What's the perfect online length?

Share this Image On Your Site

Before you start reading, quickly check the time …

 

One issue we are tackling with increasing regularity – both ourselves and with clients – is how to decide how long our online content should be. It’s one of the simplest questions posed in an online content marketing strategy, but it seems to be one of the trickiest to answer.

Print journalists have had centuries to research exactly what captures readers’ attentions. Headlines, style and layout have all been studied carefully to create a successful formula, while time and experience have also helped to establish text length and image sizes as standard.

Things aren’t so simple for those writing online content. The internet is just a fraction of the age of the age of print media, but the scope and potential audience of online content are at least ten times as great. We have a growing bank of research into the best lengths and layouts for articles and online news but the ever-changing nature of the beast makes it impossible to provide a definitive answer.

What we can do is look at guidelines and case studies to determine what works in certain cases. While each piece of content is (hopefully!) unique, comparing it against existing successes in similar situations can at least provide a gauge in terms of what works where.

 

Headlines

Headlines are perhaps the easiest places to start as the overarching message is actually the same as with print: keep it short and catchy. Exactly how short will depend on the space you have to work with, but research from KISSmetrics has found that people’s tendency to scan content means that readers only really absorb the first three words and the last three words of a headline. Taking this to its logical conclusion would suggest that the perfect headline length for an online article is six words if you want to grab people’s attention and convey as much information as possible.

Breaking things down further, the traditional advice when it came to writing headlines for SEO was always to keep to the limit of 70 characters. This is due to how Google displayed headlines on its SERPs, with anything longer than this likely to be cut off by the search engine’s layout.

However, the search engine has delivered a series of updates, layout alterations and font changes over the years and this advice no longer strictly applies. A fresh debate is underway to determine exactly what the perfect headline length for Google is. Efforts here are seen as particularly important due to the relevance of headlines in terms of SEO because the search engines give a lot of weight to keywords in headlines.

In reality, tight constraints in headline length can be hard to achieve, particularly if the article is tackling a very technical or sensitive topic. With this in mind, the best guidance when it comes to headlines is simply: make every word count.

 

Articles

While headlines might pop up in a huge variety of contexts online, they are generally being read with similar intentions: either by an individual looking to gauge whether or not the article is of interest or by a search engine determining the relevance of the content to a key search term.

Things aren’t quite so straightforward when it comes to looking at articles themselves due to the variation in the way people read different pieces of work. A quick news article needs to be long enough to give some insight into a situation, but short enough to be read in its entirety before the audience gets bored and clicks away. Meanwhile a blog post or in-depth article needs to have something more to offer and will generally be read by someone with a bit more time on their hands who has already decided that they want to know more about the topic the article is addressing.

According to research from Medium, the ideal in-depth blog post is one that takes about seven minutes to read. After this point, readers get distracted and might drift off before they’ve reached the crucial parts of an article. Reading time is different for everyone and the layout of an article – if it includes a lot of images for example – will clearly have an effect, but Medium’s formula equated seven minutes of reading time to around 1,600 words of content.

That said, if the content is worth the time and effort, people will stick around for longer than the seven minute cut-off, so bear in mind that this is just another guideline. Further consideration needs to be put in place for the type of audience being written for and the kind of information they are looking for.

A medical professional, for example, would be willing to spend a fair amount of time on a pharmaceutical hub carefully considering the details of a much longer article about the uses of a new drug than, say, a consumer just looking for a broader news update would. That’s not to say the pharmaceutical hub should not run short articles (i.e. news items); it’s just that there will very likely be a demand for at least some longer articles that can adequately convey the right depth of information.

This variety in not only topic, but also length and style of articles is worth thinking about when drawing up a content strategy. It’s often more interesting for readers to receive a range of different types and lengths of content, something that is also picked up by search engines who tend to reward a more natural mix of content.

 

Social Media

It is quite likely that the debate regarding the relevance of social media will rage until the end of time. But whichever side of the fence you fall on, the fact remains that social media matters now. Sharing content with targeted followers boosts audiences and offers a simple way of engaging with clientele through a means that’s more personal than most marketing techniques.

The ways in which people and companies use social media differs to such an extent that it’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly how long a post should be on each network. But research has started to suggest that there may be some guidelines marketers can follow to increase their chances of engaging audiences and customers.

With tweets limited to 140 characters, at first glance it doesn’t seem plausible that there could be an ‘ideal tweet length’ within such a tight constraint on Twitter. But the network’s own best practice guidelines reference a study conducted by Buddy Media which found that tweets shorter than 100 characters have a 17 per cent higher engagement rate. These findings were backed up by another study by Track Social which claimed that the “perfect tweet length” is around 100 characters.

Surprisingly, given the opportunity for much longer posts, the ideal Facebook post is actually shorter than the ideal Twitter update. A study from Jeff Bulllas found that posts of around 40 characters had the best engagement rate in his study, while Facebook’s best practices advise users to go for posts with 80 characters or less as these receive 66 per cent higher engagement levels.

Newcomer to the social media arena Google+ lies somewhere in the middle, and it appears that issues with this network are more to do with layout than actual length. Google recently changed the way in which its site displays posts so that users only see the first three lines of the original post before the ‘read more’ link cuts off the rest of the post, although it is possible to opt to expand it. This has meant that headlines are particularly important if you are sharing content on Google+.

With this in mind, the ideal headline for encouraging engagement and shares is one of 60 characters or less, any longer and the layout of the post will will start to look messier. However, research has shown that while engagement levels tend to trail off with longer posts on Twitter and Facebook, this isn’t necessarily the case on Google+ where longer posts can still attract a lot of readers. Headlines are really key with Google+, other than that users are free to explore using different lengths of post without risking too much impact on their levels of engagement.

 

There are some cases where the length of online content is crucial; for example if you’re automatically sending headlines into social media accounts, or you want to increase your chances of being approved and listed in Google News (FYI aim for a minimum of 300 words and you’ll need to be posting daily news articles).

But within reason, online content does not need to have the same restrictions as printed content. If it’s worth reading, watching or sharing, it will be read, watched and shared so while word limits offer a great guideline when building your content marketing strategy, there is no definitive answer.

 

Stop clock watching. Did we hit the seven minute target?