(Image via Unsplash.)
Every discussion about online article or blog post length revolves around these questions:
- Do short or long-form posts rank higher on search engine result pages?
- Which get shared most on social networks?
- Which bring more value to the business?
- Which bring more value to the user?
Just to make it clear, the break between short and long-form posts seems to be approximately 2,000 words. There’s no hard and fast rule, but that’s simply what shakes out after looking at the available information.
Other needed clarifications:
Google is the search engine used for statistics. While their market share has diminished, an article on Search Engine Land concludes it is still well out front of its competitors. In 2014, Google generated “between 80 percent and 90 percent of all organic [non-advertising-related] visits” to websites. As of December 2015, that number had dropped to 75 percent, but still accounts for more searches than all other engines combined.
Searches do equate to clicks. A study from Moz.com showed that, out of every 100 organic clicks on a Google search engine results page, 71 come from the first page, and 68 of those are from the top five results. That’s definitive. Whether you have click rates which translate to dollars for your business is so organization- and locale-specific that even in a long-form post like this one, we’ll touch on it only very lightly below.
Does sharing bump your ranking in Google?
There are two forms of sharing, though they’re not always lumped together:
- Backlinks: When another site links to a post.
- Social Media Sharing: Individuals sharing a post, usually across social media.
Originally, only backlinks mattered to search engine ranking, but social media and social media sharing do impact search rankings, though the impact isn’t necessarily direct.
Backlinks. Backlinks are dangerous if they get out of hand. They were the first search factors where people tried to game the system, so one of Google’s early updates and many subsequent ones leveled penalties for what would come to be labeled “black-hat” search engine optimization (SEO). This included “basic link-quality issues, such as massive linking from co-owned domains [and they…] came down hard on hidden text and hidden links.” Further algorithm updates would take out link farms and other link-associated issues in terms of their ability to gain traction on Google search rankings.
While people are still trying to game that particular system, the consensus is that if a reputable site links to your page or post, it’s a good thing, and seems to improve Google ranking, but that’s hard to prove. So, backlinks still matter to a page’s rank, but spammy ones will get you the can.
Social media sharing. As of January 2015, according to Shareaholic, the opt-in websites comprising their data sources reported “the top 8 social networks drove 31.24% of overall traffic to sites.”
This rather astonishing figure was largely driven by Facebook, and the social media giant was one of only two whose traffic referrals grew year over year. All others in the report found their share of web traffic declining. Twitter, LinkedIn and the rest contributed a total of just under 2 percent of the traffic in the survey. Facebook drove 25 percent of traffic, and Pinterest came in at 5 percent.
Does a post or page’s shared status on social media matter to a Google search? Well, Barry Schwartz says on the Search Engine Round Table, “Social signals do not influence your ranking.” That’s apparently in terms of direct influence, because he goes on to say, “There is a correlation to content ranking well in search and being shared a lot, because it is good content. But there is no direct ranking signal in Google’s ranking algorithm.”
Long-form posts excel across every channel
Longer posts rank higher on Google.
According to experts, the average word count for posts and pages that land in the top ten spots on Google is a bit over 2,000 words in position 10, and a bit over 2,450 coming in at No. 1 on the results page.
He does go on to say the average content length of pages landing in the top ten results on Google is confounded somewhat by a lot of factors, but mostly by the age of the domain, which gets you very nearly identical results.
This suggests, while content length is a factor, it’s not the only one. However, Espiritu believes:
[An average post length of 1,500 is] a good target. This isn’t a steadfast rule – you’ll need to adjust this target to fit the niche that you’re in… If writing isn’t your strong point, finding someone who can create compelling sales copy, blog posts or informative content is going to pay off in a big way down the road.
Longer posts get more backlinks.
According to Moz, there is a correlation (note, he does not say “causation”) between longer-content posts and more backlinks, as well.
Longer posts get shared more.
Buzzsumo also has published clear data that shows longer posts get shared more across all social media and all post lengths. Posts under 1,000 words get shared least, even though “There were 16 times more [posts] with less than 1000 words than there were [posts] with 2000+ words.” They suggest that any business wanting to improve in a competitive environment should, “aim for at least 2,000 words per post.”
Why do long-form posts rise to the top on Google?
There are at least 200 Google ranking factors, and having longer posts is certainly correlated with success in reaching the top ten. But that’s correlation, not necessarily causation. So, while long-form posts perform better in searches, no one is willing to nail down “why.”
It may not be the content itself, in the sense of the reader actually reading all of it. A study from 2008 showed users read far less than half of the text on a page once you get past a hundred words, and “more realistically, users read about 20% of the text on the average page.” However, they’re also clear that people “spend more time on a page with more information.” Their figures essentially boil down to about 80 seconds spent on a 2,000-word article, on average. They estimate that gives the average reader time to read about 360 words of the article.
So, if people aren’t reading it, why is Google give it a higher ranking? Well, for one thing, Google’s bots read every single word. And long-form posts, by their very nature, meet and exceed a number of other ranking factors. A very few of the 200 ranking factors are shown below, all taken from Brian Dean’s long-form (5,780 words) article on backlinko.com.
- Keyword is Most Frequently Used Phrase: The keywords for a long-form post can appear numerous times, and in many variations, because there’s time to do so while making cogent and informed points. Much harder to accomplish in a short post.
- Content Length: There’s obviously some impact, though hard to put a number on how much.
- Outbound Link Quality: In a long-form post, you have more room to create quality outbound links without linking too much and impacting your search ranking negatively.
- Auto-Generated Content: Much harder in the current state of the technology for a bot to write longer, more in-depth content, so there may be a bump in legitimacy simply because it’s unlikely to be auto-generated.
Google introduced the “in-depth articles” feature into their search results in August 2013, and has also published instructions to webmasters on how to help their posts show up in the feature. Not ignoring this feature, but there seems to be quite a bit of consensus across the SEO community that the changes they’ve made since 2013 make them indistinguishable on a given search results page. So, while a given long post may show up in the top ten, there’s very little that identifies it as a long vs. short treatment of the subject.
There’s also simply the fact that it’s a longer post and there are more possible indexes for the bot to scan. According to Neil Patel on QuickSprout.com:
There are different content types that get indexed — page title, headlines (H1, H2, H3, etc.), metadata, alt tags on images, etc. The more content you have, the more of it gets indexed. The more that gets indexed, the better it will perform in searches and results. It’s just that simple.
He’s also clear that “long content garners more link-backs.”
Why do long-form posts generate more shares and more backlinks?
The short answer—no one really knows why long posts get shared more, or why they get more backlinks. Lots of correlations, but causation is missing in action. It goes even further back, as a study done by the University of Pennsylvania on the 2008-2009 New York Times‘ list of their articles that were e-mailed most also found longer articles were more likely to get sent out. When asked why, they basically shrugged and said maybe the longer articles were more appealing to the reader.
Do long posts also bring more value to the business? To the user?
There are statistics showing longer posts get converted more and garner significantly higher return on investment.
MarketingExperiments.com performed a long vs. short copy test, and “long copy clearly outperformed short copy in all three tests,” with their ten-day test showing a 50 percent ROI for the longer page and the shorter page coming in at Negative 66 percent ROI. They are very clear, however, that there’s a quality component:
KEY POINT: The long vs. short debate often overlooks the most important factor when it comes to website copy: quality. High-quality short copy will outperform poorly written long copy every time. The best possible copy should be developed and tested before you even begin to worry about the long vs. short debate.
Which brings us to that final question, whether short or long-form posts bring more value to the user. It’s possible that the piece of the causation puzzle that everyone’s missing is what Google has said they were striving for from the beginning—user value.
Unlike the dollar value that advertisers put on a post, whether income or expense, user value is completely individual. There is, for instance, user value in advertising, especially if a user is in the market for whatever is being sold. And, in fact, long-copy print advertising has a venerable and successful history that goes back as far as 1915.
Users talk with their clicks—and long-form posts, pages, and advertising all get more user attention and shares than short-form. Hands down, across the board. We may not know why they value the longer form, but the data shows without exception they do.
More questions, and the future of long-form posts
Why, if we’ve known for some time that long posts work, do 16 times more posts get put up that are under 1,000 words than posts that are 2,000+? And what is the future of the long-form post? Will mobile kill it?
In a recent e-mail interview, Scott Yates, CEO of verblio.com, who is uniquely qualified to express an opinion on post length, had these answers:
Q: Since long-form posts bring more value, get more hits and shares and quality link-backs, why aren’t people and businesses putting more of them up?
A: Actually, I would say it’s for the same reason we developed [Verblio (formerly BlogMutt)]. Quality content means writing, which means time, resources and talent that many companies just don’t have in-house.
Q: Your long-form post subscription is 1,200+ words. Do you see demand for even longer posts?
A: We’re a customer-driven company, so our subscriptions are based on what our clients ask for—and to this point, we have not had a lot of demand for posts longer than 1,200. We can accommodate requests for longer posts, and we may add that in the future. Just editing and managing a post that long takes time, which is something that most of our customers just don’t have.
Q: Do you think the “short attention span” factor on the part of the customer that most companies cite as the reason for putting up short posts is true?
A: I think it’s a combination of the “busy-ness” that small business operators face, and the companies’ lack of time element. If everyone was too busy to read, Amazon wouldn’t have turned Kindle into the smash hit that it has been. The stats show clearly that long-form posts are being read and shared the most.
Q: What about the stat that shows users read only 20 percent of the text on an average page?
A: Averages are deceiving. If the average is 20%, that means approximately half of the posts are read much more than that. Even more importantly, users are sharing, linking to and searching for these posts. Also… 20 percent of a 250-word post is not very much at all, but 20 percent of this post is a good chunk of reading!
Q: Statistics also show mobile users may be scrolling down and selecting follow-on search results past the first ten at a higher rate than traditional users. Does that surprise you?
A: Actually, no it doesn’t surprise me at all. Mobile users are getting larger phones, but smartphone screens used to be quite tiny. These users are used to reading content by sliding as far as they wish to down the page. Mobile’s changing so much about the Internet, and the fact that it’s changing this factor is not surprising at all.
Q: Do you think it will change the long-form content statistics?
A: No I don’t think they’ll change much, and for the same reason – mobile users are used to scrolling, and text has always been easier to optimize for mobile screens than images.
Q: The magic number for posts is clearly 2,000 words, but what do you say to businesses that can’t get that done once a week, let alone once a month?
A: All the research here is correct, but the most important thing is to get blog posts up regularly. If you can’t get a long one done, so you do nothing on your blog, you’ll lose to competitors who get up a crappy 150-word post. That post may be crap, but it’s way more than the zero words you are getting up.
Editor’s note from Scott Yates: I LOVE this post. One of the Verblio writers proposed this topic to me, and I was a bit nervous, but then Lisa just nailed it. She even wrote the little Q and A for me, filling in my answers. I tweaked a couple of them a little bit. I’m so deep in the trees I don’t see the forest sometimes, and this post really does that.