Is your word count limit selling your readers short

When you are producing copy for the so-called TL;DR (too long, didn’t read) generation, it’s tempting to bang out five or six paragraphs and press save.

But the death of extended prose has been greatly exaggerated.

The perceived wisdom is that people don’t read any more. They’ll get the movie or audiobook rather than the paperback. If they want to know something they’ll search for links until they see a bright, concise infographic or a one-minute video.

Editors across the world seem to think that 500-550 words is the absolute limit, regardless of the quality of the copy or whether a persuasive argument has been concluded. Who wants to read 1,200 words – generally considered to be the length of a long article – on a smartphone screen, uncomfortably holding the device and scrolling every five seconds? From the writer’s point of view, no one wants to waste time writing unnecessarily long pieces, adding in a superfluous paragraph here and a chunk of baloney there simply to meet a word count.

There is also the fear that extra words could have a negative effect on the reaction of readers. If you are a content marketing professional writing to stimulate sales and interest you have to appeal to the audience, and they will quickly scarper when they realise they are reading a 300-word story that has been turned into 1,000 words of hot air.

Readers – your customers – are not mugs and shouldn’t be treated as such, but to impose upon them artificial word limits based on untested presumptions about their concentration span is similarly condescending.

There are two main points to bear in mind when considering the length of content – the effect on the reader, and how the piece affects search engine ranking – which will be discussed in more detail below. Finally, we’ll assess whether it’s worth it.

1 How many words do readers want?

The first rule of thumb is to always write as much as you need to write, but no more. If it’s a 300-word description of a toaster, leave it there. If it’s a 250-word thesis on the potential offered by China’s transition from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, you’ve got further to go. If you are inclined to search for an opinion piece on that subject, then you expect an article that is well written, covers a number of topics, and is long enough to have included a start, a middle and end.

Very complex matters can easily take 2,000 words or more, and what’s most important is that all matters are fully explained and considered, and all arguments made. Don’t just switch off because you’ve covered two points, when there are four or five that you can discuss, and that the reader will benefit from. Don’t just tell the reader about what’s going on in one factory in Shanghai; give them the lowdown on changes in employment numbers in Beijing too!

Clearly, throwing in extra random words is not good enough. Think about comparing the pros and cons of a product, and adding the history and other context that the reader will find interesting. It might be a long time since you put together an A Level essay, but think back to how they were planned – intro, key points, conclusion. Start off with an introduction that describes what you will be talking about, perhaps setting up a problem and why it needs resolving. There will perhaps be four or five key bullet points that need addressing – for example, an article about whether NASA should have retained the Space Shuttle programme could assess cost, existing benefits, potential benefits, changes in technology and alternatives. Go into detail on each point. Finally, spend some time at the end on a conclusion that brings the points together, perhaps weighing their relevance and ultimately offering answers.

2 How will word count affect SEO?

Content has a secondary function, other than just to entertain and inform. Readers’ interest in the story can affect search engine rankings, as can the keywords that are included.

The longer the article, one would hope the longer the reader stays on the page, which contributes towards an improved ranking. Clearly, the more words in the article, the more that can be captured and analysed by Google and the other search engines.

Google uses hundreds of different indicators when defining the rankings of websites in its search results. No one can know with absolute certainty, which factors affect the rankings and how much each factor is given weight. However, research carried out in 2012 by the owners of serpIQ, a keyword research tool, suggests that the more words on the page, the better the ranking. SerpIQ’s survey included more than 20,000 different keywords, counting the amount of words on the websites ranked in the top 10 by each keyword. Interestingly, the pages that made it to the first search results page had on average more than 2,000 words, while those placed No.1 had on average 2,400 words.

3 Is it worth it?

Of course, matters such as time and cost need to be taken into account. If you are writing a piece for your own business, it can be easier to knock out a few hundred words and then get back to your main role. Making a blog two or three times as long means spending more time on it, which might be seen as detrimental to the business. However, well-written, interesting content is produced to improve the performance of an organisation and increase its reach, so an extra 30 minutes or hour may be a better use of your time.

If you are not a confident or competent writer, it’s worth getting an outside company to provide content. Writing a piece of more than 1,000 words is a challenging prospect, especially if you are to retain a reader’s interest. Bringing in an outside source to produce content will accrue a cost, but so will paying any supplier. They will almost certainly produce better copy than a nervous writer and in less time. In the same way that you hire an accountant because they are an expert and can do a job in 20 minutes that would take you all day, it’s certainly worth considering bringing in outside help.

Many content providers will charge by the word, or give different prices based on the length of the pieces they are to produce. While longer pieces are therefore likely to cost more up front, their net, long-term benefit should be much greater. An extra £100 on copy is money well spent if it leads to better SEO rankings, more engaged readers, new connections on social media and, ultimately, greater sales.

Get in touch with GrowthMinds and you’ll find, over a chat and a cuppa, that we have absolutely no problem with a few extra words! If you would like to find out how great content could make your company even greater, drop us a line!