For a long time the Holy Grail of blogging was the 500-word blog post. It was the winning formula. It worked every time. Until it didn't.
Then in August 2013, Google updated their algorithm for showing search results for in-depth articles. Google explained this by saying that "up to 10% of users' daily information needs involve learning about a broad topic." And so we saw an influx of brands publishing upward of 2,000 words per post!
So, going forward, which form of content should you focus your content creation energy on: short or long, or perhaps a mix? If you go for a mix, then at what ratio? Let's look at some factors you need to consider that will help you make this decision.
A caveat before we proceed: I think we can all agree that content length for the sake of length is not just a dumb strategy, but it will backfire all of the advantages discussed below. So we'll continue this analysis with the hypothesis that all content being created, whether long or short, meets quality criteria (i.e., it is valuable, helpful, entertaining, etc.).
Long-form content is described as content that is typically 2,000 words in length or thereabouts and makes for a compelling, insightful read. Examples of long-form content include whitepapers, e-books, guides, resources, videos, and webinars.
- Google has a dedicated ranking mechanism for long articles.
- Keeps audience on site longer, increases engagement.
- Supports evergreen, foundational content.
- Presents a broader, deeper view on the topic.
- Caters to a deeply invested audience.
- Provides quality backlinks.
- Establishes credibility and thought-leadership.
- People don't always have time to read.
- Short attention spans.
- Typically less shareable.
- Probably won't go viral.
- Length itself doesn't guarantee higher ranking.
Here's what experts in the long-form content camp have to say about its value:
According to Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, "The average post on WordPress is 280 words long, and that's remained 'relatively constant' over the past few years." Examples of short-form content include blog posts that are less than 1,000 words, list posts, Vine videos, and infographics.
- People scan online, rather than read.
- Lends itself to being shared.
- Attract more eyeballs.
- Potential to go viral.
- Spouts me-too content.
- People have become blind to formulaic posts.
- Can't go in-depth into topic.
- Too shallow.
- May not provide enough info about topic.
People in the short-form content camp include Mark Schaefer and Jakob Nielsen.
Long vs. Short Content: Which Should You Create More of?
So, which form of content should you be focused on creating? Common sense would dictate that you produce both types of content because both serve a different need. But how you decide what ratio they should be in? How much long-form and how much short content should you be producing?
It really depends on six questions:
1. What Stage of Business Are You At?
Early-stage start-ups may not have the resources or time required to produce long-form content. They would be looking to gain traction sooner rather than later and so might prefer shorter stories that would be more likely to be shared.
Conversely, a business that's an industry heavyweight would have both the expertise and the resources to produce foundation-building evergreen long-form content.
2. What's Your Personality & Style?
Seth Godin produces blog posts in small spurts. That's his style. Is that your style? Does that suit your business's tone and voice?
Your decision to go long or short will also depend on what matches the style that is most authentic to your personality. You will attract an audience who loves you for your style and personality, rather than the other way around of building a style to support an audience you feel you should be catering to. I'm a big believer in being authentic because anything else is not a sustainable strategy.
3. What's the Goal of Your Content?
Your answer may be different if your goal is to be a NY Times best-selling author versus becoming your industry's go-to news guy. What are the goals you wish to achieve with your content: engagement, discussion, industry status, shareability, traffic, search rankings, or more?
It's OK for goals to evolve and change with time as your business grows. Develop content according to the goals it can achieve today.
4. What Platform Will It Be Consumed On?
It's a no-brainer to remember that people prefer consuming short-form content on their mobiles while they are on-the-go.
Tablets are traditionally used to read e-books and watch movies since we're comfortable with holding the lightweight devices in our hands for a longer time.
Desktops and laptops can potentially be used to consume both short-form (Twitter Web) and long-form (downloadable guides) content.
5. Who's the End Consumer?
Who's your audience: people bored on the Internet looking for something funny or industry professionals? The length of your content and therefore, its appeal, would depend on what kind of material your customer most prefers.
6. What Are the Topic's Requirements?
What does the topic itself require? For example, if you're tackling an ultimate guide that would naturally demand long-form content versus if you're writing about celebrity gossip.
Although for some businesses it makes sense to produce only long-form or only short-form content, for most of us, it makes sense to choose both.
So what should the ratio be? Some businesses might be more suited to producing more of long-form than short, while others may benefit from shorter bite-sized nuggets.
Look at the table below and decide for yourself how these six fields may influence your content length decision:
These are rough guidelines, but you can use them as a starting point when deciding which type of content to produce. Ultimately, though, whichever form of content you create, it must meet your current goals.