Are you writing too much content?
Contributor Jacob Baadsgaard says great content doesn't have to do with word count -- it's about giving your audience what they're looking for.
How much content is too much content? Writers have been debating this question for centuries, if not millennia.
Back in the 1800s, book authors were paid per page, so literary greats like Victor Hugo literally wrote as much as possible. However, while writing 650,000+ word novels was good for Hugo’s bottom line, there’s a reason why most people prefer the abridged version of “Les Miserables”…
Attention spans are shrinking — and this doesn’t just affect novelists.
For years, SEO experts have been emphasizing long-form content. After all, in the keyword-centered universe of search engine optimization, longer content means more words, which means more keywords, which means better search relevance, right?
But, here’s the thing. Whether you’re a 19th-century novelist or a 21st-century content marketer, great content isn’t about word count — it’s about crafting the right experience for your user.
SEO is changing
Early on, search engine algorithms were very keyword-centric. However, people don’t use a search engine because they want to visit a keyword-stuffed page.
Instead, they’re looking for a page that meets their needs.
Since search engines like Google live and die based on the usefulness of their search results, they have to care about the on-page experience. As a result, Google has been steadily changing its algorithms to account for user experience.
Just look at Moz’s Ranking Factors report. Four of the top 10 non-keyword-related factors that Google cares about are related to user experience:
So, no matter how many keywords you have, if your content isn’t meeting the needs of your target audience, Google isn’t going to rank you as well.
And, as it turns out, most content doesn’t work for its target audience.
Think about it. How often do you completely read a web page from start to finish? Even when the content is compelling and unique (like this article), the majority of people only make it about halfway through a blog post:
That means I’m probably going to lose your attention in about 250 more words. Stick with me, though; things are about to get even more interesting!
So, if what you’re writing ends up looking like this page (which, incidentally, I split up and rearranged into columns to make it easier to absorb)…
… do you honestly think anyone is going to read your content?
And even if your customers have a specific question that is answered perfectly in your content, what are the odds that they will be able to find what they’re looking for?
All of this brings us back to our original question: How much content is too much content? Luckily, there is actually a fairly easy way to answer that question.
Determining your ideal content length
Since I’ve got 100 words left to wow you with, let’s take a look at how content length affects user experience in a very real way.
At Disruptive Advertising, my employer, we’re big believers in testing everything — including content length.
Recently, my VP of Testing, Chris Dayley, was working with a client, OURrescue, to help improve the performance of their blog.
OURrescue is an incredible organization that travels the world saving children from sex traffickers. But to do this, they need donations.
To fund further rescues, they have a blog where they report on each “mission” that features a call to action at the end of every post requesting donations.
Following the pattern of many blogs, their articles usually had 1,500+ words. Their posts were doing okay, but Dayley wanted to see if altering post length could actually increase the amount of donations they received.
So, we asked the author of a new article for short, medium and long versions of the post. We then used Hotjar to see how far people scrolled through each version of the article and Google Analytics to monitor the amount of time people spent on each page and the number of donations received.
We made sure to separate mobile and desktop traffic and had Optimizely split the traffic among the three versions of the post.
Easy enough, right?
Our desktop results looked like this:
As you probably guessed, people spent the most time on the longest version of the article. But things got more interesting when we looked at page depth.
Only 45.5 percent of OURrescue’s traffic reached the bottom of the shortest article, and only 64.9 percent of their visitors finished the long version. The mid-length version, on the other hand, had a completion rate of 76.7 percent!
By comparison, here’s what things looked like on mobile:
On mobile, the longest word count had the shortest time on page and fewest completions.
The lowest word count version actually had the best completion rate. Clearly, for this client, longer content didn’t necessarily mean better engagement.
As nice as it is to have people finish an article (just a friendly nudge, right?), the metric that really mattered was donations… and guess which versions of the article won…
It turns out that the longer articles really didn’t do a lot for the company. Compared to the highest word count version, the medium-length article actually brought in 28.4 percent more donations on desktop, and the shortest version brought in 83.1 percent more donations on mobile!
Now, does this mean that shorter content is always better content — especially on mobile? Not necessarily.
For this client, shorter content was better for their audience. For your site, you’ll want to run this same test and see how your results pan out.
The important takeaway here is that different audiences are looking for a different experience. Long content, short content — if you can give them what they’re looking for, they’ll be much more likely to convert.
And, as an added bonus, the search engines will reward you for creating a compelling on-site experience.
Still with me? Great! When it comes to content length, it’s dangerous to adopt a 1800s-style “longer content is better content” mentality. Great content isn’t about word count, it’s about delivering the right experience.
So, don’t take your content length for granted. Take a look at your content and ask yourself, is this written for my potential customers or for a search engine?
Odds are, if you’re prioritizing your Google Bot experience over your user experience, you’re going to have poor SERP results and low conversion rates.