Balancing Time and Value: Short vs Long Form Content

"How long do my blog posts need to be?"

The battle between long form and short form content has been raging for years, but there was once a time when most websites didn't publish high quality content. Instead, website administrators would frequently engage in low quality marketing techniques and tricky schemes to rise to the top of the search engines.

In the early and mid 2000's, Google wasn't nearly as sophisticated as it is today, and lacked the algorithms to check for content quality. As such, the web was littered with content that was only 300 words in length and heavily laden with keyword spam.

And the end result wasn't pretty.

It simply wasn't as easy to find the answers to your questions as it is today. Fortunately, Google dropped the hammer on these types of dubious marketing practices and has drastically increased the quality of web content. But most of you have probably already stumbled upon a question that leaves many small business marketers scratching their heads.

If content that's only a few hundred words might put your website on Google's naughty list, how long should your content be?

How long is long enough, and how long is too long?

Like many other things in life, the answers to this question are very nuanced, and not really black and white. There seems to be some contention among online marketers regarding what constitutes long form vs short form content, too.

Some people might haggle over where to draw the line via word counts, but doing so is just splitting hairs. Let's dig into the advantages and disadvantages of long form vs short form content.

Short Form and Long Form Content Defined

Though there isn't really a definite word count, most people would agree that long form content is usually greater than 1,500 words in length. And there has been a lot of debate about the efficacy of long form content on the modern web.

Not too long ago, people thought that long form content was going the way of the dinosaurs. Millennials are notorious for having shorter attention spans due to growing up in the age of the Internet, and not many people want to read an article over 3,000 words in length on a tiny mobile device screen.

But surprisingly enough, these predictions haven't yet come to fruition. Research firm SERPIQ conducted a study in 2012 showing that roughly 80% of the top ten results on page one of Google were over 2,000 words in length. Google has undergone many changes since then, but there still seems to be a trend of long form content performing well, so it doesn't seem to have gone extinct just yet.

On the other hand,  short form content is typically less than 1,500 words. However, I would subjectively claim that short form content needs to be more than 300-400 words in length. Otherwise, you're not talking about much more than a long paragraph.

Five years ago, if a client gave us a long form piece of content, we'd actually break it up into two or three parts, and use each of those as a separate blog. Nowadays we are doing just the opposite - the longer the content, the better.  Well, as long as it's not thin...

Minimalist or "Thin" Content

As a quick side note, I did want to talk about content that's only a hundred or a couple hundred words in length. Most pages that are the meat and potatoes of your site shouldn't consist of such a short blurb, especially if you're trying to rank for any keywords. But there are a few times when extremely short word counts are acceptable – or even necessary.

The two largest examples I can think of are product 'short' descriptions and landing pages:

Ecommerce websites typically have two areas to explain their product - the 'short' description and the actual product description. The short one should be, well, short. Typically just a quick few sentences that explain the main benefits or features of the product. This short description usually shows up near the top of the product page, and is a 'quick guide' to help the visitor decide if they are looking at the correct product or not.

Landing pages, in many cases, should actually be blocked from the search engines in the first place. They are inherently short and succinct, with only one purpose - to get the visitor to do one thing. Sign up, click a button, watch a video.

Some marketers  choose to use video content on landing pages, in which case the amount of text can be pretty minimal.

These two types of pages aren't truly content though. As a general rule of thumb, I would recommend making sure the majority of your content is at least 650 words in length, if not more.

Which Is Best? Long Form or Short Form Content?

There are some questions you can ask to help decide which is most appropriate for your audience. Remember, Google's biggest concern is a quality customer experience; likewise, your main concern should be producing content that your visitors and audience will love.

But how much do they know already? Developing personas is a great marketing tool for understanding your audience that will help you identify different segments of traffic, but that's not the only consideration you need to make.

When trying to determine how long content should be, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Why did your users click on the content in the first place?

Understanding why visitors clicked on links to your website can unveil a lot of information about their intentions. User intent can be gleaned from marketing data, website statistics (bounce rate, demographics, location, etc.), and even keywords.

  1. How much time does your audience have, and what level of interest will your content command?

If you're producing click-bait roundups of video content aggregating the cutest puppy sneezes to promote a local animal shelter, chances are your users don't have a lot of time or interest in the subject. As such, short form content is going to be the better tool to employ.

  1. How informed is each persona regarding the subject matter? Will they need to be educated?

If your audience came to your site to digest content that teaches them something, long form content is likely your better option. This applies to how-to guides, product reviews, and educational content. Though not always, most often long form content serves to better educate your audience.

  1. Are there any content production bottlenecks?

Content production constraints may make it impossible or unfeasible to produce certain types of content. If you lack the necessary resources, you may not be able to make a desired portion of your content long enough.  This is the small business owner's battle - is it worth the time?

My answer is an unequivocal Yes.

I Don't Have Time to Create Long Form Content

Yes, most business owners don't find writing fun. But I'd challenge you to find the time to do it. Taking the time to write longer content from an expert's point of view far exceeds the value of the time it takes you to create it.

If you sell something that many others across the country sell as well, you could always hire writers to create content for you - but don't think you're getting off that easy. Give them a few topics (not keywords) and let them research and write.  Then you can edit the final draft, adding in your special expertise.  This is a great way to kickstart your content creation, and will give you the content you need at a savings of time - but of course you still have to pay the writers!

By the way: We have an SEO writing service if you need to get content going for your website.

What Should I Do With My Short Blogs?

It's very likely, if you've been blogging for some time (or paying someone to do it) that there is a lot of thin and low quality content, particularly in your older blogs.  We recommend a few things.

First, if you're using WordPress, use a plugin like Export All URLs to export all your blog titles to an Excel file. From there, pick out any blog titles that seem to really be about the same thing - it's possible that they could be combined into one longer, more powerful post. Republish them together on the oldest of the posts, and delete and redirect the other posts to the new, improved one.

Second, pick out any topics that no longer conform with your mission or match your target market and delete them. Don't waste your time on content that attracts people you don't really want as customers. You should write redirects for these blogs, but since they don't really match any other content, you can't really send them to anything that's similar. In this case I'd recommend redirecting them to your home page.

Third, for the content/topics that you know are good, it's time to reboot them.  One by one go through and add as much value as you can. Then simply change the published date to today and hit update. Do not change the permalink. This will send a signal to the search engines that the content is new and updated, but the 'history' of the URL will stay intact. Lastly, consider adding someone to the title to let people know it's new info, such as a "Second Edition" or "[UPDATED]" before the blog title. We do this a lot for our older posts, and it works phenomenally well.

Short vs Long Form Content: My Final Thoughts

The debate still rages on between long and short form content tribes, and there isn't a definite answer regarding which one is the best (although I'd say long form is winning). It's a very nuanced idea, though the core of your decision should be centered around user experience. As long as you align your content goals with Google's user experience goals, you should be able to rank well and choose the appropriate length for your content.

Lastly, I would like to advise against extremely short content, especially if it's just written to target keywords. Those types of pages look cheap, poor, and undesirable to the Google algorithm. Don't waste your time.

About 

Will Hanke owns Saint Louis' top independent Internet Marketing firm, Red Canoe Media. In addition to helping some of St Louis' most recognizable brands with their online marketing strategy, Will also is an Amazon bestselling author, speaker and teacher.

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