Should I write long or short content? That’s a question frequently raised by content marketers.

Before you decide, you need to clarify what your objective is. Shares, hits, emails, search engine rankings, quality leads, sales or some slippery dream?

I’ve heard so many respected people debate the issue, yet reach no consensus. So when my friend Sue Horner recently wrote about the need to write short for impatient people, I decided to revisit some of the research.

Short-haired-DachshundBusy readers

Like Sue, I strongly believe that short content is usually the best. We are all busy.

Plus I’m put off by content that’s unnecessarily long, because the creator has not bothered, or doesn’t know how, to keep content concise. Clue: think clearly before writing and chop like crazy after.

I fall asleep over long content by authors still trying to satisfy an old professor’s word-count requirements. I’ve worked with too many well-educated people who think that efforts to tighten their writing, or make it easier to understand, mean they’re being dumbed them down.

Smarten up

The opposite is true, as anyone knows who has wrangled hundreds of words into a tight tagline.

Still, I’d read many successful people who claimed better results from longer content. And let me confess that I often enjoy longer content, when the writing style is enthralling as Copyblogger or the posts as indepth as the venerable Atlantic.

On the other hand, I love the short posts of Seth Godin and appreciate writers who can say much in few words. I have fun snacking on content bits on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

I know Google favors long, in-depth content over thin content. I’ve even had editors tell me to pad guest posts so they reach the 500-word threshold. Now Googles wants more.

More than algorithms

But while everyone wants to rank highly in search, smart content creators know that pleasing the robots is only the beginning.

Sue’s post was inspired by Jakob Nielsen, the usability expert we’re both fans of. His research confirms that people spend seconds scanning content. I agree, especially when it comes to email.

But let’s listen to some other experts. According to Salma Jafri at Search Engine Watch, the decision on length should depend on several factors.

Examine your needs

Newer businesses should focus on shorter, shareable content, she advised, while industry heavyweights should pour their expertise into longer content. Also consider your personal style, content goals, whether it’s being consumed on a small or large device, your audience’s preferences and the requirements of your topic.

For example, you can’t unravel the complexities of the Middle East conflict, quantitative easing or stem cell research in a few hundred words, though you can tweet a pithy quote on each one.

Note that Salma, whose post was about 1,000 words, is a fairly tight writer. However, she repeated some of her main ideas in text boxes, bullets and charts. This not only helped her reach the magic 1,000-word mark, but also let scanning readers consume the information in the way they prefer, confirming the wisdom of my last post.

Some of the research on content length is individual. Take the example of Neil Patel, whose comparative testing of his own content revealed that people were more like to buy more with longer content. He also found that longer content resulted in more tweets, likes and shares on social media.

Length can add weight

His findings hold up on some larger samples, notably a more comprehensive study from the University of Pennsylvania of the most emailed posts from the New York Times. A  study by Buzzsumo also found that longer content was more likely to be shared.

Let me stress that none of the long-content proponents support flabby writing. Quality still trumps quantity. The longer your content, the more need for a weighty anchor idea and the more time you should spend nipping and tucking. Make every word count.

My advice

From my meta-review of this and other research Google ranks highly, here are my conclusions:

If you’re writing an email, social post or other routine content, write short content.

If you’re not a gifted writer, or won’t spend the money on a professional writer or editor, write short content.

If you don’t have time to revise and shorten, write short content.

But if what you have to say is deep and complex, and you have a way with words, don’t be afraid of longer content.

If your content isn’t all that deep and complex, but you’re determined to appease the search gods, express your ideas in different ways, to reflect different reader preferences.

Consider the dachshund. Content can be long, yet compact.

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Content: the long and the short of it

2 thoughts on “Content: the long and the short of it

  • November 3, 2014 at 11:39 am

    Barb, thanks for the mention!

    I agree that lengthy posts from places like The Atlantic are well worth the time to read them. The problem I have with people aiming for long is that point you make about editors telling you to “pad” the posts to reach a certain threshold. Those posts aren’t necessarily in-depth, they are just LONG. I’ve run across too many posts where I had to scroll past paragraph after paragraph of padding and attempted “we all share this experience, don’t we?” verbiage to finally get to some good content.

    I’m also suspicious of stats about long posts being shared so widely. Are those sharers actually reading the whole thing, or just skimming part of it and then thinking they will look smart to share it?

    I still say, write for your reader, and write for impatient readers. If you want to write a long post, make sure you have the solid content to be worth it. And if you must “pad” your post to go longer, make the padding in the form of text boxes, bullets and charts, as you noted.

  • November 3, 2014 at 1:46 pm

    I agree. I’d also like to see more quantitative research on longer posts. Long New York Times articles are often fascinating, but I’m skeptical about the bloggers who self-report better results. Less A/B testing and more A/world testing, please. Will Google figure out that longer does not mean higher quality?

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