derek Gleason, who ran the ConversionXL blog for 2.5 years, echoes the same sentiment: “The quantitative data, by contrast, wins the links – it’s the benchmark data that people love to cite.”
He shares why you need not overcomplicate research, and that non-scientific email surveys would do the job.
Yet, there are a couple of reasons why shooting for “long-form content” point-blank doesn’t make sense.
Reading on Mobile Phones (and the Web in General)
Have you ever contemplated reading a 3000-word article on the small screen? I haven’t. And if I did, I fumbled my way across it. Websites in the business-to-consumer (B2C) industries tend to have a large percentage of people logging in from their smartphones. Today, many other kinds of businesses also get heavy mobile traffic.
Given that reading difficult text on mobile makes people slow down, long-form articles aren’t a comfortable read on the smaller screen. Nielsen Norman Group research recommends brevity in content.
Consumers also don’t prefer reading and would appreciate getting the information they want for a keyword conveniently and quickly.
Moreover, users still scan on the internet rather than read word-for-word. They don’t want to waste time online. So, gazing in an F-shaped pattern and the like is common.
Search Engine Algorithms are Fluid
As soon as Google started leveraging machine learning in its algorithm, SEO stopped functioning in a templated manner. Now, the search giant has evolved its understanding of “relevance” for queries and relationships between entities.
John Mueller summarizes this in a podcast episode from Search Off the Record. I want to share a couple of important pointers from it:
“…Search is not a science, I think that’s really important to keep in mind, in the sense that there is no absolute truth out there with regards to which page should be ranking for which query. I’d rather these are things that can change over time, these are things where people are working on to keep improving things…”
“…So it’s not that every site has to do the same thing but rather, there are multiple ways to get there. And you don’t have to blindly follow just one ranking factor to get to the end result…”
See how you need to continuously test your assumptions to find what works in search – including leveraging long-form content?
Use Cases of Long-Form Content
I want to share two specific scenarios where long-form content makes sense for you to target.
1. Targeting Complex Subjects
The conundrum of a content marketer in the marketing – and more generally the intricate business-to-business (B2B) and SaaS niches — is that most concepts require detailed explanations. Five hundred to 1,000 words may not do justice to them.
For instance, ConversionXL, a reputable publication in the B2B niche, built a name for themselves by publishing advanced and in-depth essays. They encouraged long-form content from the beginning – much before it was mainstream.
However, they wrote on complex concepts for an advanced audience, so a longer length was justified. The same goes for your company if you’re in a niche such as cryptocurrency, finance, manufacturing and the like.
2. When Starting a New Website and You Want to Build Authority
Brian Dean posted a case study a few years ago formalizing the process of writing content that goes head and shoulders above the competition. He gave it a proprietary name: skyscraper technique. It has earned him over 11,000 backlinks from 2.49 referring domains to date.
The post itself is an example of how long-form posts tend to get more mentions from other websites – when they are promoted well. It won’t be wrong to call this post the pioneer of long-form posts coming into the mainstream.
And the reason is: It earns links for your website. A prospect you cold email would feel better referring to comprehensive skyscraper content (without fluff) from their site over an 800-word article.
Skyscraper content is also something that requires effort to fine-tune and master, so the barrier for entry is high. Google, too, prefers websites with topical expertise. So, for building your brand’s authority and getting love from the search giant, covering a subject in-depth should be your priority.
But there are other creative ways to organically build links to your site and gain authority, such as creating free software, running PR-driven campaigns, or even creating thought leadership content. They better represent your brand but might require the C-suite to get involved.
Neither of the above are as simple as posting freelance writing jobs and getting contractors to crank 10,000 words a month for a few hundred dollars.
There’s no denying the effectiveness of long-form content in search engines and social media – when done tastefully and while adding value to the readers. However, you must test the validity of this “best practice” for your niche and your audience. Long-form content isn’t a solution for all of your SEO issues.
It should indeed be a part of a larger content strategy. Once you streamline its production, diversify and serve your audience in other content formats and at different lengths. Remember that helping your audience achieve their goals is your priority.
What’s your experience with long-form content outside of the marketing and B2B niche? Let me know in the comments below.