The Business Case For SHORT Form Content …in 5,414 Words
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What I’m about to say is SEO blasphemy.
I’m going to contradict one of the most well-established pieces of conventional wisdom in our weird little world. Are you ready? Here goes…
Sometimes shorter content can be a better choice than longer content.
Still there? If you haven’t closed your browser in a dogmatic rage, I’d like to explain myself. Because I’m dead serious: even if organic search traffic is your primary traffic acquisition strategy, short content can (and—in some markets—should) be part of your content strategy.
Personally, I’ve used short-form content quite a bit, and it brings me lots of traffic (the highest-traffic blog post on my site is just 700 words long).
And I’m not the only one. Chris Lee from RankXL deploys short articles on his sites daily, and they make up the bulk of his overall content. Plus, if you log onto virtually any major website, you’ll see that it’s chocked full of articles under 1,000 words.
Now, don’t get too excited. I know you guys. You’re like me. If you hear something works, the first thing you want to do is slam the gas pedal down and scale it as hard as you can.
So, before you crash iWriter’s servers with 500-word article orders, I want to be clear: short-form content isn’t always better. It’s only better sometimes.
But it can and does work, and I’m going to try to build a case for it below. I’m also going to show you how to do it. I’ll walk you through the keyword research techniques I use to make this kind of content work.
First, though, I want to take a few minutes to examine why SEOs have adopted the weirdly cultish conventional wisdom that longer content is always better (because there are good reasons). Let’s dive in.
Why Do SEOs Recommend Long-Form Content?
This topic has been beaten to death in the last couple of years, so I’ll cover this quickly.
In a nutshell, SEOs recommend long-form content for a few reasons: it tends to:
- Rank better
- Convert better
- Increase engagement
I won’t argue with that: it’s all true!
There’s good data on this. If you’ve read anything about this topic, it was probably the highly cited 2012 SERP IQ study on the correlation between rankings and content length. Here’s the meat and potatoes:
While the researchers at SERP IQ were careful to point out that this chart takes into account all content with no filters—including massive sites with massive pages, like Wikipedia, which could potentially skew the data on their own—the correlation seems pretty clear: the top spots in the SERPs tend to have more content.
Neil Patel notes that long-form content tends to attract more traffic simply because it gives a page more chances to rank in the SERPs. To summarize Neil, Google bots crawl your entire page, so if there’s a lot of content on a page, that page is more likely to rank for more stuff, increasing its long-tail traffic potential.
Long pages also tend to convert better (in most cases). One famous example of this is the Conversion Rate Experts’ case study in which they earned Moz upwards of $1,000,000 by adding a bunch of content to the landing page.
The guys over at Marketing Experiments found—in multiple tests—that long copy consistently outperformed short copy (in terms of profitability). It’s certainly true that short content can convert better in special cases, but in general, long content wins out.
It’s also well-established that long-form content boosts user engagement metrics—time on site (check out WordStream’s time-on-site data when they started adding longer content) and social shares in particular (QuickSprout found that longer posts generated about 68% more tweets and 22% more Facebook shares).
It’s also hard to ignore the sites dominating the SERPS with long-form content.
There’s a good chance that a lot of you are affiliate marketers, which means most of you have probably seen some of the well-known affiliate sites out there. In fact, we’ve outlined five of them here.
But one that really shines with long-form content is TheWirecutter. Do me a favor: head over to TheWirecutter and try to find a post with fewer than 4,000 words (…or, I can just save you the trouble: you can’t—there isn’t one).
When TheWirecutter owner Brian Lam was interviewed in the New York Times, he mentioned the site is only updated about a dozen times per month (although that was a few years ago). Currently, Ahrefs (review) Reports monthly traffic of around 1,000,000 visitors, which means the real traffic is likely three or four times greater.
And we’ve all seen the Internet marketing blogs publishing crazy-long content. Heck—Brian Dean over at Backlinko only publishes about once a month. Even on this blog, we shoot for good, juicy, lengthy pieces like the one you’re reading right now.
And, of course, there’s Wikipedia.
In other words, there are many, many examples of long-form content crushing it in the SERPs. In fact, when I take the general temperature of the SEO landscape—just based on my own observations—it honestly feels like everyone’s measuring the length of their content against everyone else’s, trying to make sure their posts are even more EPIC than the other guy’s…
...but nobody seems to be talking about the downsides...
The Downsides of Long-Form Content
I think part of the reason everyone loves to love long-form content is that SEOs have a tendency to chase the most optimal content possible.
That’s not a bad thing. It can be, however, short-sighted from a business perspective.
In other words, if everything is equal, no one is going to argue that short content will outperform long content in the SERPs. It won’t.
What I’m arguing here is: short content can sometimes generate a better ROI than long content. That’s a very different claim.
Let me flesh this out a bit. Let’s take a quick look at some of the down sides of those massive articles everyone seems to want to build:
Long content is resource-intensive. 3,000 words ain’t cheap. Beyond just being more expensive per article, though, it usually takes a much better writer to create 3,000 good, coherent, well-researched words on one topic. Better writers cost more, and they’re more difficult to find and retain. You can’t TextBroker epic content.
If you don’t market them, they could fall flat. Big articles targeting big keywords require marketing. If you don’t promote them, they often won’t go anywhere. So, aside from being expensive to produce, they also tend to expensive post-production.
Heck yeah, Big content costs a LOT of money. I understand we all want the best all the time but looking back now, I wish we had spent less on many pieces of content that had no particular goal in our content strategy and spent more in other areas like PPC or Design.
Failures are more expensive. Because long content requires so many more resources and so much more promotion, if a piece of content flops (and it does happen), it costs a lot more--in both raw dollars and opportunity costs.
You validate fewer keywords. In general, publishing fewer articles (even if they’re longer) means targeting fewer keywords. This means that your risk is not diversified and that search engine ranking swings will have a higher impact on you. Plus, you identify less monetisation opportunities in your niche.
You’re almost forced to go after high-competition keywords. If you’re going to be spending that much time and money on a single article, you probably don’t want to target a keyword with 10 searches per month. Of course, there are unicorn keywords out there—highly searched keywords with low competition. But for the most part, keywords worth dedicating 5,000 words too probably won’t be super easy and it won't be long until everyone has a 5000 words page for these keywords, killing your "content length" competitive advantage.
Not everyone reads long content. This depends mostly on the market. It’s certainly true, however, that not everyone reads (or wants to read) long content. For instance, the self-help niche tends to have crazy-long content, while sites in the celebrity gossip niche usually publish super-short articles.
Some queries don’t require long content. Try to write 3,000 words about “How to Trim Your Cat’s Fingernails.” You can do it, but it’d be a stretch. Chris Lee of RankXL addressed this in an email to me: “Not every topic warrants a 2,000+ word article, and doing so just to fill up word count doesn't make much sense. Always think in terms of search intent. What is someone looking for when they search for your keyword? Are they looking for a massive in-depth guide, or are they just looking for a quick answer?”
It’s difficult if you don’t know your market well. If you’re starting a brand new site in a brand new market, you just might not know the material yet. That makes it really hard to do good long-form content, and it makes it much easier to create bad long-form content.
One more I would like to add to this list is the MASSIVE growth of mobile traffic and its implications.
Have you tried to read 5,000 words on your phone while in the bus?
What are your chances of actually reading the full piece? 10% ? Less?
Well in the B2C Markets, Mobile is now by far the highest source of traffic and that makes a lot of long content fall flat when it comes to engagement and bounce rate.
Here is the traffic breakdown on Health Ambition:
So here’s the idea…
Long content can rank better. Long content can convert better. But that doesn’t mean it’s always the best choice for your business.
I also want to debunk another misconception: Just because long content can perform well absolutely does not mean short content CAN’T perform well.
It can. Want to see?
Short-Form Content: Real World Results
These first results are from my own site.
I tried short-form content on a whim. I’d been reading RankXL and going through the RankXL course. And, if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t believe what the guy was saying.
He claimed to have nearly a million visitors per month posting mostly short content organized around big linkable assets. Some of the content was as short as 300 words! It sounded crazy. Too crazy.
I’d bought into the long-post-only dogma like everyone else. So I emailed Chris and asked him what I knew everyone else was thinking, “Do short posts really rank?”
He basically said, “As long as you have some authority, of course they do!”
So I tried it.
I posted roughly 30 short posts—just to test to see if they even remotely worked (I’ll show you how I found keywords below).
It’s been about 4 months since then, and, slowly but surely, a handful of those short posts have worked their way into the top posts on my entire site.
Keep in mind: until I tried this, every single post was at least 1,500 words. So I was shocked to see my very first batch of short posts beating so many of them. Check it out.
Of the top 25 posts on my site, eight of them are short, informational posts around 700 words long. I don’t know about you, but that blows my mind, especially since one of them is raking in 5-figure pageviews.
It’s even crazier to me that the highest-traffic article on my whole site is just a short post answering a specific question. That single, tiny post beats one of my best linkable assets: a 4,000-word monster powered by an entire link-building campaign.
P.S. If you want to see what these posts look like on my actual site, I reveal my domain in the Authority Hacker Pro member's area.
Of course, results may vary. Still… can you see the power?
This was a lightbulb moment for me. And after I realized it could work, it became more of “well duh” moment. Because when I started to look around, I realized that this is what virtually every major site was doing.
Take a look at the now-infamous Demand Media.
Demand Media is infamous for all the wrong reasons—namely, their disastrous fall from grace after Penguin and Panda. They’ve also been a notoriously bloated company who’s been rumored to have never run at a profit (they’re actually trying to sell their sites).
But you can’t argue with their traffic.
Despite their awful pre-2012 link-building practices, their content has brought in millions upon millions of visitors. Almost entirely from short-form content.
As they’ve scrambled to recover from their collapse, Demand Media adopted new strategies for building links. But not for content. Why? Because they’ve proven and re-proven that short-form content can yield insane traffic numbers.
Take a peek at this example: Trails.com, “a complete online planning resource for self-guided outdoor and adventure travel.” Aside from their homepage, the highest traffic article (according to Ahrefs) is this article on ocean plants. That article is 493 words long. And it’s far from an exhaustive list of ocean plants. But it ranks #1 for “ocean plants.”
Of course, this site has an insane Domain Authority. But it’s working on their newer sites as well. Look at this article from their recently launched site, Leaf.tv. It brings in great traffic, and it’s even shorter! And here, the DA is only 35.
And it’s not only the big guys having success with short content. Here are some more good examples:
(…by the way, the above posts are all among the highest-traffic pages for their respective sites, according to Ahrefs…)
Obviously, there are sometimes other factors at play. Sometimes blogs are old. Sometimes a post went viral. But it’s certainly not always the case; the point is that successful short posts are not anomalies. A quick browse around the Internet should confirm my hypothesis: short-form content can bring in lots of traffic.
DISCLAIMERS! Read this before you try it on your own site.
By now, you might be pretty excited. So I want to bring you back down to earth (…again).
First, you need some authority to make this work. There are lots of successful sites out there publishing shorter content. And you can, too!
But they work best on sites with some link juice flowing through them. They’re not magic. You don’t need a ton (my site’s DA is only 26), but you do need some.
Specifically, this strategy tends to work best if your short posts are supported by big linkable assets and a solid internal linking structure.
Second, this won’t work in every market. If you’ve got an Internet marketing blog, you might want to sit down, because I’ve got some bad news: this ain’t gonna work for you.
Some markets—like Internet marketing and self-help—tend to simply be too competitive for short content to be effective. These types of articles usually work best in larger B2C markets.
Third, short content rarely attracts links on its own. It just doesn’t. People are stingy with links, and they tend to reserve them for truly incredible resources. Short articles aren’t incredible. They absolutely are valuable. But they’re not going to leave anybody awestruck. So they won’t attract links. And you need links; otherwise; short content won’t work.
Gael came up with a great analogy for this.
Think of your site like an airplane.
Big content is the engine. Short content is the wings.
The engine pushes you up. The wings help you glide.
Short wings have lots of advantages: they’re flexible and manoeuvrable and can perform impressive tricks, but they need a bigger push to reach their full potential (big content / link worthy).
In other words, to really crush it with short content, you’ve also got to crush it with a few pieces of big content.
Big content is best at getting links (and can, of course attract traffic). Short content excels at getting traffic and piggy back riding the success of your long content.
It’s a symbiotic relationship--an ecosystem--and a great content strategy can’t afford to ignore either one.
The goal of the graph above is to show you the different effects different strategies have on domain authority and traffic.
Mistakenly most people associate high domain authority with high traffic.
It is not true. The domain authorities between Health Ambition and Authority Hacker are roughly similar now but Health Ambition pulls over 12 times more traffic than this site.
Here is a little breakdown of each strategy:
Long Content Only
If you promote it correctly, you will achieve very high domain authority but unless you manage to publish 5,000 words beasts several times a week and maintain the quality level, the low amount of pages on your domain means you will rank for a moderate amount of keywords.
Each page will pull a lot of traffic but there will be few of them.
This strategy works best for highly competitive industries where a few keywords get most of the traffic.
Short Content Only
Because the content itself will not generate a lot of links usually, you will need to either have other sources of links or focus on non search oriented sources of traffic such as social media.
This strategy works best for the entertainment / short attention span industries.
Mix long / short content
This is the best strategy for us. You publish a few big pieces that you promote heavily and acquire a lot of links then use the authority generated to produce dozens of smaller pieces that will capture a lot of search traffic.
This strategy works best in industries with a lot of searches and keywords.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about how to find keywords for this type of content (FINALLY).
Tutorial: How to Find Killer Keywords for Short-Form Content
Unless you’ve got tons of authority, you don’t want to use short-form content to target competitive keywords.
You want ultra-low competition keywords.
There are lots of ways to find these types of keywords, but I’m a stickler for efficiency, so my favorite method is stealing keywords from inherently weak sites. Specifically, I look for sites like the following:
- Niche forums
- Penalized sites
- Low-DA blogs
I especially like forums. Forums are weak by nature. It’s all user-generated content. No keyword research. No on-page SEO. Just users chatting about something they’re interested in. So, you can bet that if a forum in your niche is ranking for a keyword, you’ve got a good chance to rank for it, too.
You want to stay away from high-DA forums, of course, but even if a forum has a slightly higher DA than you do, their inherent weakness usually makes up for it.
When looking for targets for my short-form articles, I’ll try to find all three of those types of sites—forums, penalized sites, and low-authority blogs—but I like forums the best, so I’ll use them as an example.
First, find some low-authority forums. It’s honestly as easy as typing in “[niche] forums” into Google and turning on your Moz bar.
TIP: Look for sites that are dedicated forums (when you go to the home page, it’s a forum). If the forum is in a subfolder, it’ll make it more difficult to see which keywords are from the forum and which aren’t.
I went two pages deep into the SERPs to find this forum. You don’t want to go too deep to find these, since you want to find forums with traffic, but the second page of Google can still yield some pretty good results. The other sites on this page are either too authoritative or aren’t dedicated forums.
When you’ve found a good forum, plug it into the Ahrefs site explorer to check traffic. This isn’t essential, but remember: we’re trying to be efficient, and forums with high traffic will provide the juiciest opportunities.
Here’s a snapshot of the traffic for the horse-riding forum I found above:
The traffic is trending down but it’s clearly still strong, perfect since sites on a downward trend are even easier to beat. Certainly worth a deeper look.
Then, in Ahrefs, click the “Positions Explorer” tab up top to see all the keywords a site ranks for, which are filtered by their estimated traffic by default. Here’s what came up for our horse forum.
Here’s where it starts to feel like a gold mine.
It’s like having a list of topics your audience wants you to be talking about… that happen to be extremely easy to rank for. Talk about a win-win scenario!
If those traffic numbers seem low to you, keep in mind that the estimates are for that specific keyword only; an article targeting that keyword will likely rank for lots of long-tail keywords, bringing in lots of long-tail traffic.
Generally, you don’t want to go too deep into these lists of keywords, since you only want to steal keywords that actually generate traffic. But most of the time, you can find a couple dozen per site.
You can also do this with penalized sites.
Penalized sites are obviously weak. They’ve been penalized. And if a penalized site is ranking for a keyword, that keyword is probably way beyond simply being low competition; there are probably very few sites targeting the keyword at all.
These sites can sometimes be hard to find, since, well… they’re penalized. But here’s the kind of traffic patterns to look for:
If you do find a good penalized site in your market, it can be a treasure trove of good keywords. The best part? DA almost doesn’t matter; if it’s penalized and still on p.1 for some keywords, those keywords are probably really, really easy.
This particular site is still on the first page for quite a few keywords (blurred because it’s one I found for my own site, and I don’t want to give away my research!).
Lastly, you can use short-form content to target the keywords your weaker competitors are ranking for. Gael covered a similar process in detail in his video, “Using SEMRush to Reverse Engineer Competitor's Most Profitable Keywords.”
The only real difference is that in Gael’s video, the process includes finding competitors with authority close to yours.
For shorter articles that probably won't attract any links, you want to find competitors with lower authority than you. Additionally, you usually want to make sure that your competitor’s page isn’t super long and/or doesn't have a ton of links before targeting it with a short article. Otherwise, the process can be duplicated exactly.
If you're more of a visual person, here's a quick video walk-through of how to use forums to find ultra-easy keywords for short articles.
How to Turn Great Keywords into Even Better Short-Form Content
So now you’ve got some great keywords you can target effectively with short-form content. What do you do now?
Write an article! Of course, if you’re like me, you may not want to write 40 700-word articles. If that’s the case, you probably want to outsource most of the content creation.
Here’s the tricky part: keywords you find this way might be about a bunch of different topics. In the horse forum we found, for example, one keyword was about chaps, and another was about riding competitions.
In other words, these are not formulaic articles. The writers you hire will need at least one of two things:
- Subject-matter expertise (optimal but hard to find)
- Exceptional creativity and research skills (easier to find)
If you can find a subject-matter expert within your budget, that is the absolute best-case scenario.
And in some markets—like, say, medicine—it may actually be a necessity. But it’s hard. If you do go this route, here’s a tip: post writing jobs in universities’ graduate school job boards.
For example, if you’ve got a site in the medical niche, post a part time writing job on job boards at medical schools.
Your hiring process may be more in-depth than it might be if you were just hiring through the Upwork marketplace, but you’ll likely be getting much more of an expert than you otherwise might.
Personally, I prefer to simply hire excellent, creative writers with top-tier research skills.
Here’s the thing: most of these keywords will be asking some specific question.
Even if they don’t know the answer themselves, a good writer and researcher should be able to locate the experts, curate their answers, and then provide additional insights.
I’d go so far as to say this is the primary skill of most professional writers, especially on the Web.
I won’t go through the whole hiring process here, but I do want to lend you the exact article brief I give to my writers for these short pieces. Check it out:
It’s not fancy. It’s one page. That’s all a good writer really needs. It might take a few tries to find a writer who can effectively tackle a variety of different questions, but when you do, you can pretty much just throw keywords at them.
If you are too lazy to write it down, just use the box below to download the above template as a PDF that you can copy / paste:
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P.S. There are a ton of other great article briefs template that you can simply copy and paste in the Authority Hacker Pro member's area.
Scaling Winners: The REAL Power of Short Content
You’re going to find some winners.
After writing 30, 40, 50—or even hundreds—of shorter articles, a chunk of them will start bringing in traffic. And when they do, that’s your cue to go back and scale those winners hard.
It’s easy to do. Just do some more research on that topic (or have your writer do it) and add 2,000-3,000 words to the articles Google already loves.
And why not? If Google is giving you 10,000 pageviews for that wimpy, 700-word article, what would they give you for 3,000 words?
I like to think of the whole thing as a simple, 2-step process:
- Throw some sh*t at the wall to see what sticks.
- When something sticks, scale that sh*t to the moon.
If you’re going to turn those short posts into monsters, just be sure to get the formatting right.
Can you see how powerful this can be?
I’m honestly just beginning to see the strategic advantage of publishing well-researched short-form content. But it’s already paying massive dividends for me, and I see it as a major part of my content strategy going forward.
Wrapping It Up: The ROI & Business Case for Short-Form Content
If you’re still on the fence, I want to bring this all together into a nice, tidy business case for short-form content.
1. They can provide a good ROI on their own.
Even if you choose not to scale them, shorter articles can earn you great money on their own. Before scaling any short articles on my site, I was earning a positive ROI from display ad revenue alone. These articles are cheap.
With a good writer and content production pipeline in place, they’re even cheaper. And if you’re sourcing your keywords correctly, they can earn just as much. This should be enough to at least try it.
We are seeing the same thing on Health Ambition.
Imagine that with your setup you get:
- $5/1000 visits from advertising (good but not great)
- $0.5/email sub with the combination of your autoresponders and broadcasts (good but not great)
- 3.5% opt in rate (good but not great)
You are looking at $22.5 / 1000 visits to your post.
If we assume that all costs included (stock images, VA to upload, writer cost etc) your 800 words article costs you $45 to produce and upload, it only needs 2,000 visits to break even.
If we count an amortisation period of 2 years for blog content, you only need 83 visits per month during these 2 years to pay back for the content or 2.77 visits / day. Anything past that is pure profit.
That is VERY easy to achieve even with low comp / long tail keywords. If you look at Perrin's analytics screenshots earlier, some of these reach 10,000 visits or more per month.
This means that 1 of these successes pays for 120 articles over 2 years.
Still doubting of the power of short content for low competition keywords?
2. They are easier to scale than long-form content.
Long-form content—what the SEO community affectionately refers to as “epic” content—is hard to write.
Tell me about it, I just spent 3 hours editing this post.
But pretty much any writer can knock out 700 good words.
If you’re willing to do a bit of editing, you can even get these from places like TextBroker.
Chris Lee prefers to keep raw-dollar costs to a minimum, so he often sources content for around $5 and simply edits it until it’s good.
Personally, I prefer to find regular, top-tier writers (it’s just more hands-off), but if you’re on a budget, you can produce these articles on the cheap.
3. You can validate WAY more keywords.
If you’re publishing one massive blog post per week, you’re essentially validating four keywords per month (plus long tail). What if you increased it to 40? Short-form content is essentially a shotgun approach to content. You’re trying a wider variety of keywords. This makes it easier to find winners—and then to re-invest into those winners.
4. When you find winners, you can turn them into absolute superstars.
I covered this above, but it’s worth mentioning again. The real power of short-form content is that you can transform profitable short articles that Google already loves into 3,000- to 10,000-word traffic-generating monsters. This greatly reduces the risk of long-form content, since you’re simply building on proven winners instead of writing huge articles for every keyword.
5. They’re an extremely efficient way to find good lead magnets and products.
Because of the way you find the topics and keywords for short-form content, you’ll end up covering lots of different stuff. You’ll be answering all the random questions your audience is asking. A few will end up being home runs, and you’ll have many thousands of people coming to your site for an answer to a specific question. That is the perfect opportunity to create a product by providing a solution—or simply answering the question more in-depth.
Learn more on this topic: How we transformed a successful blog post into a $2,500 / month passive income stream
6. It’s an amazing way to build authority.
If someone had a gun to my head and force me to define “authority site,” I’d probably say, “the place people go to get their questions answered.” And that’s what short-form content does best: collect as many questions as possible and provide solid answers.
7. It’s super low-risk!
What’s the risk in simply trying a couple 700-word articles targeting easy keywords? Like $40? That’s nothing! I spent less than $500 producing my first batch of short-form content, and, collectively, that batch brings in nearly 20,000 visitors per month.
What do you guys think?
This isn't for everyone. It won't work in every market. And I feel like this bears repeating: no one's arguing that short content will outperform long content if everything else is equal.
But... it sure can make you some good money. And that's all I'm saying here: look beyond your rankings and ask yourself, "What can short content do for my business?"
Have you tried this? Is it working for you? Are you going to try it? Let us know in the comments!