Long-form vs short-form content: Which is better?

October 14, 2016Content Writing
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How long should blog posts be to maximise your content strategy?

It’s a common question among content marketers. While a magic number of words would be ideal, the fact is both short- and long-form content have their place in content marketing. We’ll take you through the pros and cons of both, and explain when it’s best to use them.

The dividing line between short- and long-form content

A rule of thumb is that short-form content is any post with less than 1000 words. This includes Facebook posts, tweets, infographics and memes, as well as longer posts. Long-form content is anything over 1000 words, which could be a 2000-word article or a 10,000-word scientific paper.

study by Cognitive SEO wondered if there was a magic number that would optimise articles for search engine ranking but instead, it uncovered optimal ranges within a category. For example, for content between 100 and 500 words, posts between 317 and 327 words ranked better on search engines.

For posts between 501 and 1000 words the sweet spot is somewhere between 738 and 748 words. This concurs with the BBC’s experience, where its most viral stories in November 2013 had an average word count of 721.

For content between 1001 and 5000 words, articles that average closer to 2,000 words ranked better with search engines.

The posts receiving the most organic traffic for HubSpot are between 2250 and 2500 words. Taking a different approach, Medium measures the length of its posts on reader’s attention span concluding that seven minutes or 1600 words is the optimal length.

The Guardian and The New York Times would agree with its most viral posts in November 2013 averaging 1740 and 2012 words.

In summary:

  • Short-form content is likely to rank higher if it’s around 320 words, or 740 words for more in-depth pieces.
  • Long-form content between 1600 and 2500 words is optimal for content marketing.

 

Long-form content is better for search engine ranking and social sharing (most of the time)

Google’s algorithm remains a carefully guarded secret but some specific factors are known to improve your ranking. Word count is just one aspectGoogle hints it favours, a theory that’s corroborated by several studies that have found longer articles rank higher in long-tail keyword searches.

While long-tail keywords contribute positively to search rankings, they’re not the only factor. Long-form content and long-tail keywords help Google determine if a post has authority on a topic, and the more words a post has, the more likely it will include keywords.

Backlinks, however, are content marketing’s holy grail. The number of backlinks on a page is the greatest correlating factor to page rank on Google, yet75 per cent of posts don’t have any. HubSpot has found the best way to get more external links is by writing longer, more detailed posts. Listicles are another way to generate external links for both short- and long-form content.

Other factors that can influence search engine ranking include domain authority, images, video, the speed of a site and grammatical errors.

While backlinks contribute to search engine ranking, they don’t necessarily convert into social shares, as this study of one million posts found. In fact, people were more likely to link and share in-depth articles that were well researched, as HubSpot, BuzzSumo and QuickSprout have all found.

Short-form content such as quizzes and videos are also shared widely, proving the answer isn’t always straightforward.

In summary:

  • Long-form content can increase the number of keywords, backlinks and social sharing.
  • Short-form content may still rank and be shared if it meets other search engine criteria as well.

 

Short-form content still has an important role in content marketing

Although search engine rankings and social media shares favour long-form content, short-form still has an important role to play in content strategy. When you consider the sheer volume of information we’re bombarded with online every day, it’s no surprise that our attention spans have reduced from 12 to eight seconds. This explains in part why 38 per cent of readers don’t get past the first paragraph when reading online content. People are also increasingly viewing content on mobile devices, which aren’t ideal for reading long text.

So there’s a role for crisp, clear and brief content. Quick bites of information are easier to consume but only when the information lends itself to a shorter format. After all, who wouldn’t share this?

Short-form content doesn’t have to be limited to memes or jokes. Specific information can be conveyed in 1000 words. Most news and opinion columns are between 500 to 700 words, and CNN’s viral news stories in November 2013 had an average word count of 938. It’s also possible to answer specific questions or provide more in-depth information with a video like this post.

Including an image or video may also improve search rankings, 55 per cent of search results in the US included a video, and make the post more memorable.

In summary:

  • Short-form content can address shortening attention spans and high bounce rates.
  • Some specific forms of content are more suitable as short-form.

 

Just writing words isn’t enough to produce good long-form content

It’s not enough to just create content over 1000 words. It must still be relevant to the reader and demonstrate depth of knowledge on the topic. Include solid research and data-backed examples to enhance your position as an expert. Fluffy words that simply boost word count will lose readers and may also lower your content marketing success rates.

For example, depth of content really made a difference to Crazy Egg when revamping its home page.
Here are the original and revised pages.

While the length wasn’t the only change made, the sign-up section included considerably more information for readers about the value the product would provide to their business. As a result, sign-ups increased by 116 per cent.

Long-form content can also still address the issues of shortening attention spans and bounce rates. Effective techniques include sub-headings, listicles or even breaking up technical papers into a series of smaller (but still long-form) topics. Another approach is to include a summary paragraph at the top of the article like the The Daily Mail.

Creating long-form content can also be time consuming so it makes sense to get the most out of it by producing evergreen content when appropriate.

In summary:

  • Long form content should demonstrate your expertise not just words.
  • Use techniques to make the content easier to scan and read.

 

Quality will always beat quantity

Regardless of length, your content marketing strategy should seek to address the audience’s pain points or problems. The more relevant your article is, the more chance the right people will find it, appreciate it and even be enticed to purchase.

People consume information in different ways so it’s always good to mix it up in your content strategy. Different article sizes, images, infographics and videos all provide readers with various options to hear your message.

 

So, which is better?

  • Long-form content is more likely to rank higher with search engines and be shared on social media.
  • Some content still lends itself more readily to short-form.
  • Short-form content can be easier to read and scan.
  • Irrespective of word count, good content must always be relevant and valuable to the reader.

 

 

If you’d like to learn more about how you can optimise your content marketing, why not talk to one of our consultants here?