When it comes to long form content, what really matters?

How long should your next blog post be? Well, the correct answer is always, “as long as it needs to be”, but with a growing trend towards seriously long form content, is a 2,000+ word blog the right sweet spot for long form content? 

Ten years ago, long form content would have been anything over 1,000 words. Then, this jumped to over 2,000 words. More recently, truly long form content can be anything up to 7-10,000 words. At this point, you have to start wondering whether ‘blog’ is the right word for it. Essay, short story, novella?

In fact, we know that ‘blog’ can and does cover a range of informational content. We also know is that long form content performs. Some research has found evidence to suggest that content that is over 7,000 words drive almost four times more traffic than articles of average length (900-1,200 words).

This begs the question…

Why long form content now?

Mainly, because two groups want it. Users want it, and Google wants it. 

Over the years, Google has basically been trying to serve people the exact piece of content they need at that time. And content producers have – hopefully – been trying to create that content for their audiences. Google has updated its algorithm to achieve it’s aims, and content producers have adapted to those changes. 

The Panda update of 2012 specifically targeted “thin” content, encouraging a trend to longer-form, more substantiative content. The updated “EAT” guidelines, whilst not an algorithm update per se, clearly laid out Google’s policies around how it was assessing content for expertise, authority and trustworthiness – particularly in sensitive and regulated sectors. More recently, we have seen Passage Ranking, where Google now ranks part of a page and a passage of the most pertinent content, rather than the whole page, and we have Multitask Unified Model (MUM). This update aims to provide multiple answers to complex questions with the search results so, as an example, if a user was to search for treks to Mt. Fuji, Google would also present information about flights to Japan, recommendations for hiking equipment and accommodation listings.

So what we have is a concerted drive by Google to encourage publishers to provide more, better researched and more substantive content through changes to its algorithms and policies. The net effect of that is that publishers are producing longer-form content. 

Long form reading

Is long form content actually the answer? 

Whilst these algorithm and policy updates have arguably fuelled a trend in longer-form content, it’s important to remember that the aim of these updates has never been to flood the internet with more words. Or at least, more words than necessary. 

Because long form content is not without its drawbacks. Making long form content accessible to users on mobile devices can be difficult, navigating long form content can be difficult and, quite simply, users are not always inclined to go through thousands of words to find what they want – and that is the real issue. 

The aim of Google was never to encourage more content, but to encourage better content. Content that serves the needs of the user, giving them what they want at that moment in time. The drive to create longer content and the fixation on word counts can detract from that. A user searching for reassuring information on a financial services product will probably accept a longer form piece of content that guides them through their options. A user looking to see what time their local branch opens probably isn’t prepared to tolerate lengthy prose about the history of the store before they reach the opening hours listings.  

We need to become less focused on length and word counts, and more focused on what the intent of our audiences are and what they’re looking for in that moment, because that is the real definition of quality content. 

If we do need longer content, we can make it easier for our audiences to access it.

On those occasions where we do need longer form content, what’s important is to create it with our audience in mind and think about the way in which they will consume it. Long walls of text can often be daunting, so we need to think about not just the substance of the content, but the first impression that it makes. 

From an SEO perspective, we can think about our keyword clustering, where we decide which articles and pages are going to cover which topics. This is useful because it means that we can attempt to direct traffic for certain terms to one specific page (rather than having pages competing with each other). We may decide that an article will only cover one or two search terms or it might be that, based on who is ranking, search volumes and user intent, an article needs to cover a range of topics and therefore needs to be a little longer. And don’t downplay the importance of competitive analysis here, looking at what is ranking for terms that you want to rank for and judging both the length and substance of that content. 

Once we have decided on our clustering approach, optimised headers can help break up articles into usable and useful chunks, letting Google know exactly what your piece will be covering.

From a user experience perspective, consider how users are going to work their way through your content. Is the answer to a question that someone might ask buried deep within 7,000 words of text? If so, consider your on-page navigation to help users find those answers. Good page and narrative structure can also help here. 

Clear and relevant calls to action, even on lengthy blogs, can help users to navigate content – particularly if more relevant or detailed content is available elsewhere on site. If you are using CTAs, be clear on where you are actually taking the user.  

Graphics, videos and images are also very effective at condensing information and explaining complex content in a way that may be much more user friendly. But use these as a complement to the written content, not as a replacement. Video and graphic content is not always accessible to users, so the written content plays an important role here. 

The fundamentals of long form content are the same as the fundamentals for any content. 

Longer content is not necessarily better content and it is important we remember that when we have conversations around how Google wants to promote “authority” and “expertise”, and how it wants to discourage “thin” content that lacks substance. 

What matters is that we deliver what the end user would expect from a credible brand or publisher that meets their need and intent at that given moment. 

So, of course, a user would expect good writing practice and content focused on the subject matter. A user would expect clear language they can understand, rather than being bamboozled by jargon. A user would want content that they can trust and has been carefully crafted and researched by a subject matter expert, not something rushed out by someone with no understanding of the issue. 

When you do that, your content will often naturally find its length. Do you need to produce 7,000 words on how to plant lavender, under the justification of “SEO” when 500 words will do the job perfectly? Can you adequately explain your complex financial services product in a couple of hundred words and feel that the end-user would understand what they were buying? If you started data-gating 500-word pieces of thought leadership, is that an acceptable value exchange, or would your audience feel short-changed? 

It’s not the size that matters.

Long form content is a tool like any other in the content creators’ arsenal. The key is to know when to use it and when to leave it at home. 

Consider your audience first and foremost – who is reading it, where are they reading it, what do they want to get out of it, and is this the best way to get the answers to them. 

Written by, Jonathan Brown, Senior Content Editor, digital marketing agency Stickyeyes

Jonathan Brown, Stickyeyes

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