Let’s face it - one of the biggest determinants of what gets found on the web today is still the Google algorithm. If your content is optimised for Google, it gets found. And if it’s not, it doesn’t.
So does Google’s content algorithm favour long-form journalism or just quick tidbits that happen to be SEO-friendly?
To answer this question, you have to understand that in today’s digital environment user behaviours on the web are rapidly changing. The way people consume content has shifted markedly in just the past five years. The average duration of the time spent browsing on the internet in a single session is decreasing, while the number of individual sessions has increased.
From this observation, it’s possible to deduce that our online habits have evolved so that we are actually consuming more information in a shorter amount of time.
In the race to get more and more information, we are demanding that content becomes easier and easier to digest. And, since we’re carrying our mobile phones everywhere, we’re also demanding this content to be optimised for a smaller screen.
For example, consider what’s being shared these days. Videos and images are becoming increasingly popular, more so than lengthy articles. It’s just too easy to click “like” or “share” for an image or video after a second or two of viewing. It’s a bit harder to do this when it comes to a piece of long-form journalism that might take minutes to digest fully.
Is less more?
You can see the combination of all these behaviour trends as a disadvantage of writing long-form content. People are consuming content faster, and they are opting for visual content over text. As a result, it’s getting harder to create long-form pieces that people are going to look for and find online.
In other words, Google’s algorithm is not going to reward content that nobody’s interested in reading and sharing due to shorter attention spans and smaller screens.
That raises an interesting question for content creators: what if you spend a lot of time creating high-quality content, only to realise that people aren’t actually reading it?
After you have created long-form content, there’s no guarantee that people are going to read it. And if they aren’t, Google won’t consider the piece worthy of a better spot in the ranking. So, a big word count doesn’t necessarily mean a higher SEO ranking. It can either be a virtuous circle (if you are creating the “right” type of content) or a vicious circle (if you are creating the “wrong” type of content).
The right content
That one observation has huge implications for the type of content that you should be creating for online audiences. After all, the basic metric for evaluating how well your content is performing is how well it’s doing in Google search. So, you need to be producing the type of content that will perform well on Google.
It’s important to remember that Google’s algorithm is friendly to content, but the type of information that rises to the top continues to evolve. It’s not just a matter of cramming in more words and assuming that Google is going to reward all that keyword stuffing with a higher ranking.
Personality and style, for example, should also determine what type of content you create. This often calls for shorter, punchier text. Or maybe just a good meme or GIF that can be quickly digested before moving on to the next viral news item.
Moreover, what are the goals of your content? Are you aiming to drive traffic, shares, a higher SEO ranking, or more discussion? If you’re trying to boost traffic and shares, shorter content may work better. If you’re interested in more discussion online, though, you may want to think about longer forms rich in ideas and arguments.
You also have to keep in mind the end consumer - is it someone who wants to absorb content quickly or will he or she spend a long time reading it? The statistics show that most people only look at the first paragraph of any article, and may even share it without reading the full piece, based on the headline alone. In fact, some websites now have a clock that tells you how long an article will take to read, just to convince you to invest more than 30 seconds on a page.
Optimising for mobile
Another huge factor to keep in mind is the platform the content will be consumed on - desktop, mobile, tablet etc. We’ve reached an inflection point with mobile where more people are using their phones than desktops to access the web.
The smaller screen matters, as does the way users will interact with content. The swipe left/right phenomenon favours quick tidbits of content, while the continuous scroll actually gives preference long-form content that you read by constantly scrolling down the tiny mobile screen.
To address the small screen problem, content creators have come up with a number of original solutions. Say, for example, if the requirements of the topic call for details and more information, you might think about an infographic. Or, if it has to be entertaining, you might think of an Instagram photo, a YouTube video or a GIF. Mobile devices, in fact, are perfect for watching lots and lots of video.
A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words, and especially in today’s digital environment. Platforms such as Twitter, Snapchat and Vine have excelled in a world where consumption of small quantities of information is arguably more popular than the in-depth nature of that content.
As a result, I believe that Google content is for SEO purposes and improving user experience rather than championing online journalism. Long form has been the target for many content writers and SEO-focused persons, however, it shouldn’t be written based solely on the minimum number of words. Instead, the focus should be on the end goal.
When it comes to information online, what works and what doesn’t continues to evolve, but for now, it looks like short-form content is winning in the war with longer forms.