The question of word count for web pages crops up again and again as I work with clients and colleagues on content for websites and blog posts. How long should a page of content be? Is short content really always the answer? How can I shape content to persuade, influence and inspire my readers to take a particular action?
My view? There is a place on your website for both long and short content but it’s absolutely vital to know where to use what. Content length is a critical feature when it comes to helping your reader find and engage with the content on your site. Short content will help a busy reader to locate what they want. Long copy can influence and inform and importantly, may help your site get found by the search engines.
First and foremost, I always aim to make my writing clear and easy to follow. Creating straightforward, interesting and engaging content matters before, during and after the debate about length. Web content is written for real people. So, put the reader at the heart of your writing. Organise your writing to answer their questions and solve their problems.
What is long and what is short?
I see different definitions for length but we might see 500 words as a short web article and over 1200 words as a long article.
- It seems that less than 300 words doesn’t rank well in the search engines, so short pages should aim for this as a minimum.
- Content marketers are increasingly creating long form content of many thousands of words as a way of developing reputation.
Surely web content should be short?
Let’s start with short content. Over the years of delivering web copywriting skills training I have asked hundreds of people what they think makes good web content and many of them have shared that, before anything else, they are aiming to write concise copy.
And they say so on good authority. I can name a whole host of experts who advocate short content as the key element for much of what we write online…
Janice Redish wrote a comprehensive book which helped to set the agenda for web content, with the title Letting Go of the Words. You can tell just from the title how much emphasis she puts on being concise.
Gerry McGovern in Killer Web Content, says, “Be concise – it’s not a murder mystery….tell them who did it in the heading and the very first paragraph. Nobody is going to wait until the last paragraph to discover the essence of what you’re trying to communicate. Lead with the need. Get to the point. Then stop.”
Jakob Neilson, much quoted usability guru said (in 1997 – yes, in a previous millennium!), “Be succinct : write no more than 50% of the text you would have used in a hardcopy publication”. He has said many other things since, all based on extensive usability research. For example, “People prefer to read short articles. This is also what we’ve found in empirical studies of users’ behavior while reading websites. People tend to be ruthless in abandoning long-winded sites; they mainly want to skim highlights.”
Steve Krug, in his book, Don’t Make Me Think, goes even further with his “25% rule”. He basically says that if you write something for print, when you turn it into a webpage you should red-pen the copy to half its original length… and then, as if that wasn’t radical enough you should repeat the exercise again to end up with 25% of your original writing.
Why short content matters
Good short content is always written for the reader. It has been carefully planned and written in the style and tone that will connect with them. By writing short content you have made it easy for your audience to engage.
There are all kinds of reasons why short content is effective online:
- Readers are in a hurry and want information quickly
- They may be using a mobile phone or other mobile device and find it difficult to scroll through long content
- Short content is often clear, simply because it is short and therefore the main point is obvious.
In many circumstances short copy will help someone achieve what they want quickly. It is relevant to product descriptions, news items, adverts, captions, headlines and so much more.
Short copy matters a great deal. Crafting it takes time and skill.
The case for short content actually seems pretty secure at this point, but there is more to come (I’m only about half way through this long-ish article!)
I would argue that short copy is what people need first. Sometimes it is enough on its own, but sometimes what we need is a short clear webpage that introduces the long, detailed content that contains the argument, the theory, the main course after the appetiser.
Long content has value to the reader
Sometimes 500 -600 words (a short article) simply isn’t enough. We need to know more about the subject and we are willing to take the time to read. Think about a broadsheet newspaper. Once we’ve made the decision to read an article we are quite happy to consume several thousand words. At some point we will decide we’ve read enough and move on, or perhaps we’ll read to the end with relish if we are sufficiently engaged. Surely it is the same online?
In an article in The Drum in 2016, Gillian West discusses a trend towards long form content, citing, amongst others, The Guardian’s “The Long Read”, as well as developments on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.
Online reading has become normal for so many of us over the years, that a shift towards long form content is hardly surprising. It makes sense.
Long content helps content to rank in search engines
Add to this a growing body of evidence that long content tends to rank well – and for obvious reasons. Google bots don’t seem to get bored as easily as human beings, so a long article provides a great opportunity for using plenty of key words. Put simply, a long article carries weight, just by being long.
Neil Patel is one of the strong proponents of the value of long content as a route to getting a website to rank in the search engines.
A great deal of content marketing material suggests that there is huge value in creating long form content. Our readers will like it and share it, our rankings will improve.
Yoast, the tool that helps WordPress users to optimise their content also supports this thinking, but offers a word of warning – only write long blog posts if you have the skills to do it well. Structure your content with care and write with skill.
Sadly there are plenty of people creating long content just for the sake of it, even although they have nothing very profound to say.
Mark Evans offers a word of caution too, suggesting (as all the short copy proponents did originally) that people simply do not have time to read this kind of content.
Driven by rankings
It would seem that at the moment long form copy is being over-emphasised because it is favoured by Google.
This anomaly will surely resolve itself – Google shouldn’t be promoting long drivel over shorter well-informed content? No doubt this ripple will be resolved in some future Google tweak.
Stop when you’ve said it
Have you ever sat in a talk or a lecture for an hour thinking that the points the speaker is making could have been well covered in about 10 minutes? Well, it’s the same for blog content and other long articles. Length for the sake of length is surely not the answer. Make your point, make it well, include the relevant links and references and then shut up! Your readers will thank you for being coherent and succinct.
A place for both
Jacob Neilson’s conclusions, based on usability research and some cost-benefit theorising, are that there is a place for both types of content:
- “If you want many readers, focus on short and scannable content. This is a good strategy for advertising-driven sites or sites that sell impulse buys.”
- “If you want people who really need a solution, focus on comprehensive coverage. This is a good strategy if you sell highly targeted solutions to complicated problems.”
His conclusions are drawn without reference to the search engines so perhaps represent something of an ideal world.
However, for those of us living in the real world, there is undoubtedly a place for long form content, but let’s just make sure that it is relevant, interesting and original and then – surely – someone will want to read it and share it.
Long content is not always the answer. It plays a unique role in attracting attention in Google search. It’s a valuable method of communicating detailed information.
Short content suits readers in a hurry online – people who are sifting and searching for the information they want and need.
Sometimes we need to take time to craft the short content that people need first, as a route to helping them to get to well written relevant long content.
How and why I created this blog post
This blog post has 1708 words. So it definitely counts as long content. And that’s deliberate. I want to help readers develop their knowledge on long and short content on web pages. I also want to demonstrate that I am knowledgeable about this topic and have done my homework thoroughly. I simply could not cover the topic in enough depth in a short article.
Of course, I also want to get found in search. The long content will help with that, and the specific words and phrases that I have chosen to incorporate in my writing. This article also includes several questions that readers might type into Google: How long should a page of content be? How many words should I use in my webpage or blog post?
To write the piece I have drawn on my wide reading on web copywriting and included references to a number of relevant books. There are links to other relevant online articles and – of course – my own opinions. In other words, this is not just a rehash of someone else’s point of view. It’s an original piece of work.