Why Short Posts Beat Long Form Content


In recent years a new kind of debate has been taking place online. It’s about content length. The longer the better it seems. Why?

The main point of the content length debate is that – let me summarize it – “we have to write long form content to improve overall quality“. In other words:

short posts are usually shallow and yield no value while real publications like A List Apart publish exceptional essay-like pieces.

Other publications from the web development, user experience and information architecture industry get cited as positive examples.

Additionally studies and statistics support the notion by showing more shares and other engagement on longer articles. Even Google seemingly prefers longer content! While all of these sound true I couldn’t stop to shake my head.

The Times Are A’changin

A few years ago I’ve had been reading A List Apart from time to time, especially as they only publish every few weeks.

I also remember reading a lot of Smashing Magazine back then and even long articles or enormous lists on Mashable.

Nowadays I don’t visit them on my own accord unless someone really points me in their direction. I simply do not have the time to read large web development articles.

In case you have followed these publications throughout the years you’ll noticed that with the exception of A List Apart they have changed their content strategy significantly.

Both Smashing Magazine and Mashable have gained significant popularity by compiling impressive list posts back when almost nobody made those.

In the early social media days everybody including me started compiling big lists of resources

until the Internet audience turned away from them. After a while people became tired of them. They performed worse and worse.

Why? It was sheer information overload. You couldn’t even bookmark all of the lists available let alone digest them. They worked well on social sites but only until “content shock” when too much content created a cognitive overload.

You’d save them for later and that later would never materialize because you would get inundated with numerous new lists to sift through.

Smashing Magazine also got known for offering long and thorough tutorials. They still publish them regularly.

The Size vs the Solution

You probably know that tutorials are also a type of “save for later” content you will rarely be able to read through let alone implement.

Ultimate guides and tutorials are good for some people who search for them on Google. Something like “how to install Ubuntu on your Windows phone” would be a good example. On the other hand

in most cases people are looking for a quick solution, not for a book on a given subject.

Likewise they want the fastest possible way to get the things done they need to achieve. People want the fastest possible solution not a time suck. As the saying goes “time is money”.

Time is a scarce resource especially in these times where we got less and less time. The so called attention economy is relentlessly forcing us into hurry. Let me give you an example – a weekend I once spent unhappily.

I was wasting hours while trying to move one of my blogs from an old mySQL database to a new one.

You could argue that it’s pretty easy. It is indeed as long as you have no German special characters called “Umlaute” in your content.

I had them and tried everything possible to get them moved to no avail. Then, my eyes already hurting and the evening approaching

I finally turned to Google search (for German queries I still have to use Google) and what did I find:

in third position for my keyphrase a friend of mine was ranking with a tiny post with the solution for my exact problem.

He not only showed the working solution, he also dismissed the popular “official” solution you get suggested in such cases as not working.

The tiny post containing 4 sentences and a small screenshot was perfectly enough. I left as there was not even a comment section to thank him.

Reasons to Keep it Short

Now let me recount a few other reasons why short posts beat long content on the Web:

  1. People don’t read online, they scan. The fewer text to read the bigger the chance that they scan your message and that it gets through in the first place.
  2. Long lists or minute step by step tutorials get shared a lot and saved even more for later but people rarely use them in their entirety.
  3. The time you need to prepare a long article or essay equals a few, or even dozens of short postings. Add up the social media activity of a dozen short posts and compare it with one long article.
  4. Publishing only hard core hyper-valuable long articles once every few weeks lets your audience forget about you in the mean time.
  5. When it comes to SEO the headline and page title are crucial to rank for a given phrase. When you have ten posts you are more likely to rank for ten keyphrases than with just one post even in case this one ranks better.
  6. Some of the most successful writers like Seth Godin post really short articles, sometimes as short as aphorisms. The less fluff and the more message the better.

I know I just failed to practice what I preach but I’m still learning. I plan to shorten my postings in future again.

When I started out in blogging in 2003 most postings were as long as social media updates are today. One sentence – sometimes not even that – was the norm. Adding a link was not even common yet.

What Does it all Mean?

It’s not about the size! It’s about the message you want to convey. It’s like with transporting people: when you have a large group of people, you need a bus.

One person can use a bike, a family probably needs a car depending on the destination.

The content size should depend on how much text you need to fit the actual message.

What is it you want to achieve with an article? Is it to help people to change their mind on a subject they haven’t thought about themselves yet or just offer a quick solution?

Depending on it choose your form wisely. A short note may suffice in some cases. In others a long post like this one might not be enough.

* Creative Commons image by danorbit.