Can The SEO Industry Embrace Long-Form Content?

A recent spate of blog posts have been published ridiculing the pervasive “What X Taught Me About Y” genre. Richard Falconer published a long list of them, I wrote my own parody here on State of Search, and Michael Kovis effectively demolished the genre. But there are also fans of these types of posts, and some have flocked to the relevant comment sections to proclaim their favour, sparking interesting debates in the process.

Do these type of posts add value? Are they worthwhile to write – let alone to read? Is this a type of blog fluff that we should embrace – like top 10 lists – and strive to do as well as possible, or is it better to mock and shun these metaphor-driven blogs?

Opinions are heavily divided, and while I lean towards the anti-camp I can see how sometimes these posts can add value. But something else has emerged from these debates that really strikes a chord with me: the relative lack of long, exhaustive articles about SEO and digital marketing.

Jonathan Colman wrote a beautiful call-to-arms entitled “We Can Do Better Than This” and you should definitely read it. In his article Jonathan laments the general absence of the SEO equivalent of long-form writing. As an industry we tend to embrace short, snappy articles, and only rarely do we see a long insightful article of significant substance being published.

In his (exceptionally crafted) article Jonathan encourages us to change our tendencies to write short blog fluff, and encourages us to “[…] create valuable, original content and to bring value to all of [our] conversations”.

I agree with Jonathan’s noble call-to-arms, but the cynic in me sees a lot of roadblocks that can prevent wide-spread adoption of the long-form writing creed. Below I will outline a few of the issues that prevent us from adopting long-form writing as the norm, and I offer a few suggestions to overcome them:

1. Time is of the essence

For many SEO bloggers time spent on blogging is time not spent on paid work. Blogging is a side project for many of us, squeezed in between SEO audits and web analytics reports. Not many companies allow their staff to spend a lot of time on blogging, and those that do tend to judge an employee’s output by the number of posts they generate rather than the length of them.

2. We don’t get paid for this

Relating to the first issue, blogging is usually a voluntary activity. With few exceptions, on the whole SEO bloggers don’t get paid for their writing. It’s something we do because we like it and/or because it adds value to our reputations in the long term. It doesn’t generate direct revenue, which makes it hard to justify spending a lot of time on.

3. Short-term thinking is beneficial

A mindset that embraces quick change instead of long, in-depth analysis can actually be an advantage in this fast-paced industry of ours. SEOs that quickly adapt to changing circumstances, that can rapidly churn out large amounts of content, and that are able to send out massive amounts of link request emails, tend to be seen as more productive and valuable than those who spend hours agonising over that one anomalous keyword referral. That short-term thinking often results in short-form content of variable quality.

4. We chase hypes

Relating to the previous point, as an industry we’re infected with a hype-chasing mentality. The algorithms we attempt to profit from change from day to day, which means we’re always adapting and looking for the next ‘silver bullet’ that will help us gain a competitive advantage. Our blogging reflects this – every time Google spits out a substantial update, it dominates the SEO blogosphere for weeks. New features of Google’s products need to be rapidly communicated and analysed on various blogs if they’re to be seen as cutting edge and on top of things. Few bloggers have the freedom – or will – to take a few days or weeks to gather data and analyse new trends carefully.

5. We’re not investigative journalists

Investigative journalism is a powerful medium, but it needs skilled practitioners to pull it off. Most SEOs are not journalists. We don’t usually have the skills that are required for proper in-depth research and authorship.

6. The internet favours short content

As Nicholas Carr argues in The Shallows, the internet as a medium encourages short attention spans. That means long-form content is at a high risk of not being read properly. Short articles and short videos tend to work better online than lengthy tomes and in-depth analysis.

It’s Not Easy

All of the above can be summarised as “long-form writing does not come naturally to SEOs”. But it doesn’t come naturally to most industries, yet some manage to adopt it successfully nonetheless. Jonathan refers to the likes of A List Apart and Boxes and Arrows, which are design & UX blogs that publish superb long-form articles.

bigstock-Old-letters-as-a-background-27157844Image old letters source

Now I suspect design lends itself better to long-form writing, as it’s not as prone to hypes and short-term thinking as SEO. In fact, short-term mentalities are more or less anathema to successful design.

Also, it does need to be said, some SEOs do write beautiful long and insightful articles, demonstrating that it’s definitely possible to do so. We just need more of it. How can we encourage more long-form content? That’s the really interesting question, and it doesn’t have an easy answer.

The Right Mindset

As I alluded to above, a different mentality is required for long-form writing. It requires a more insightful approach and an abandonment of speed in favour of substance. Blogging deadlines should be irrelevant – a blog post is ready when it’s ready.

The Right Platform

Successful SEO blogs need a constant supply of new content, which doesn’t lend itself well to long-form blogging. So we should create a platform that abandons the standard blogging model and follows in the footsteps of, for example, A List Apart, which publishes just three articles a month. This can either be an entirely new blog, or a subsection of an existing publication.

The Right Rewards

To encourage such a long-form publication, maybe we should collectively fund it. It’s easy to criticise the lack of proper investigative SEO writing, but are you willing to take the next step and put your money where your mouth is? A small contribution from many SEOs, maybe supplemented by sponsorship from companies willing to go out on a limb, will easily generate a substantial pool of money from which we can fund the platform and the writing. The platform can be paid for, and the hours spent on researching and writing the content will be billable – providing the end result passes review of the platform’s proprietors.

The Right People

For a long-form SEO publication to be successful, it needs the right people to manage it. It needs people who can dedicate the required amount of time to produce, review, and edit long-form content, and that have the necessary authority in the industry that their judgement is trusted.

Not One Or The Other

We shouldn’t look entirely unfavourable to short blog content – there are plenty of blog posts out there that are short and meaningful. Nor should we judge a blog post’s merits purely on its word count – length and quality are not synonymous.

But I think we can all agree we need more long-form writing in the SEO industry. We have a few leading examples we can follow, but on the whole we tend to go for the easy route. I’m as guilty of this as the next blogger, so I have no excuses to hide behind.

All I can say is that I have ticked Jonathan’s box, and where possible I’ll endeavour to create value first and foremost. I hope you’ll join us.

Featured image old books source

About Barry Adams

Barry Adams is one of the chief editors of State of Digital and is an award-winning SEO consultant delivering specialised technical SEO services to clients worldwide.

34 thoughts on “Can The SEO Industry Embrace Long-Form Content?

  1. There’s definitely a lot of good debate going on at the moment surrounding the “quality of SEO blog content” , I think this comes back to the whole SEO conferences are just TED talks debate we have had recently too.

    Do we want something that we can put into action immediately or do we want to be entertained, educated or enlightened? I guess the perfect scenario will be a good blend of tactics vs. strategy & theory vs. real case studies.

    As you rightly point out there needs to be a specific platform for these new articles. Is it a separate blog, is it a new sub-blog on an existing platform; I don’t know but wherever it is I will happily be there.

    I also agree that this needs to be correctly funded, is it sponsored, is it “self funded”, is it a subscription model or do we get our collective backsides as a community over to Indiegogo and raise $XX,XXX to pay for a bunch of smartest and brightest to give up a number of hours of their time every month to write just one or two articles each.

    Whatever is decided I’m in…

  2. Fantastic, Barry – love how you’ve cleanly deconstructed the issues and proposed potential solutions. I suspect that there’s a balance to be struck with all this, since we need tactics, tips, and how-tos. But that demand from our readers doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility for continually honing our craft, improving our writing, and building better conversations (and through them, communities).

    I think you’re smart to frame it around the issues of pay and time since very, very few of us get paid to write blog posts or build good communities and conversations. That said, for the folks that do get paid to write for and build the SEO/Inbound community, it might be interesting (and inspiring) for the rest of us if you could publicly share what you’re trying to do: what are the “big rocks” you’re trying to move? What are the long-term goals? What are your dependencies and what do you expect from us?

    On the other hand, the collective funding model for an independent, peer-reviewed, long-form collection or journal that can fulfill a real editorial vision is a fantastic idea. It would take a lot of time, energy, and resources to make it happen, but it’s an opportunity for anyone with the ability to take it on. And I’d argue that it’s needed if we’re going to change perceptions of the industry and evolve our practitioners to the next level.

  3. this is the reason I liked what demand media has done…I know it is just a small part of large eco system but demand media ( ehow , livestrong etc) and Interactivecorp ( about.com caloriecount) .. they did serve world with a great concept.. but similarly we have darkside of publishing industry such as ezine/prweb/hubpages/squidoo .. long term content strategy for seo is like self-responsibility… if u don’t do it it may not harm u a lot but it ll definately harm ur sucessor.

  4. Interesting article. I think that long form content is a tough sell and I actually agree with Carr that the internet is favorable to short interesting pieces. I think that for a piece to be long and effective on the internet it has to be exceptional, whereas a short piece can be successful just by being interesting and informative.

  5. The Internet doesn’t favor short content. It’s just that, given a bell curve of content quality, if the Internet has to spend most of its time slushing through mediocre content it will tend to do so more with short mediocre content rather than long mediocre content. As someone who publishes a lot of long (and short) content I find that I have no problem getting people to hang around to read the long stuff.

    That said, you make many good points about what is holding SEOs back from writing good long content. We are an excuse-generating crowd. The real reason more SEOs don’t do it is that they don’t see any value in doing it. Otherwise, they WOULD be doing it. So the question is, does that perception owe something to the metrics people use or simply to the bell curve of personal preferences?

    1. Hi Michael, on the topic of the internet favouring short content, there’s actually a substantial body of research that suggests that using the internet has an effect on our neurological processes, and that one of those effects is an increased preference for fresh new impulses – i.e. new tweets, new Facebook status updates, new blogs to read – to the detriment of our attention spans. The Nicholas Carr book I refer to in my post is a great read on the topic, as is the collection of essays bundled in this book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Internet-Changing-Way-You-Think/dp/0062020447

      That’s not to say long-form content doesn’t work online – there are plenty of examples to suggest it does, your blog being one of them – but it does pose an additional barrier to its widespread use.

      I do think you’re on to something there about the bell curve of blogging. After all, why spend more effort on long blog posts when the same (mediocre) achievement can be had with much less effort?

  6. Marketers have to understand that the short 400 -500 words article no longer has the same “sting” that it used to have. The netizens are keen on finding their solution all in one page and its very hard to do that with these short articles.

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