Why you need to create wonderful long-form content. And how to write it

Should you be using long-form content (1,500 words… 2,000 words… or more) as a core of your SEO? Done right, it provides great value to your customers and gets a thumbs-up from Google. Unfortunately, so many website owners are scared of publishing such content. If you’re unsure about committing to long-form content, let me try to change your mind.

We’re told we have the attention span of a tickled amoeba these days. But I wonder if it’s a self-fulfilling factoid. We have a short attention span because we’re so often fed a bit of substance-less puff that doesn’t deserve any more than half a second of our attention, since marketers are convinced we won’t give anything any attention.

Convenient, that, for content budgets. And somehow self-fulfilling.

Savvy content marketers know otherwise.

Let’s take a closer look

We’re in an age where we’re reading more novels, and hour or more-long podcasts are elbowing out the soundbites that have become the stuff of shrivelled radio programming. People will give their time to that special something that gives them benefit. In old advertising-speak, What’s In It For Me? is at work.

But, you say, I never read lots of words. I don’t have time. I bet you do when you have a real investment in finding out the information and the detail in the piece (or perhaps it’s simply a fantastic read, entertainment from beginning to end). If you need to know, if you want to find the info or are hooked by the writing, you’ll read the piece you’ve found.

The transaction is simple: If you give your reader value, they’ll reward you with their attention.

Long-form content for SEO

Some will tell you Google doesn’t reward longer content. That’s tosh. There’s plenty of evidence that page one content has a higher word count. Have a look for yourself, or leave it to serpIQ’s 2020 research (I can’t give you a link here because the site was hacked at the time of writing and tries to get you to install malware. Beware if you Google it like I did).

Histogram showing the average content length of pages in the Top 10 search results.
serpIQ’s findings of the Average Content Length of Top 10 Search Results

There are plenty of articles on the web that reference the research if you want to go deeper, but I need to get on, or I will lose your attention.

When you create content, it doesn’t matter what

The only time short copy can win

The thing with short form content is that it has little substance. It doesn’t tell you much. It can’t. It doesn’t have the time.

And, a lot of the time, Google won’t reward you for putting in just a few minutes work. Not because it has a corporate bias towards the Protestant work ethic (although it might. I don’t know). But because it’s unlikely you’ll be giving your reader what they’re searching for. Someone else will have done the job properly and produced a quality, in-depth answer to the searcher’s question (or implied one).

However, you can rank a short piece of copy if it 100% answers a very specific long-tail query, helped by structured data or working with Google’s Passage Indexing (more on that in another post).

The right length. And no more

Let’s think some more about why you’d want to write long content, even without Google rewarding such pieces. One of my favourite questions is to ask someone if they’d like 30 seconds or 30 minutes to sell their product to a customer. I shouldn’t really need to point out the answer is that almost 100% of them want 30 minutes.

OK. So 30 minutes may be too long to make your case, but that leads us to another thing about long content. It should be as long as it needs to be and no longer. You shouldn’t try to fill in the last 10 minutes because you’ll be just filling in time. And risking boring your customer. You’re not the only act in town.

When it comes to the onsite word, the situation is very similar. You can use SEO/Content tools such as SEMrush to give you a target number of words based on the word counts of the sites at the top of the SERPs for your target keyword or keywords. You can do it manually if you’re a glutton for punishment.

If your goal is, say 1200 words, don’t waffle for 200 of them. Find a way to deliver 1200 words or more of real value.

Creating long-form content

Writing long-form is a craft. To some extent, you either have the ability or not—back in the day, I used to write long and complex mailing packs for clients because I was good at it. Ad copy? Nope. Not my thing.

But I had to hone my craft.

A mailing pack could consist of an envelope with a headline, a multi-page letter, a brochure, an offer piece, a response card and perhaps case histories or user stories (still can. Even after decades of the internet, some brands still know that paper-based marketing, delivered straight into the target audience’s hands, results in a superior ROI. They wouldn’t do it otherwise). Sometimes, a mailing pack can consist of thousands of words to guide a person to make a phone call, visit a website, or send back a response card.

Why am I writing about offline marketing here on David Rosam Digital Marketing? Because I want to emphasise how long copy, appropriately crafted, can work outside Google’s search universe, where the rules of the game don’t insist you write long. In fact, there’s a considerable bias against long in direct mail—the longer and more complex the pack, the more it will cost. And the more you have to be absolutely sure the increased costs give greater returns.

Direct mail is hard. Much harder than online marketing. Your expensive pack has around eight seconds to engage and get opened, or it’s binned, never to be seen again. That’s a total loss on that mailer.

Understanding web browsing behaviors through Weibull analysis of dwell time found that we have just 10 seconds to engage the person who arrives at a web page. A little longer than when the person picks up the mailer. 

But your website content doesn’t disappear. It lives to fight hundreds of days. To be seen by perhaps hundreds of thousands of people. The mailer goes in the recycling, lost to the world.

Your page—researched and written expertly—helps get people to your site (see Long-form content for SEO, above). So many benefits from content on a website produced so much efficiently than in print. The potential ROI looks so much more inviting.

As we’ve seen, you need to harness some of the same thinking that made those mail packs push their claws into their recipients into your web copy. The information has to be there for the customers who need to have it before they buy, sign up, respond—whatever it is you want them to do. It has to be structured and written well, too.

Write a blog post, an About us page, a sales piece, a case study, a white paper…

The search engines won’t mind, as long as the quality is there (and you’ve made sure your Technical SEO is sorted). Write the content your audience needs to read, in the form they’ll find easiest to digest or the

Which reminds me. Many people love watching video content, but the search engines can’t figure out what it’s about. If you go down that route, perhaps to publish on YouTube as well, make sure you publish a transcript in addition to your video. You can do the same if you make podcasts. All the time search engines can’t make sense of audio content, you must extract the SEO value from what you create by making it as easy for Google as it is for your human audience.

How to write long-form content

The rules. And some guidance

  1. Make sure you know your stuff—if you don’t, do your reading, attend conferences or watch videos. Collect links, web pages and cuttings from pages in your favourite app. Make notes
  2. Plan your piece—I find it worthwhile to have working subheads (with key phrases, where possible) in place. Even I find myself wandering from the path at times, and wanderings mean wasted time and effort. Think of your subheads as telling a story in themselves, even if the reader doesn’t engage with every word on your page
  3. Start writing—you won’t know where all the gaps in your knowledge are until you trip over them as you write
  4. Flag your gaps as you find them and move on—don’t lose your momentum. Journalists type tk, a more easily searched for variation of ‘to come’; I tend to put an instruction to myself in square brackets so I know my thoughts when I return to the section later, and they’re just as easily found because I seldom use square brackets in content. You may prefer curly brackets
  5. If you do need to stop, many people find Ernest Hemingway’s hack of stopping in the middle of a sentence so he had something to easily pick up on useful. I prefer to finish where there’s a natural gap because I don’t like interrupting my flow of thoughts. For some reason, I find it easier to pick up with a fresh thought. Try it both ways and find what works for you
  6. Get through to the end and feel great you have a first draft. Now put it aside and do not touch it or look at it for at least 24 hours—this is so important. It’s difficult enough to get perspective on a short piece of content you’ve written. I’m tempted to say it’s exponentially (have I ever said ‘never use complicated words’?) more difficult to get a perspective on your long copy
  7. When you’re ready, print out your writing. Don’t have a printer and you’re going to be writing lots on long-form pieces? Get one. Now! Getting your words into a different medium makes it so much easier to see the mistakes, irregularities, structural faults and all those things everyone has in their first draft. Another sidetrack, perhaps, but it has to be said: after a brief-ish flirtation, I’m not a fan of the idea of the S***** First Draft many people recommend, where you just spew words onto the screen and clear it up later. That’s making work for yourself. I’d say you should be trying to make the best job of the first draft you can, but not worry about typos, spelling mistakes and grammar. Those things are easily fixable, but you really should work with clarity on your piece from the start or you’ll be in a forever edit
  8. Now you have your writing on paper (please use recycled, or I’ll get in trouble for recommending you print out your work), you can start working on it. If you want to be really old-style, use a red pen. In the old days of typewriters, drafts were always written double line spaced so that they could be edited easily by hand. Nick this idea. Format in at least 1.5 spaces. You’ll thank yourself for it. Cross stuff out. Insert new ideas. Perhaps even learn some old-style proofreading marks if you really want to get into the craft of editing. The big thing is to identify where you have sections in the wrong place. You won’t believe how much easier it is to see structural changes you need to make when you have the whole thing out in front of you
  9. Take all your changes back to the document. Implement them just as you’ve written them on the hard copy. Do your spell check. Use a grammar checker such as Grammarly. Get the draft as good as you can
  10. Now, do it again. Polish ’til it gleams. If you think you’re still some way away from where you want to be, treat yourself to another hard copy. Or, even better, get someone else to read it. Give them editing rights to a shared document. Let them make changes or comments. Pride has no place in the editing process.
  11. Avoid one of the writer’s big gotchas. Polishing it ’til it gleams doesn’t mean disappearing into a deep rabbit hole of perfectionism. Get your content in the high 90s per cent wonderful, but accept you’ll never get it perfect
  12. Click the Publish button
  13. Publicise on social media—wherever your customers are. If you’ve done your job well, you’ll get click-through, social sharing and natural links.

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A version of this blog post appeared in David Rosam’s Digital Marketing Thing, the precursor to David Rosam On Digital Marketing. 

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Featured blog image by Mikey Harris from Unsplash.

David Rosam has been working online for more than 25 years, after a career in direct marketing copywriting for the tech and financial services industries.

Today, he specialises in Content-Focused Search Engine Optimisation—from audits, through research and strategy to implementation.

He was probably the UK’s first SEO Copywriter.