What content lengths work online, and which do people trust?

There is of course a lot of discussion about content and what does and doesn’t work online. Is long-form the key? Does short-form content have a role to play? Are there other factors at play?

Let’s be honest, there’ll never be a definitive answer to this as so much depends on context. What is the reader looking for? What do they expect around a particular topic? And so on..

In this post I’ll look at a couple of recent studies, one on how web users decide which content to trust, and one on content length and search rankings, as well as my own findings from ClickZ and Search Engine Watch.

How do people decide whether to trust a piece of content?

This is a question asked by Dan Petrovic of DEJAN Marketing, and the answers are based on a survey of 1,000 web users.


Let’s take the top few answers. First of all, we have…

Content properties

This is defined as ‘Title, spelling, grammar, style, language and presence of quick answers’. In other words, does the content deliver on the title and is it easy to read and digest?

This makes sense to me, and I think that the best content achieves these goals. This means no clickbait headlines, while articles should be readable and well-formatted.

For me, a readable article should be laid out clearly with sub-headings, good use of charts and images, and formatting methods like bullet points and bold text to make it easier for visitors to scan and understand.

The flip-side is that a wall of text is likely to deter readers, as it just looks like hard work.

Declared source

This refers to the citations used in the article. Stats and other proof should be used to make your case, while linking back to these sources allows readers to investigate for themselves.

Publisher reputation

Again, people are likely to trust a source they have used before, or that they judge to be reputable. This may be the name of the site.

For example, a site like Search Engine Watch should be trustworthy when looking for SEO information, while an academic or government site may be more trusted on certain topics.

Author reputation

This a follow-on from publisher reputation, and I think familiarity and trust in an author’s work helps a lot. Perhaps some people read articles because they’ve heard of me (I’m sure many haven’t…) and likewise, I’ll trust writers whose work I’m familiar with, and who have built up trust over a long period of time.

What’s interesting here is that, even without author or publisher reputation, it seems a piece of content can be trusted by users simply due to quality. If it’s well-written and presented, and answers the question well, it has a good chance of success.

Content length and rankings

CognitiveSEO has produced a big study on the lengths of content that rank best, and the answer is long-form.

It has studied 300,000 web pages, and concluded that longer-form content (between 1,001 and 5,000 words) is more likely to achieve higher rankings.

long form ranking

I won’t go into too much detail on the study, but the crux of the matter is that longer-form content is more likely to deliver on the detail that searchers are looking for, and gives the writer the time and space to dive into the necessary detail.

Content length on ClickZ and SEW

The findings of the CognitiveSEO study make sense to me, and matches my experience on this site and SEW.

This detailed guide to Google Search Console is one of the most popular posts we’ve produced this year, and is more than 4,000 words long. It ranks in the top three or four for various Console-related searches too.

It works because it offers the level of detail that searchers looking for guides to the topic really want. A 500 word version simply couldn’t do the same job.

Our own stats for ClickZ and Search Engine Watch underline the value of long form content, at least for traffic.

These are the top articles by page views for the six months to June 2016 for both sites:

top posts

The average word count for the ten posts featured is 1,951, and three of them are longer than 3,000 words (SEO tips, presenting data, and SERP changes).

All of these articles have good search rankings too. For example, the top post on alternative search engines is number one on Google, apart from that pesky featured snippet 😉


However, it isn’t all about long-form. a well-timed piece of information can be just as effective. For example, we published a piece on Google’s removal of right-hand side ads very soon after the news came out.

It’s ‘only’ 295 words long, but that was all that was required to convey the information required and add a little analysis. That post sits in the top three for various searches around ‘right hand side ads’, and clearly satisfies the searcher.

However, the timing was also a factor, and therefore other sites linked to it as a news source, helping it to rank well.

In summary

There have been many studies suggesting that long-form is the answer, and it would be easy to take that as the basis for a content strategy.

However, I think context is far more important, and the content length should be decided by the target audience, and what is suitable for the topic or aim of the content.

On ClickZ and SEW, we aim to provide analysis and information which helps digital marketers, and this kind of content often has to be long-form, as that is what delivers the required detail.

We look to create evergreen content which has a longer shelf-life, and that does tend to be long-form, though not always.

The lesson here is that the content has to fit the purpose, and the length should be secondary to that. If it takes 2,000 words to address a topic properly and satisfy the searcher, then fine. If it only takes 250, then that’s all you need.

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