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Why Very Long Articles Can Hurt Rankings and Engagement

Published by | 2 Comments

You’ve heard it before; content is king, and the more content you have, the better.

Be careful how you interpret this. More content is almost certainly better—having more content means you’ll have more indexed pages in Google, more eyes on your work, and more opportunities to convert your readers into customers. But that “more” word is ambiguous and tricky. More content can only be better for your business if the level of quality remains the same, and if the quality drops, more content can actually be a bad thing.

Take for instance, the very long article—referring to articles of several thousand words or more—it’s true that they have ample body, giving Google lots of text to scan through and giving your users lots of information, but they can actually hurt your search rankings and user engagement strategy.

The Page Problem

articleimage866The Page Problem

The first problem with long articles is what they take away from a short- to medium-size article strategy; page space. Google, when it scours the web for information on websites, looks at site maps and page structures for the bulk of its information. It scans your entire blog, looking for clues to who you are, what you do, and what you like to write about, and prioritizes the titles of those blogs when drawing conclusions. Because titles are critically important, very long articles can cause your relevance to suffer; if you only have one title for every 5,000 words, you’re artificially throttling what Google takes into consideration. If you take your articles down to 1,000 words, you’ll instantly quintuple the number of titles it scans.

Furthermore, Google loves to see new content. It rewards sites that offer brand-new articles on a regular basis, and tends to decrease the rank of those with fewer updates—even if the total volume of content is high. Publishing one very long article a week instead of five shorter articles is a bad move that can make your site look inferior in Google’s eyes.

Tired Users

articleimage866Tired Users

Google’s eyes aren’t the only ones that matter—you also have to keep your users in mind. The average user has a low attention span, and a high demand for fast, immediate information. Web users are accustomed to 140-character tweets and short, punchy news articles. They don’t have the time, patience, or desire to trudge through a massive article.

Writing a very long article might seem necessary for longer, more demanding topics, but if nobody wants to read the full material, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice. If you’re having trouble finding a way to shorten your articles, consider breaking them up; instead of writing one massive article, split it into a five-part mini-series that your users can more easily digest. Or, simply hit the high points and make your title more general in turn. Users do want to see detail, but that doesn’t mean you have to go over the top with your explanations.

Fewer Conversion Opportunities

Longer articles also take away some of the conversion opportunities you’ll find in other, more concise articles. Generally, if you’re writing for conversions, the rule of thumb is to end with a lead-in to a conversion opportunity, or else have one major leverage point for conversion. If you have one possible conversion per article, you’ll have more conversion chances with five smaller articles than you will with one extremely long one.

Additionally, because long articles tend to alienate readers, you’ll find that your conversion attempts will often go neglected in your longer features. That means your total number of conversions will suffer if you continuously churn out very long posts.

Higher Cost to Engagement Ratio

articleimage866Higher Cost to Engagement Ratio

It’s also worth mentioning that the cost of generating long articles, provided they have the same level of detail as your shorter articles, is much higher than that of their shorter counterparts. While you might spend the same level of effort on your 5,000 word post as you do on five 1,000 word posts, the cost to engagement ratio is much higher.

Each post you publish is an opportunity. It’s a new link that you can syndicate to your audience through social media, a new opportunity to attract some referral traffic, and a new chance to get featured on an RSS feed or similar blog aggregators. Writing longer posts means writing fewer posts, so the total number of those engagement opportunities goes down. Since you’re spending the same amount of money on a much lower ring of visibility, you’ll be getting less value for your investment.

A Note on Minimum Length

Many of these explanations indicate that multiple short articles are superior to fewer long articles. However, this should not imply that shorter is always better. Your articles need to be of sufficient length to interest and inform your readers, usually 500 words at least.

It’s true that extremely long articles can be damaging to your customer engagement and SEO strategies, but don’t ever let word count become your top priority. Your first goal should be providing the type of content your users want to see and read, and that means keeping things as concise and detailed as possible, regardless of length. It’s also important to diversify the types of posts you publish—not just long articles and not just short articles, but articles of varying lengths and formats. As long as you’re working with your readers in mind, you won’t have to worry too much about how long your articles get.

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Samuel Edwards

In his 4+ years as a digital marketing specialist, Sam has learned the ins and outs of online marketing. Additionally, he has worked with countless local businesses as well as enterprise Fortune 500 companies and organizations including: NASDAQ OMX, eBay, Duncan Hines, Drew Barrymore, Washington, DC based law firm Price Benowitz LLP, and human rights organization Amnesty International. Today he continues to work with and establish SEO, PPC and SEM campaigns.

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2 Comments

  1. avatar

    Nitin 'fLanker' Balodi

    Well this is a myth debunking article. That’s great and whatever you have mentioned here is true. I read a lot over the internet and the conversation part that you have mentioned is true as a reader get confused that what he should comment and what kind of conversation he should start if he want to participate in community. Till the end of the post he draws multiple inferences and that makes difficult for him to take part in conversation and he decides not to participate.

  2. avatar

    Barry Adams

    I’m sorry Sam but I’m going to have to disagree. Strongly.

    “Because titles are critically important, very long articles can cause your relevance to suffer; if you only have one title for every 5,000 words, you’re artificially throttling what Google takes into consideration. ”

    >> Title tags are less important nowadays as a ranking signal, and that’s why you use paragraph headers to break up the text and provide additional semantic signals to search engines. More text with relevant paragraph headers actually provide more topical signals for search engines to work with and increase the overall relevance of your page for whatever you’re targeting.

    “Publishing one very long article a week instead of five shorter articles is a bad move that can make your site look inferior in Google’s eyes.”

    >> This an incredibly simplistic perspective on freshness as a factor. One quality long article is much more likely to rank high in search results than five short ones. One of The Atlantic’s best performing articles every month is a piece about the diamond industry written in 1982 and put online in the 1990s. Still ranks top for relevant queries.

    “Web users are accustomed to 140-character tweets and short, punchy news articles. They don’t have the time, patience, or desire to trudge through a massive article.”

    >> This is factually wrong – research shows users prefer long in-depth articles, providing they’re of sufficiently high quality. This article shows some metrics indicating longer articles result in greater user engagement: http://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2014/05/05/longform-content

    “Longer articles also take away some of the conversion opportunities you’ll find in other, more concise articles.”

    >> No, the exact opposite in fact – longer articles provide more conversion opportunities on a single page than a short article. At least, if you’re smart about it.

    All in all a pretty poor piece, Sam, with factual inaccuracies and advice that is simply wrong. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.

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