The Rise of Longer Web Content

Posted / 29 June, 2015

Author / Enginess

140 characters or 140,000? How long to make your content is a tremendously important question for anyone hoping to attract attention online. And as it turns out, there is a correct answer. Since about 2012, there’s been a steady shift towards longer content of around 2,000 words or more, and away from the Seth Godin-esque content morsels.

140 characters or 140,000? How long to make your content is a tremendously important question for anyone hoping to attract attention online. And as it turns out, there is a correct answer. Since about 2012, there’s been a steady shift towards longer content of around 2,000 words or more, and away from the Seth Godin-esque content morsels. We looked into the trend, and here’s what we found.  

The case for longer content

Longer content (and when we say longer, we’re talking about 2,000+ words) has been performing better for a while now. In December 2012, Neil Patel wrote a blog post about content length, where he looked at some data collected by serpIQ that found that the average length for the top 10 Google results has over 2,000 words for over 20,000 keyword searches. longform content average length   Basically, if you look anything up on Google, the first 10 results you find are going to have a lot of content on them. There are a couple of confounding factors here that are worth mentioning:
  • If a page has more words, odds are it’s going to have a specific keyword, so it’s going to rank better
  • Wikipedia is going to be in the top 10 for an awful lot of those 20,000 searches, and Wikipedia pages tend to have just a huge amount of content on each page
  • Older web pages tend to be longer, and also tend to rank better
Those issues aside, the relationship between length and Google ranking a page, and thus the assumed relationship between how long a page is and how many people find it interesting and worth reading, is still relatively clear.  

Case study: WordStream

WordStream found the same relationship in 2014 on their website, and actually wrote a 2,045-word blog post about it. They started writing longer blog posts with the goal of increasing user engagement. Once they started writing longer blog posts, their time on site increased from 1:33 to 4:35, and their most successful blog post ever was a 2,300 behemoth. So there is solid evidence that longer content is what readers want.  

Why the shift?

So, why hasn’t content always been long? Who decided that 500-800 words was the Golden Target for web publishing, and that engagement and the user experience were best met in that range? We think there are a few things at play here. It would be impossible to talk about length without bringing up Jakob Nielsen. In 1997, he published a study that he’d conducted on reading habits of people online: How Users Read on the Web. The study concluded: Summary: They don't. People rarely read Web pages word by word; instead, they scan the page, picking out individual words and sentences. This was enormously important when content marketing and blogging really started to get going, and it ties in with a whole pile of stereotypes about our ADD lifestyle, and how Twitter is the newspaper of today, and how there’s no room for analysis, etc. etc… So that led to the very reasonable conclusion that web content needs to be shorter, and somehow that number settled between 500 and 800 words. A very middling compromise. The second major reason that shorter content emerged and held sway for such a long time is that longer stuff was seen as bad: if an idea required 3,000 words to express, then it either wasn’t worth expressing or your writing wasn’t good enough. Obviously, both of these concepts are absurd. The idea of how the economy works is worth expressing to almost anyone, but it’s also complex enough that even the best writers in the world couldn’t condense it to a meaningful 500 word blog post. It would take thousands to even get started! The final reason we think that shorter blog posts took off in such a huge way is that they’re faster to produce, so it’s easier to build a business case around them. If you want to write a meaningful 2,000+ word post, it might turn into a full day’s work. A 500 word item though? You can turn out in two hours.  

Conclusion

With Google ranking web pages the way that they are, and people now being over-saturated with short articles that all tell the same thing, we think that longer content is a trend that’s here to stay. It’s meatier, it’s more useful and action-driven, and it has huge potential to solve complex problems that people have. But at the end of the day, it’s not about hitting a specific word count. You use the right number of words for the idea. Some ideas, like how if you microwave corn you don’t get any corn silks, are expressed very quickly. Others, like a complete guide to building your own sail boat, are obviously a little more complex. If you chintz on words because you want shorter content, your idea isn’t going to be fully developed. And if you stretch and mould and craft and load and jam more words into your sentences to hit a specific number, your quality will suffer. Write the idea, not the word count, and your users will thank you.

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