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Longform Content for SEO

4th April 2019 by Mark Anderson | Content, Content & Search

Why the longform?

In an age of shortened attention spans, where mobile traffic dwarfs that from desktops and horrific phrases like ‘snackable content’ have entered the lexicon of marketers, is there still a place for detailed content?

Like any content, the medium and format should be informed by the objectives of the piece. Much of the content we create for our clients is part of an SEO strategy, so must help us drive performance against our ultimate objective: increase revenue through organic search.

That isn’t to say there aren’t secondary objectives for each piece. By considering the role of content within an SEO strategy, we can create pieces that help us satisfy that main objective while simultaneously delivering other results.

This requires an understanding of user needs and goals with online behaviour so we can help our clients satisfy them, turning potential customers in to actual ones.

Most of the longform content we create is not directly transactional. It is not designed to address searches where the immediate intent of the user is to complete a purchase.

Rather, it has been created to be useful at the consideration and awareness stages of the purchase cycle. Either by attracting users that are searching for information (and sometimes be entertained) at one of those points in the purchase cycle or by allowing us to generate links through outreach that will help achieve higher rankings for transactional searches.

Longform content is not the only way to achieve that, far from it. Given the huge undertaking required to create an effective piece of longform content you have to be sure that it is the most appropriate format.  Yet regardless of format, content to generate links must adhere to these principles:

Brand benefits of longform content

To have brand value the topic of the content shouldn’t be incongruous with the product or service offering of the brand (or other elements that help build the brand i.e. charitable work performed by companies).

It should also align with the tone-of-voice and visual styling that contributes to the brand identity and if effective, positions it in the mind of potential customers positively.

When seeking links alone, you could perhaps look at the coverage some controversial content has garnered and think with effective outreach and PR, that could be link gold. I’ll flippantly chuck in a ‘disruption’ here – more for anyone playing marketing bull-shit bingo.

Take for example some of the controversial, confrontational marketing and brand building from Brewdog. While this secured reams of coverage, such acts of defiance would bring brand managers at other companies out in cold sweats.

Interestingly, Brewdog started positioning themselves as industry upstarts and building their brand around being punks. Therefore there was a harmony between these sometimes guerilla actions with the image they were trying to portray and the authenticity and edginess a certain corner of the market wanted.

Incidentally, in this writer’s opinion, such continued claims to be punks have since been undermined by the brand’s international chain of homogenised bars, selling their beer on budget airlines and misguided legal action that lacked any self-awareness. They are, however, undeniably successful.

Brand relevance

Less anarchic, but still in keeping with brand positioning is our own guide to SEO for ecommerce. From a brand point of view, it allows us to show our expertise on the subject matter as well as conforming with our purpose of helping companies achieve goals through digital marketing activity.

It also helps us point existing or potential clients to valuable information that explains how we do things, as well as addressing the queries of people who are looking for some help with their SEO activity and building topical relevance in the view of search engines.

Furthermore, by being very closely related to one of our core services, it can naturally sit within the services folder in our site structure, meaning the relevant links that are acquired have a greater impact on the organic performance on other pages within that folder.

The Art of Luxury Watchmaking campaign we worked on with ROX is another example of longform content that aligns with the brand. As a high-end jeweller, the subject matter covers one of ROX’s key product offerings, the elegant aesthetics of the piece and complimentary tone-of-voice aligns with their positioning.

It also helps ROX show watch enthusiasts they are not just retailers of luxury watches, but incredibly knowledgeable on the subject and respect the traditions of the detailed manufacturing process as well as being aware of the evolution of the industry.

Providing value for users

Some people actively seek lighter content to be entertained; pictures of cats, fail gifs, a list-based piece on 11 times z-list celebrities used snapchat filters that no-one else uses (you’ll never believe number 8)…or whatever floats your boat. Longform, however, works well for pieces that inform.

It won’t inherently be effective for informing all user groups across all topics. But, to disregard detailed copy that provides informed people with valuable information as being unsuitable for today’s browsing habits is a dangerous game.

Take, for example, the Talent Management content we created for Sage. Implementing a talent management programme is no simple task, therefore the professionals it is targeted at require the detail from such a piece. They already have some knowledge and experience of managing people and require deeper, practical information to be able to take their HR practices forward.

User demand

One way to determine the requirement for a longform piece is by using keyword research. Firstly, are there common themes of searches that such content can address and secondly, is content of such a format rewarded in the search results?

We can use Google search results as a proxy for understanding the type of content users want on any given topic.

Given the huge array of content types that can rank for a variety of queries, from news results and tweets taking prominence where the algorithm determines that the Query Deserves Freshness (QDF) to journey planning features in the SERPS, it’s worth considering that Google has a good handle on the best type of content to serve users. This is particularly the case as machine learning and artificial intelligence are being used to constantly improve this.

Furthermore, organic results are one of the key ways in driving traffic to these types of content. Although this should be supplemented with other earned, owned and paid channels. Studies have found that lengthier content performs well in the search results.

Studies show size matters

Back in 2012, SerpIQ studied the search results for 20,000 keywords and found that the average length of content in the top 10 was over 2,000 words. The content ranking at number 1 was, on average, almost 19% longer than that at number 10.

You may be thinking, whoah hold me back with your seven year old study. Yet successive studies have found that longer content generally performs better in the search results. These include studies by Backlinko in 2016 and a 2017 study by SEMRush. Incidentally, a follow up study in 2019 by Backlinko found longer content also received more social shares.

So, in the face of questions about shorter attention spans and mobile browsing changing our content consumption habits, this type of content is continually and consistently rewarded by an evolving ranking algorithm.

Keyword research can help you determine if the topic is useful to users and SERP analysis can help you understand if the format is suitable.

Mobile and user friendly

We were directly challenged by a client about the suitability of longform content for mobile visitors. The analysis of pieces we created within the last year found that:

  • Bounce rate is 13% lower on mobile than desktop for these pieces
  • Mobile users spend 19% longer on these pages than other content forms

Something we’ve learned we need to improve though is making the content easier to navigate for users on all devices. Such lengthy pieces attract traffic from a variety of search terms and queries that are answered by copy two-thirds of the way down the page will still click through from the search results to the top of the page.

For a piece on solo travel for the over 40s, we included anchor links at the top to aid with this. For ROX’s Written in the Stars piece, we moved the navigational anchor links higher up the page so it made it easier for users to jump to the section they found most relevant. This resulted in a 46.67% reduction in bounce rate.

Outreach value of longform content

When considering outreach value, what we’re really getting at is, will it generate links? Can we persuade others to write about and link to it?

To do this it has to meet several criteria:

  • Relevant to outreach targets audience
  • Provides useful information or entertains
  • Is easy for the site to publish

This is where longform content excels. Basing the topic on user demand (search queries), we know that if the right sites are sourced for outreach: those that share the same target audience, then the content will be relevant.

If, as content creators, we have done our job in addressing those queries – providing the answers to questions that people want to find out, then we know that it is providing useful information.

Securing links

When outreaching content and persuading others to create a post on their site that links back to our client’s site, we find that this becomes a lot easier when we are able to provide visual assets. Therefore, these must be an integral part of the longform content that is created. It makes it much easier for site owners to create engaging content for their visitors.

One example of this is the specially commissioned illustrations of Steve McQueen that were created for a piece to promote him as brand ambassador for Tag Heuer which hold appeal to film fans, watch aficionados and those interested in his style.

Equally, the assets that were created for Sage’s piece on gender pay gap reporting provided valuable information to business owners and senior managers and tapped in to a trending topic.

Longform vs infographics

You may be thinking that there is not too much between the above visual asset and a campaign based on an infographic. However, longform content offers greater encouragement to site owners to link than infographics.

Creators (or perhaps commissioners) of infographics tend to be publish them on a blog post with a couple of paragraphs of supporting copy. The outreach of infographics involves hoping  those that host them on their own site will credit the source of the content with a link. Quite often this will be credited to the brand and therefore, the link goes to the homepage.

The detailed, valuable information that makes up the longform content is particularly useful for securing a link and helps that link to go to a prefered location. It’s unlikely that successful outreach results in a site owner creating anything as detailed as the longform content it is based on.

Therefore, there is a good reason for them to link to the more detailed information for interested users to find out more information. Of course, if they are linking to the longform content that makes use of good internal links, much more of the value will be passed to product pages.

Consequently, the product pages will perform better in the search results and searchers that are directly looking to make a purchase are more likely to land on those product pages to complete that action.

Back to branding

Our experience of outreach has told us that infographics or visual guides that look too branded and/or directly promote the products and services a company provides can struggle to generate links. After all, why would a publisher make that editorial decision to publish something that looks like an advert without receiving any advertising revenue from it?

Here, where much more user value is provided, assuming the brand has a generally positive perception, we find that content that visually aligns with brand of the original creator will still get published by third parties.

Performance analysis

In the current climate where the lines between PR and SEO outreach are becoming blurred and the challenge to PRs is to secure links from major publishers, having a resource that others will refer to is incredibly effective.

This isn’t mere speculation either. Backlinko along with Buzzstream studied the performance of 912 million blog posts and found that the vast majority of published content received no backlinks, but the longer the content, the more effective it is for generating links.

In fact, the study found that longform content gets 77.2% more links than short articles. We can take from this that owners of other sites perceive there to be user value from longer content there and are happy to send their visitors to it.

Is longform content right for you?

It’s clear that there are multiple benefits to creating longform content, but doing so requires significant resource. Effort and skill is required for determining if it is the right route to achieving objectives through to detailed research, expertly crafting copy and creating stunning visuals. It is not the only content format that is effective either.

However, you must determine if the circumstances are right for this type of content to deliver the results you require. If so, and you execute it effectively, it can be a powerful tool in your marketing arsenal and can still drive outstanding results in 2019.

Got any questions about content creation or wondering if longform content could work for your brand? Get in touch with our content and SEO experts.

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