Long-Form Content vs. Short-Form Content: Which Should You Use?

Posted on Jan 20, 2022


Author | Amanda Sullivan – SEO Strategist at Brainlabs 

Bio | Amanda is an SEO Strategist with a B.A. in English from the University of Texas at Austin. She joined the Brainlabs team in January 2021 after earning a certificate in Digital Marketing where she honed in on her passion for SEO. She enjoys spending her time working closely with her clients to find creative and tailored solutions to unique challenges.

We know that word count is not a ranking factor, but there are often queries where the best user experience is unlikely to be a page that contains only a sentence or two of text.  

Conversely, because longer content can be more costly to produce and maintain, it’s equally unlikely that writing a lengthy article for every page on your site is going to be the best strategy.

This conundrum can make it difficult to know where to start. 

The good news is that there are questions you can ask to help you make the best choice.

But before we dive into determining which content length is right for you, it’s important to understand the difference between long-form and short-form content, and whether either of these is better for SEO.

What Is Long-Form Content?

While the exact word count used to define each content length is up for debate, a reasonable definition of long-form content would be a text of 1,200 words or more.

This word count is most often seen in formats such as:

Whitepapers

E-books 

How-to-guides

Many blog posts

Long-form content is great for informative or evergreen topics that require an in-depth explanation or analysis.

What is Short-Form Content?

Short-form content is often simply a sentence or two, but technically it’s everything shorter than 1,200 words.

This shorter word count is more commonly seen in:

Emails

Social posts

Infographics

Short-form content is useful for seasonal topics that may lack the need for robust copy or product and category pages where the copy isn’t the main focus. Shorter news articles and blog posts can also fall under this category.

Additionally, it’s worth noting that short-form content has become more popular in mobile-first content strategies.

Which is Better for SEO?

While it appears that longer content outperforms its shorter counterparts based on industry studies, the correlation here does not imply causation.

This is because Google’s John Mueller has stated on multiple occasions that word count is not a ranking factor, indicating that long-form content success is not a direct result of Google’s algorithm rewarding word count.

Rather, it’s a demonstration that high-quality, long-form content more often provides better answers for queries than short-form content, the keyword here being quality.

In addition, high-quality, long-form content has a better track record of keeping users engaged with a website and is often more shareable, which can signal to Google that the site is valuable.

Finally, long-form content also appears to be better for acquiring backlinks which can pass authority onto a page and therefore boost rankings.

These factors work together to indicate a site’s overall authority which is otherwise more difficult to prove through shorter content. This is most likely the reason word count was previously thought to have a direct impact on ranking.

However, despite long-form content’s history of success, this does not mean that it is the definitive answer and it shouldn’t necessarily be considered the default.

So how do you choose?

Back to the Basics: Questions to Ask When Deciding Content-Length

The process of determining content length requires going back to marketing basics, centering on audience research, and putting the user’s needs first and foremost. 

With this in mind, here are five key questions to ask to answer the long-form vs. short-form content debate:

Who is your target audience?

Knowing who you’re writing for is the most important consideration when creating content. More specifically, what are users looking for, where are they looking for it, and how can the business help them?

Users who prefer how-to video content are not likely going to be interested in reading a 5,000-word blog post, whereas users who are conducting research may need as much information as possible from a written reference.

Provide your best answer and set up internal linking to take the user to the next step if your audience is one that prefers shorter, bite-sized content.

Understanding your audience, what information they seek, and which format they prefer is imperative in avoiding writing too little or too much.

What stage of the customer journey are they in?

What stage of the funnel the user is in is another great indication of what kind, and how much, content they’re looking for.

A new user may be looking for any and all information the business and its competitors may have on a topic. 

For example, if a user discovers they have a need for a home security system, they’ll need details around what to look for and why it’s important.

In this case, it’s necessary to put in the effort to provide the best answer with as much information as possible and without bleeding over into unrelated topics or search intents. 

Again, proper internal linking goes a long way here.

Contrarily, a more experienced user may be trying to decide between your business and a competitor and looking for the most straightforward comparison, pricing, or specs.

In the home security example, you would want to provide your security system’s price points and key differentiators in a quickly digestible and easy-to-read format. Shorter content would work better in this case.

Is the topic evergreen or seasonal?

If you’re having a difficult time determining the type, Google Trends is a great free tool to use when tracking down any trends surrounding a topic. 

Image source: Google Trends

If you’re refreshing content and data is available, you can additionally take a glance at your analytics to identify year-over-year patterns in page traffic specific to the business. Remember to notate any increases due to promotions or algorithm updates.

What type of content is performing well in the SERPs? 

Running a quick competitor analysis can be another avenue for determining which content length is likely to perform best.

The answer to this question is especially important if your writers have limited resources for content creation and need to hone in on the right content length on the first go. 

Generally speaking, if pages ranking in the top five positions contain more than 1,200 words on average, then long-form content is more likely to bring success and vice versa for short-form. 

Helpful Tip: The Ahrefs SEO Toolbar provides an easy way to quickly check the word count of top-ranking pages.

In the example below, the query “how to start camping” has an informational intent. Users are likely looking for a detailed article explaining camping for beginners, pointing to long-form content being the answer in this scenario.

Image source: Google 

However, it’s important to note that occasionally one competitor will rank with a couple of paragraphs or list, while others will rank for full-blown guides.

This is a good example of why it’s important not to put too much weight on word count. Consequently, never promise success based on content length recommendations.

Remember, correlation does not imply causation. Always focus on knowing your audience and answering their queries above all else.

What are the business’s goals?

Is the company trying to establish expertise and authority through a strong blog presence or is it summarizing product details on an e-commerce site?

What the business is trying to accomplish and the types of solutions offered can provide additional insight into what content length to go with.

This can seem contradicting if you’re following a user-centric strategy, but the two should go hand in hand if your marketing strategy is in alignment with overall business goals.

If your content is not performing, start with reevaluating the basics and making sure that your team’s goals are properly aligned through the questions above. How much content your audience is looking for can typically be identified through the answers.

If everything checks out, the next step would be looking into other areas that commonly affect SEO.

Other Considerations

Here are other factors that commonly play a big part in ranking and overall performance and should be taken into consideration alongside an optimal content strategy.

If your content is not ranking, take a look at: 

Technical SEO  

When was the last time you ran a technical audit? If the website is riddled with errors such as poor page speed or indexation issues, you may not see the benefits of content optimization.

Competitor Authority

How does your marketing budget and strategy stack up? If your competitors are overshadowing you with their revenue and years in the market, the fight to rank in the top ten positions of Google’s SERPs may be a long-term battle.

Content Quality

Is the copy bursting at the seams with information or is it lacking substance and direction? Long-form content can still be considered thin content if it’s just spinning its wheels and not benefiting the user. If possible, take time to audit the subject matter expertise of your writers to ensure you’re providing the best answer.

Backlink Quality

Are low authority domains or spammy websites linking to your site or content? If you don’t know the answer to this question, it’s time to do a backlink audit. After reviewing your findings, be sure to disavow links from any questionable sites to uphold a positive reputation.

SEO Best Practices

Look for any gray or black hat SEO practices that may impact your authority. While it’s not commonplace for marketers to outright implement black hat practices, it does happen. However, oftentimes it’s due to lack of knowledge around SEO best practices and therefore it’s worth double-checking with the broader team to ensure everyone knows how to go about boosting traffic and rankings the right way.

If your content is ranking but not converting, try reviewing:

Content Structure

If you’re waiting until the final paragraph to answer the user’s query, this could lead to high bounce rates and poor conversions in an era of shortened attention spans. When in doubt, try the inverted pyramid approach. Users can then decide if they want to digest every detail beyond the initial answer.

User Experience (UX/UI)

Is the website user-friendly or is it difficult to navigate? Unclear CTA’s, excessive internal linking, and lack of whitespace can all impact conversion rates.

While this is not an exhaustive checklist, these are some of the major culprits impacting rankings and conversions.

It’s important as an SEO to work with the broader marketing team to ensure your efforts and recommendations stand the best chance at making their intended impact. 

If possible, you should have conversations with the developers, CRO’s, and content writers to gauge their understanding of SEO and help bridge any gaps through education and collaboration.

Final Thoughts on Content-Length

The key takeaway is that there is no definitive answer on which content length is better. Oftentimes the answer is subjective and circumstantial.

What optimal content length ultimately comes down to is how much information the user appears to require in order to feel satisfactorily informed on a particular topic, in addition to what’s appropriate based on industry type, business goals, and topic type.

Whether you’re creating new content or simply refreshing, remember not to get too hung up on word count as the one thing that’s going to lead to big wins. Again, word count is not a ranking factor and anything pointing to this concept being fact is purely happenstance.

If you’re having trouble ranking, take a look at the larger marketing strategy to ensure teams are in alignment for the best outcome. 

If something is off, have conversations around how everyone can work together to get things moving in the right direction. This will undoubtedly have the biggest impact on SEO success in the long run.