How to Write Long-form Content Without Resorting to Babbling Bullshit

I fucking hate word count. Seriously.

When I was the content manager of an SEO firm, I lobbied to ban word count from any conversations about content. To me, few things have ruined more writing than trying to meet a word count.

Remember writing an essay in high school? You need 1,000 words, you’ve given it everything you have and… You’re at 850 words. “Ok, whelp, here comes another 150 words of yammering god damn gibberish. Enjoy!”

Funny how we never outgrow that. This is sadly still very prevalent in the world of content marketing.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself staring at my screen. I just wrote 850 words on how to snake a bathtub drain, wondering what exactly I’m going to do for another 150 words. I was out of useful things to say 200 words ago. Now, I’m thinking about pasting 150 words of Lorem Ipsum and hiding it at the bottom of the page in white font.*

My first editor told me, “Don’t pad, add” when I’m in that situation. The mentality here is to find something new to bring to the table, instead of adding for the sake of adding. That’s good advice. It rhymes and everything! But how am I supposed to add 250 more words to a blog about foot cream?

Well, it can be done. Here’s how.

*Someone told me that trick recently. That’s actually brilliant. Where was that when I was in high school?

Does Long-form Content Actually Rank Better?

Why the hell are we killing ourselves to reach this word count? Why does this need to be 1500 words? Or even 2,000? Does long-form content actually rank better? Sadly, after years of fighting the issue, I have to say it does.

I had the gall to fight SEOs with genius-level intellects on this issue for years. Yes, there is lots of hardcore empirical evidence that proves long content performs better. Google does seem to favour it.

I fought this for years. As a writer and a content manager, this was a source of friction between me and the SEO guys.

They would say, “We need to focus on longer content.”
I’d say, “Nah, we need to focus on better content.”

Decision-makers would tend to side with the SEO guys because, “How are we supposed to quantify ‘better’ so it fits on a spreadsheet?”

It’s much easier to tell your fleet of freelance writers that their blogs need to be 50% longer than it is to tell them they need to be 50% better. What does better even mean?

But, I’ve reconciled the fact that longer content ranks better. Yes, Google does seem to love blogs over 2,000 words. But I don’t believe it has a filter that automatically devalues anything 1999 words and below. I don’t really believe it’s the number, per se.

I think quantity can lead to quality… Or it can lead to pure shit. I think the act of sitting down to write 2,000 words often means you’re going to take a deeper dive into the issue. You’re going to do a lot of research and find a way to tell a complete story. Users like complete content. More on that later.

I firmly believe that is why longer content performs better. It’s not about the number, it’s about the approach and the commitment to give the readers some real value. If you assign a 500-word blog to a volume-driven freelance writer, it’s easily disposable to them. You will usually get their best hour of work. But, it takes moxie and commitment to write 2,000 words. They have to think, “Better make this good.”

Fighting For Quality Over Quantity

There are still a lot of data-driven people who still just see the number. It’s hard to make the case to them that, yes, 2,000 words usually ranks higher than 500. But 2,000 words of digital landfill won’t rank.

I was once in a meeting at an agency and our SEO lead announced to the room, “We’re now selling content blocks to our clients.” As the content manager, this sounded like something I should care about. So, I closed the ‘rope swing fail’ supercut I was watching and said, “Sorry, what are content blocks?”

“They are an extra 300 words of copy per page to help boost their SEO.”
“It’s just adding 300 more words to a page?”
“300 more SEO-rich words, yes.”
“You can’t just stuff 300 more words of copy into a page.”
“Why not?”
“Because arbitrarily adding 300 words without any thought for the user’s experience, or the page’s flow and layout will lead to pure shit.”
“I don’t care if it’s good. I just care it’s done.”

Actual footage of my response. I’m not proud of this footage

Want to make a writer who takes pride in his work boardroom-table-flippingly-mad? Tell him you don’t care about quality.

I don’t take pride in many things. Not my appearance, not my tact, and not my sobriety. But, I damn sure take pride in my work. Being told to just stuff 300 random words into my work made me… angry.  

But over the years I’ve learned to calm that table-flip reflex and find a way to meet halfway.

How to Create Long Content Without Just Stuffing Shit in

Ok, we’ve accepted that longer content is better, when done correctly. We now have to write longer blogs and landing pages. How do we do that?

I’ve recently read Brian Dean at Backlinko talk about, “complete content” and this shit is my jam.

Complete content is all about giving the user/reader a complete package on a given topic, instead of 700 good words and another 1300 words of complete nonsense.

Dean cited a recent example where a frustrated business owner asked Google’s John Mueller why their pages weren’t getting indexed.

“You can generally make the quality of the content there a little bit better by having more comprehensive content on these pages.”

What does “comprehensive” mean in that context? Data-driven quants read that and think, “Add more words.” But, marketers need to think, “Add more value.”

But how do we stretch a 500-word idea into 2000 words? We don’t. We don’t stretch, we… Fetch? Damn it, I really wanted to make that rhyme.

I tried to make Fetch happen. And I am sorry

You’re wondering how do I take a simple (or, dare we say, boring) topic and get 2,000 words out of it. It ain’t easy, but it’s doable.

Let’s take the question, “How do I do a deadlift?” It’s simple, right? Pick it up, put it down, don’t fuck up your back, right?

Well, the people at Nerd Fitness took that question and turned it into this long-form goddamn masterpiece. Look at it! This beast is over 4,000 words.

However, it’s 4,000 words of easily digestible real-value. They’ve broken the content up with headings like:

  • Why Should Everybody Deadlift?
  • Choosing a Deadlift
  • Common Faults and Mistakes while Deadlifting

They treated their headings like chapters in a book and told a complete story. They also broke up the sections with lots of great pictures and videos.

At the time of this posting, that page is the third organic results out of 18 million results. Beautiful. Bravo, Nerd Fitness!

Writing Complete Content

You probably don’t have the time, resources, or budget to put something like that deadlift piece together. Of course you don’t. However, changing your mentality is free.

Let’s say you sell tires in Toronto. Not particularly glamorous stuff to write about, is it? But you can still get decent long-form content out of it.

The old method would be to write 2,000 words for a “Toronto Tires” city landing page by writing 500ish words about the company… and the wheels would fall off from there. Tire puns. Boom.

Desperate writers in this situation would start to populate this city landing page with nearly anything to get that word count to 2,000. They may write, “Toronto is a beautiful city that sits on Lake Ontario.” God damn it, I live in Toronto, I know it’s on Lake Ontario. Give me some value or I’m bouncing.

Instead of doing that, ask yourself how you can add more value to this story. Talk about how Toronto is a slush fucking nightmare in the winter. Talk about what types of tires work best in that slushy nightmare. Talk about why you need great winter tires for road trips to the cottage over the winter.

Ask yourself how you can add more to the story, instead of just adding to the word count.

Quantity doesn’t need to be at odds with quality. And quantity-driven SEOs don’t need to be at odds with quality-driven content managers. Not even the moody table flipping babies like me.

Got any great examples of long-form you want to showcase? Let me know in the comments below.

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