If there’s one thing Digital 22's content team likes to give me a bit of stick for, it’s the fact that I supposedly love writing endless pages of content - even if I don’t need to. The reason for that is some content pieces have reached close to 50,000 words.
It actually just depends on the context, the topic and who we’re writing for. Some need a lot of explanation if there’s very little we’ve previously written about, while others only need a short piece if we're answering a quick query.
So, how long should a content piece be?
If only it was as easy as saying ‘This blog post needs to be 800 words for it to drive traffic and conversions’. Search engine algorithms, readers’ habits, new techniques; there are plenty of reasons why there’s not really one solid answer. A lot influences content success and I’m sure my fellow content marketers out there can sympathise.
The problem? One thought leader will give you one figure, Google will tell you something else and another expert has an entirely different opinion which leaves you with more questions than answers and we’re back to square one. Trying to always follow search engine and industry leader advice all the time - without putting the user experience at the heart of your content - is going to be a little problematic for you.
The best way to work out what people really want from content, though, is to ask them.
That’s what this month’s deep dive is about. Paul, our Head of Delivery, did a lot of research earlier this year around this topic on what people actually want to see from content. Not just what Google thinks or what industry leaders believe is the right answer, but hearing it from the people who consume all of this content.
If you want to skip the stuff on Google and how it actually ranks content, then click here to jump into the data from real people where you’ll also find some useful advice.
- Why does this topic even matter?
- The Google search rankings aspect
- What are other thought leaders saying?
- Real data from real people
- Advice for future content: five tips to follow
Why does this topic even matter?
Everyone asks this question. Whether you’re about to write a blog or your planning campaign strategy, the common theme is always the word count and what the ‘right’ number of words is. Here’s why else this topic matters and is something you should focus on before planning your next marketing campaign:
- Over 75% of internet users say they read blogs regularly (Quoracreative)
- Three out of five marketers acknowledge the role of blogging in winning customers (Quoracreative)
- 55% of marketers say blog content creation is their top inbound marketing priority (HubSpot)
- The number of bloggers is expected to reach nearly 32 million this year (Statista)
- 60% of marketers create at least one piece of content each day (eMarketer)
- Content marketing gets 3x more leads than paid search advertising (Content Marketing Institute)
- Marketers who prioritise blogging efforts are 13x more likely to see positive ROI (HubSpot)
… you get the idea. The point is marketers are creating a lot of content and people are reading it. However, content competitions are fierce and resources are limited. Now, users want content that helps them, which is pretty much what the original inbound methodology was based on.
At one stage, the frequency of content output was a great way of ensuring success. It was a simple formula really. The more you blogged, the more views and leads you gained. Easy. That worked then. Now, every company is doing a form of content marketing so we’re past the point of peak content production.
To enjoy some of the benefits I listed in those bullets (and plenty more scattered online which I haven’t included), it’s time to get a little smarter with the content you produce to reach your target personas in the best way.
In 2019, Google held 90% of the search market so when somebody says ‘you need rank highly in search engines’, they basically mean Google. So it makes complete sense to try and have Google put your content in front of their users but as we all know too well, that’s easier said than done. Google’s advice? Well, a common theory is actually to produce bigger and more thorough content.
Apparently, that’s what ranks. Great! Create long-form content, make it well-detailed and you’re good to go. The problem on the other side of this is that producing long-form content is pretty damn hard and takes up a lot of time. You might be able to knock a few shorter blogs in a day or even more if you have a full content team, but doing that daily for long-form content isn’t easy.
It comes down to Google wanting to give its users the most contextually correct results for a query and two things show them a user liked your content. They clicked on it on the search engine results page (SERP), then they stayed on your website and didn’t return to the SERP to go elsewhere.
The Google search ranking aspect
If you thought in this section you’d get a playbook on what Google shares about its rankings then sorry, but it doesn’t exist sadly. Google also makes so many changes it’s difficult to keep track of how the SERP appears, let alone how it responds to queries.
During his research, Paul actually found some surprising facts about Google which has an impact on where content ranks. These include:
- Google updates its search algorithm nine times a day
- Google says there are around 200 secret ranking factors which influences which results to show
- RankBrain (and other AI) compares a users query and subsequent behaviour in a deep-learning way, self-improving its contextual knowledge with every search entry
To put this into context, here’s how it was explained during our LOVE INBOUND 2020 event when Paul discussed the topic.
He said: “Every time a user enters a search query on Google - which happens 5.6 billion times every day - the algorithm is updating itself with contextual understanding.
“It’s thinking, ‘When somebody enters ‘unbelievable cheeseburgers’ from that location, at that time of day, on that kind of device and they still needed to try again with another search query - unbelievable cheeseburgers latest podcast episode’ - what we showed wasn’t right for their context.
“They weren’t looking for a restaurant, they were looking for a podcast episode.”
It’s not all just AI and algorithm-based either when it comes to picking which piece of content ranks where. Google also employs over 10,000 real humans (or Search Quality Raters) around the globe who manually rate the pages offered up as search results to genuine queries.
Not only that, but the Search Quality Raters are also given a hefty 168-page guidance document to improve algorithm updates. Why does that matter to you as a marketing professional? It’s because the ‘raters’ are given clear guidance on what Google wants to deem as important in a quality rating. If you’re wondering what Google deems as the most important factors in the guidance document…
- The purpose of the page: Does it match the query and does it help the user?
- Expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness*: Raters do some of the digging to check this
- Main content quality and amount: Specifically, the landing page of the search result
- Website and content author information: Raters do further digging on both
- Website and content author reputation: You guessed it, Raters look into this as well
You can check out the full guidance document here if you fancy taking a peek. But the factors above is what impacts your content and where it ranks. If your content does well against the first three factors, it can rank well while the final two take care of themselves.
It also depends on the purpose. Are you trying to actually help your readers or are you just in it to drive traffic? As in, not just targeting a query for the sake of it. Make sure it’s correct and helpful with plenty of research and delivered with assurance. You need to establish trust on the topic so it’s a genuinely helpful read.
Why’s Google doing this? Well, how else would it remain the most trusted and widely used search engine on the planet? It’s what helps bring them an audience and allows them to charge for ad space. Google will only show content from trusted authors and from those who produce content to help users - not just attract traffic.
So, forget the word count. Produce meaningful, trustworthy and helpful content which offers depth to users. Although content length is a factor, Google still stresses it’s about finding the right length for the user’s context.
*In an AMA at Pubcon, Google’s Gary Ilyes said word count isn’t directly a factor used for ranking, so it’s no wonder there’s so much confusion when asking how many words a piece of content should be. That’s just one perspective, though. Let’s take a look at some other opinions.
What are other thought leaders saying?
This is where the mixed messages can be a really bad thing. We can often get so wound up in what others say the optimal word count is that we forget we’re writing for people, not just search engines and algorithms. The common theory is that the longer a blog post is, the more likely it is to convert readers.
I actually did a similar study with our types of premium content to see which one works best for inbound marketing in terms of gaining submissions and customers. Although the assumption was that longer, more in-depth eBooks would perform the best, it was actually shorter summary sheets.
So, a longer blog post isn’t always the answer. However, here are some findings from studies and theories on what the most effective length of content is.
The rich snippet query
At the time of writing, thewritepractice.com holds the rich snippet for the query ‘what the best length for a blog post?’ That means through Google’s sophisticated algorithms, over time, users have found this blog to be the most useful when readers want to find out the best length for their blog posts. The key points are:
- Many experts bloggers promote the myth that shorter is better
- They claim the opposite is true - the longer, the better
- Longer is usually better for social shares and SEO whereas shorter is better for getting more engagement such as comments
The blog is 1,400 words long and is likely to be the website’s best-read post as it holds the rich snippet for a popular query. This means the post’s own advice and date probably isn’t true. Keep in mind that rich snippets do change all the time depending on a variety of factors. Now, let’s look at what some other industry leaders say.
- Medium: Their analytical study concluded a seven-minute read time, or around 1,600 words, is the optimal post length
- Search Engine Journal: An SEO go-to source, Search Engine Journal firmly believes you should ‘just do the right length for the topic’
- CoSchedule: The engaging roundup advises that 2,500-word blog posts rank the best
- HubSpot: A guide exploring character count in various areas found 2,000-2,500 words is the average for ranking blog posts. For their blog specifically, HubSpot narrowed it to 2,250-2,500
- Buffer: Buffer cites the Medium study, stating a blog post should be seven minutes and 1,600 words long
- Yoast: This popular SEO plug-in believes posts under 300 words are pointless and that longer is better (over 1,000 words is the structure and readability are flawless)
- BuzzSumo and OkDork: Analysing over an impressive 100 million articles in a joint study, they found content with over 2,00 words are the top 10% most shared.
- SEMrush: One of our favourite SEO tools found content over 2,000 words gives the best results
- Moz: Moz found 85% of content published is under 1,000 words while having over 1,000 words results in more shares
The conclusion is...there isn’t one. None that will actually help marketing professionals as blogging is discussed in such a broad term, we don’t have a definitive answer. From the studies, however, 1,000-2,500 seems to be the advised length.
Although, 1,000 words and under shows to be less effective and that goes against Google’s advice, so there’s even more confusion. For now, forget algorithms and industry leaders. There’s no better way to find out from readers themselves and that’s what the survey was about. We reached out to get a large sample of people to offer their opinion.
Real data from real people
Conflicting advice causes confusion so we surveyed over one hundred random people from a range of industries. We then analysed all the blog content we’ve produced for clients (thanks Paul) which featured over six years worth of data and more HubSpot rollouts than any other agency. So, we had the thousands upon thousands of blogs and data ready to dive into.
The goal was to find out what they value in B2B and B2C content, what length and depth they prefer, what’s important to them and when they consume their content. If you want a quick summary…
- 20% of people find around 1,250-word content the most useful
- 66% prefer content to be between 500-2,500 words long
- Around 25% of people value stats and evidence more than anything else in B2C content
- Tips are the next most popular feature at 15%
- People want B2B content to be skimmable, provide theory-based explanations and an easy-to-follow structure
- Contrary to Google’s scoring measures, content depth didn’t score highlight at all
- The most popular times to read content in the evenings (80%) and early morning (over 60%)
- The trend is for enjoyment to build throughout the day and peaks at 5pm-9pm, with nearly half of the respondents singling this out as their favourite time
- 5pm-9pm is peoples favourite time to read long-form content while short-form content is desired between 6am-9am
- The appetite for short-form dwindles through the day but long-form’s grows
- Respondents in the IT & comms industries generally prefer long-form but healthcare, construction and engineering prefer shorter-form
- Retail, public sector, marketing and media industry respondents had the widest range of content length preferences
- People whose favourite time to consume content is early in the morning are more likely to be in a very senior position
- People who prefer longer-form content tend to be in a more senior position
- Barring the odd anomaly, shorter-form content is preferred by more junior respondents
An in-depth breakdown
Q: When do you read content online?
The first question allowed respondents to pick any time throughout the day when they read content online. You’ll notice the first big spike is at around the 6am-9am mark, so breakfast time, dropping the kids off to school and even reading content before starting work for the day (or at least when they could).It decreases throughout the day while picking up slightly at lunch (we’re all on our phones during lunch, let’s be honest) before the biggest increase at 5pm-9pm. This is when most time is spent at home, giving people more time to read the content they want.
Q: When is your favourite time to read content on the internet?
When somebody reads content online vs when they actually prefer to read their content are two different things. Although the first big spike for when content is read takes place between 6am-9am, it’s not people’s favourite time to read. The actual favourite time to read content is at the second big spike, between 5pm-9pm, which makes sense as people are less likely to rush around compared to their mornings. But then it can go a little deeper…
Q: What length of content do you find most useful during your favourite time to read content on the internet?
This is where it gets interesting. After giving respondents multiple options to choose when they read content and then asking them their favourite from those options, we asked what length of content do they prefer during those times. The overwhelming majority selected the 1,500-word mark after a big increase from 500 words onwards. After the 1,500-word mark, there’s a constant decrease with respondents saying both 500 words and 4,500 words aren’t what they prefer during their favourite times to read.
Q: When do you most like to read long-form content?
This includes content such as in-depth interviews, feature pieces, how-to tutorials, eBooks or my deep dives - anything that takes a good while to read whether it’s in one sitting or over time. As you’ll see in the graph below, the most number of people prefer the 5pm-9pm window with the increase coming at 5pm before decreasing at 9pm.Again, this makes a lot of sense. With busy morning schedules with children, commutes and other commitments, it’s less likely for people to sit down at the breakfast table and tuck into a meaty blog post which they know they don’t have time to read. Instead, the big window they have after work from 5pm onwards gives them the perfect opportunity to commit to longer-form content.
Q: When do you most like to read short-form content?
This includes content that’s around 200 words, maybe a news update, announcement, a summary post - something that takes minimal time and effort. You probably guessed it when reading the previous question: more people prefer reading shorter content in the mornings.That doesn’t mean the evenings are saved for long-form content. It’s clear 6am-9am, 12pm-1pm and 5pm-9pm are the three big spikes for when people like to read shorter content. With less time commitment to reading shorter-form content, it’s no surprise there are multiple spikes throughout the day, rather than one big one like with longer-form content.
Q: When solving a work-related problem, what features work best for you?
This is all about the features that really grab the reader’s attention. What do they look for? What is it they see within the content that makes them stay and scroll through the post? In terms of B2B content, aspects such as tips, depth and few words rank quite low and aren’t that important to readers.What garners some interest are things like the inclusion of videos, further reading they can do, entertainment value and also offering stats and evidence to back up the claims. However, what people value the most in B2B content according to our research are theory, an easy-to-follow structure and how skimmable it is.
This includes things like using bullets and H2s/H3s to break up the text. These are the main aspects people value the most in B2B content but from a B2C perspective…
Q: When solving a non-work issue, what features work best for you and what do you value the most in B2C content?
Theory, an easy-to-follow structure and how skimmable it is aren’t the three most valuable features. Instead, they prefer stats and evidence over anything and then receiving actionable tips that help them.
Skimreading, videos and an easy structure are the next most-important features alongside the option to read further. But depth, shorter-reads and theory don’t really have a big impact.
Asking people for their thoughts was one thing, but we had to go a little deeper to analyse blog performance, blog post length and some other features. To do this, Paul looked through a wide range of business blog content over a 90-day period (which is our typical inbound campaign duration). We found the highest-ranking posts with the highest traffic volume and those with the highest click-through rate, we then analysed blog length to spot any common features.
Blog post performance vs blog post length (and some other features)
With the number of HubSpot rollouts we’ve been involved in, we have clients from all types of industries from IT and software to safety shoes, bed making, clothing labels - you name it. The two things we had to find were:
- The most-viewed blog over a 90-day period: they drive the most organic traffic and perform the best on the SERP
- The blogs with the most CTA clicks in the same period: rather than looking at CTA CTR which is skewed artificially by blogs being sent via targeted emails, we looked for the highest number of clicked CTAs instead
The reason we looked at the blogs was to work out a further two things. We needed to know the common blog length which drives organic traffic. In other words, why does Google like them? Then, we had to find what the most common length is in the blogs with the most CTA clicks. So, why do readers like them?
- For all of these top viewed blogs, the average length is 1,010 words
- But the 20% most-viewed of these top-performing blogs have an average length of 1,345 words
- Four of the five most viewed blogs are under the generally advised blog length in the industry
CTA clicksThe average length for all of the most clicked blogs is 1,001 words
- But, the 20% most-clicked blogs of these jumps to 1,481 words
- From the five most-clicked blogs analysed, three of them are under 1,000 words long
So what does all this mean for blog length? Well, going for super-long content doesn’t always mean more CTA clicks. The most-clicked blogs aren’t always the longest as twice as many of the top 20% blogs are less than 1,000 words long than are over 3,000 words long. And from the bigger list of top-performing blogs in terms of CTA clicks, 66% are under 1,000 words.
The 20% highest-performing of these top-performing blogs have a length of around 1,300,1-400 words which corresponds to our survey data. There’s also a widespread 3,500-word difference between longest and shortest blog length.
What can we conclude from these findings then? As you’ve seen in the graphs earlier in this section, people have said their favourite length of content was 1,500-2,000 words. However, our data shows 750-1,500 words prove to be the most popular with our readers. The survey response showed the interest in content builds throughout the day which peaks after office hours, especially for longer content.
People also prefer short-form content earlier in the day when they’re on the go and don’t have time to sit and digest long-form copy. The more time they have, the more interest there is in something longer to read.
They’re the key takeaways based on real-life scenarios, not just based on what Google says. If there’s one key learning I’d want you to take away from Paul’s data above, it’s that there isn’t a magic length of blog posts. That’s fine, but there are things you can do to better ensure blog success rather than fixating on the number of words and compromising on quality.
Remember, Google wants to give its users the most contextually correct results for a search query. If users clicked on your piece of content on the SERP and then stayed on your website and didn’t return to the SERP, it showed the users liked your content.
Advice for future content: five tips to follow
So what’s included in popular content? What can you do to make sure your content stands a better chance of succeeding? During the research, we looked at the most CTA-clicked blogs across Digital 22s entire client base and looked for common features.
The reason behind this was these things suggested the users (and also Google) appreciate the content and then decided to click the CTA, meaning it was contextually correct. Here are the common features we found:
- All titles promised knowledge within
- 80% of the titles contained numbered lists
- 60% of posts make use of bullets or anchors after the introduction
- All posts use nice imagery and tactical use of white space
- H2s and H3s are used deliberately and clearly
- The average paragraph length is three to four lines with three to four paragraphs per section
- 90% of posts have a highly-relevant CTA to the post title - including the same words
I know it sounds a little tricky to tie all of this together into your content marketing strategy, but here are some tips you can follow to help your content get the readers it deserves.
- If people want a short post - give it to them
- If people want the answer quickly - give it to them early
- As much as possible, offer deeper insights in the form of a longer post for those who want it
- Organise your posts with good heading structures, bullets, clear titles and a dedicated CTA. Google’s ‘crawlers’ use these aspects to learn what your content is about so it goes a long way
- In all aspects, put the user’s query and context first
Although there’s no fixed word count on optimal blog post length, it ultimately boils down to finding the right length for your users’ context. Take some time to do some data digging of your own to see what’s worked over time and what hasn’t or even send out a survey of your own.
This should give you a much better idea of what your audience prefers. For all you know, you might be creating longer content for your users who, in reality, prefer short, quick pieces. By finding out what your users interact with the most, it’ll allow you to create contextually-relevant content they enjoy, without going elsewhere.
Content is arguably the most important part of your marketing efforts. The purpose is to create and share relevant, engaging content to your target audience. That’s how they’ll learn about your brand, service, product offering, expertise and more.
When you invest in content marketing, you improve your ability to engage your buyer personas, you can convert more leads, boost brand awareness and connect with your audience. Although many assume content is on the decline because of other trends on the horizon, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
The state of inbound marketing in 2020
Did you know that only 39% of bloggers check the analytics of their blog which means they could be churning out content that doesn’t resonate with their audience? Or that 73% of people admit to skimming blog posts while 27 consume them thoroughly? There’s a lot to consider when it comes to your content marketing strategy and your inbound efforts as a whole.
The marketing world is dynamic and ever-changing, so you need to stay up-to-date with all the new developments to keep your competition in second-place in this never-ending marathon. To help you stay ahead of the pack, I scoured the web earlier this year to collate buckets of data with insightful explanations on what they mean for you and your business.
Check it out using the button below.