long-form content

There was once a time when long-form was the pinnacle of content. Readers respected you more for it; Google ranked you higher for producing it; other brands would try and steal it. However, is long-form content still relevant in 2017?

The evidence would suggest not. A landmark Microsoft study from a couple of years back revealed that the average attention span had dwindled from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to a mere eight seconds. Certainly not long enough to make it through, say, a 2,000-word article.

Also, our go-to device for browsing the internet is no longer the laptop, but the smartphone, according to official findings from Ofcom. Now, a smartphone may be a lot of things, but it isn’t built for long-form content. A 2,000-word article looks long enough on a laptop screen, let alone a smartphone screen.

Digging deeper into the data

You may as well not bother producing long-form content altogether then, right? Well, hold up a minute.

Going back to that Microsoft study – earlier in the year, the BBC’s Simon Maybin looked into the validity of the research and found that there was frustratingly little to back up the claims. The “eight-second” figure cited in the study came from a source called Statistic Brain – but Maybin was unable to get any clarification on where the number came from.

He insists the “idea that attention spans are getting shorter is plain wrong” and spoke to experts in the field to who attested to this assertion.

“I don’t think that’s true at all,” said Dr Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University.
“Simply because I don’t think that that’s something that psychologists or people interested in attention would try and measure and quantify in that way.”

So, attention spans may not be getting shorter after all – rather, the level of focus applied is “task-dependent”. Sure, we might not focus a great deal on content we don’t care about, but if it’s enriching our lives and online experience, then we may very well read on.

What does Google say?

Google tends to take this stance, too. In Moz’s report on non-keyword ranking factors, four of Google’s top 10 factors relate to user experience: page is mobile-friendly, pure bounce rate of the page, overall design and/or user experience, and dwell time or long click metrics.

Google is only going to get better at discerning great on-page experiences, repaying pages accordingly in ranking. Those pages with a lot of text but little value will start dropping through the ranks.

Writing long-form content for writing long-form content’s sake, then, is clearly a bad idea. Once upon a time you would’ve got away with just plying your in-depth content with keywords – Google might’ve rewarded you for it even if it turned users off. Now, though, your content has to be built on what the user wants.

What does the user want?

That is the all-important question. In an ideal world, you’d sit your target audience down, get their answers on what they believe is the perfect length of content, then add up those answers to come up with an average. However, while you might not be able to get as specific as that, with some solid audience research, you will be able to get a good idea of the lengths people will go for your content.

Another option is to carry out a bit of A/B testing. For example, you could product a 500-word piece of content, a 1,000-word piece of content and a 2,000-word piece of content, all on the same subject, but with varying levels of detail.

Then, using a tool like Optimizely, send traffic to each of the post variants to see which one users spend the most time reading and, crucially, one which has the highest conversion rate.

These results can be combined with more general research on content consumption – like the Chartbeat finding that most visitors to a page only read 50% of the content on offer.

You’ll never be able to truly tell the perfect content length for your target audience, but you shouldn’t be far off.

Conclusion

Long-form content still has its place – as long as there is a calling among your audience for it; it is optimised for the user; it is expertly produced; and it actually justifies the extra length.

My final tip would be to not get hung up on visitors reading long-form content from start to finish – make it so that they can skim read it; get your call to action in early in the piece; give them the option of a video which summarises the content. Ultimately, if your long-form content is going to stay relevant it’s got to move with the times, which means a better user experience and more visuals.

Ben Hollom

July 18, 2017