What's the Optimum Length of an Article? Wrong Question.

In a piece I wrote a couple of years ago, “The Advantages of Long-Form Content,” I cited a lot of statistics to support the contention that long-form articles are generally more valuable than short-ones. Among other things, they get more backlinks and shares online, and therefore more search traffic.

But I have changed my mind. The issue is not length, it’s quality.  

Here’s what started me thinking: A global management consulting firm recently published an atrocious 600-word article on how to optimize your site for SEO. Apart from the fact that this company had no SEO services (which rendered the article pointless from a marketing or business perspective), those 600 words comprised clichés that have been published tens of millions of times. For example, “Publish high-quality content,” a recommendation so banal (and, in this case, ironic) it would have prompted any decent editor to chuck it straight in the waste basket. 

So, that got me wondering: Are short articles generally lower quality than longer ones? Because if so, their inferior performance may have nothing to do with length. It may be all about quality.

And there are reasons to think that might be the case. For example:

  • If you’re publishing weak, warmed-over material just to publish something, anything, on a topic, would you take the trouble to write 3,000 words? Or would you dispatch it in 600? I know what I would do.
  • If you’re looking to convey expertise, explain something complex, or reach people who care about an in-depth solution, you may need 2,000 words. Of course, that may not turn out well either, but the motivation required to write a long article rather than a short one should help keep the number of bad articles down.

In other words, longer articles may do better because of the care authors have taken to produce them, not simply because they are long.

In the earlier article, I quoted a study by BuzzSumo of 100 million articles on social media that found the longer the content the more shares it gets. But if the average quality of the shorter posts is lower, this statistic is meaningless.

So, what does this mean for the short versus long argument?

All things being equal, a reader would prefer to receive your message in less of her precious time than more. So, if you can do it in a few minutes versus 20, she is more likely to hang in there to the end.

Therefore:

  • Make an article as long as it needs to be to convey the messages you want to convey, no longer.
  • Apply the same quality standards to short articles as to long ones.

 

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