Given that the average time spent on a website in 2014 was 15 seconds, it might seem surprising that many seo experts recommend articles of 1500-2000 words.
Orbit Media firmly places the ideal blog post length at 1500 words. Neil Patel of Quicksprout says that all things considered, ‘long is usually better’ and Buffer Social, by way of a lovely zoo-themed infographic, recommends making blog posts 1600 words long.
But if the majority of readers are only glancing at the first few paragraphs, all that word-crafting seems like a bit of a waste. So what’s driving the trend for longer posts?
Shares and link-juice
According to a report from social analytics firm NewsWhip, the answer is simple: longer articles receive more shares on social.
NewsWhip collected the ten most shared news articles from various major publishers and calculated the average word-count. The BBC’s average was around 700 words, but Huffington Post and the Guardian’s were over 1000 words. The New York Times cleared the 2000 word mark.
Since the advent of ‘no-follow’ links, the role of social signals in influencing SERP rankings has become a bit hazy, but all those shares mean more eyes on your content – and there’s a good chance that if it’s being shared on social, it’s being linked to in other places too. Seo giant Moz found that posts between 1800-3000 words were linked to over 15 times more than posts of 600 words or less.
Long-form articles also have lots more room to slide in keywords, links, sub-headings, answers to long-tail search queries and images (complete with optimised alt-text). So the ‘standard’ seo ranking factors are well-supported by longer formats too.
What’s behind the rise in high-performing long-form articles?
The rise of long-form articles spreading through social media might reflect the changing way we are using the web, and the improved usability of online platforms. If people are happy to be online for longer, why not give them something longer to read?
Fifteen years ago, reading online meant sitting hunched in front of a desktop squinting at an impenetrable block of Times New Roman. Now that digital is mainstream, and devices are an integral part of daily life, it’s much more comfortable and natural to read online, especially when you can do it anywhere you like. Swipe through an article on your tablet in lieu of the Sunday newspapers as you relax at home, or digest a story on your smartphone while sitting on the train, and you’ll be one of many.
Supporting these behaviours, there’s more investment into making things user-friendly online. Designers, coders, writers and device manufacturers have collectively raised the bar, creating a standard for online reading experiences that are helpfully formatted and easy to scan, navigate and share, even on the smallest screens.
The power of the comment
With a longer word-count, there’s room to argue a case and put forward an original opinion. You can dig into the finer details of an argument, or report in-depth on a little-known topic. Perfect for the type of article someone might consume in their leisure time, think deeply about and discuss with friends. It’s a familiar print journalism favourite in a new format – the in-depth feature article gone digital. But now it has an added dimension, thanks to the interactive nature of the internet.
This type of long-form content is perfect for sparking a debate in a series of comments. Deep, discursive articles are great conversation-fodder, and conversation is after all what social media’s all about. It’s also a handy way for sharers to co-opt some of the writers’ originality and bolster their personal brand online (and yes, strategic social sharing is absolutely a thing.)
Is extra-short as good as extra-long?
Kevin Delaney, editor of business news site Quartz, thinks that the medium-length content niche is just too saturated already: ‘Too much reporting is 700-word articles that everyone else has got.’
He has pledged never to publish anything at 500-800 words – an article length that was once considered standard practice online. Instead, Quartz publishes either short bites of content under 500 words, or in-depth, analytical articles over 1200 words, striking for the territory either side of the well-worn 700-word groove.
What are the limitations of long-form content?
It sounds obvious, but the major pitfall to avoid is creating long articles just for the sake of it. If an seo expert recommends a 1000-1500 word article to boost your search rankings, the last thing you want to do is create a dull, padded-out article that will undo any seo benefit by boring your readers and detracting from your brand.
We know that longer articles perform well, but that doesn’t mean length is the only factor driving their success. If you want to go big, you need to think about what you’re going to do with all that wordcount.
We’ve been producing content for nearly 20 years, and we know one thing never really changes when it comes to doing it well – you need to put the reader first, and you need to give them a good reason to keep reading.
When not to write long…
While longer-form content has an important role in seo success, there are a few places it doesn’t belong. Write too much in these situations and you’re likely to bore or annoy your audience.
- Task-focused content
When the objective is to solve a user’s problem, guide them through a task or help them understand a process, only use as many words as you need to. Then stop. If you can explain what they need to know in 100 words, they won’t thank you for making them wade through 500 (or 1000 or 2000). There are some cases where task-focused content needs to be long and detailed (particle physics, how to complete your tax return) but plenty of others where it really doesn’t. (How to change a toilet roll, what’s the price of a stamp.)
- Light-hearted and straightforward content
Some topics just won’t stand up to the scrutiny of a long-form article. If you try to write a 2000-word article on subjects most people take only a passing interest in – for example the best home insurance providers – you’re likely to either bore people to tears or appeal to a very specialist interest group only.
- Time-sensitive content
As NewsWhip’s figures for the BBC show, news articles are less likely to be long-form. When the aim is to report the facts in a story, front-load your piece with the most important details, then the next most important, and let it tail off along with the number of people reading – following the famous inverted-pyramid structure. The long-form articles discussing the ramifications of the news can come later.
- Contentious topics
You might want to cover something topical and a bit controversial, such as a new regulation or an industry trend, without weighing in on either side of the debate. If so, you may struggle to write something both interesting and neutral in a long-form article. This is especially true when there are compliance considerations to think about as you’ll be limited in what you can say.
Top tips for writing long
Finally, if you are going to write a long-form piece, here are our tips for doing it well…
- Use a brief that goes the distance. If you’re commissioning someone else to write a long-form piece (or even if you want to plan your own work better), create a brief that sets out the scope of the piece, source material, anything to include and avoid, and the overall business objectives.
- Pay extra attention to the research and planning of your article – and factor this into the time you will spend on the piece. Map it out first with a skeleton structure.
- Incorporate images and graphics to break up chunks of text. Reporting from Hubspot shows that in the top 100 highest-ranking blogs, there’s an image every 350 words.
- Remember your digital copywriting best practice – clear headlines, hook-you-in standfirsts, subheads and helpful link text will all help keep readers interested.
- Think about using an anchor link list at the top of the piece. Signposting the content within your article like this helps busy people zip to the part they’re interested in.
- For extra usability points, add a reading time at the top of the piece. Long-form specialist news site Longreads.com includes a read time as standard (eg 3122 words, 13 minutes) to help you select the perfect piece for your coffee-break.