It’s a tried-and-true tenet of teaching: assign essays with a minimum word count. As a student, I wondered about this practice, and using my own special brand of math wizardry calculated that if my teacher had five classes with thirty students each and asked for a minimum of 500 words from each student, that teacher would be reading the equivalent of a 300-page book for every assignment. I understood that a 300-page book would be something like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – except written by high school students with considerably less talent. Why would a teacher put themselves through that on a regular basis?
I still don’t have the answer to that question, but luckily I was one of those kids that could crank out a specific word count without too much effort, talent notwithstanding. If anything, I often went far past that word count if I was writing about something that interested me. My college professors upped the ante considerably with regard to word count, and added another degree of difficulty by insisting on footnotes and citations. I wish I could say that I rose to the challenge and loved every minute of it, but no. Sometimes it felt like I had to say the same things over and over again, just for the sake of length. It certainly didn’t improve my papers.
It’s probably pretty telling that I didn’t learn the art of editing until I went to work in advertising, where using fewer words to say volumes is the order of the day. I learned how to tighten up my writing to say things more economically, and that’s what’s gotten me here today – in front of you, making a case for the perfect length of a blog post.
Short Content vs. Long Content
Let’s start by defining what we mean by “short” and “long” content.
Sorry to disappoint you, but there isn’t a fixed number for either term. While obviously a 300-word blog post is “short” in comparison to a 1500-word blog post (and vice versa), a definitive answer doesn’t exist. Whether something is “short” or “long” actually depends more on the perception of the reader than anything else.
We live in a world where, thanks to technology, attention spans are short. In fact, a recent study by Microsoft suggests that living in a digital world has served to shorten our capacity for concentration to eight seconds. For the record, a goldfish boasts an attention span of nine seconds. Other studies suggest that people only read about 20% of the content on any given web page. Combine those two tidbits of information, and you may come to the conclusion that shorter is better.
But wait – long-form content has its own merits. In 2013, Google noted that “Users often turn to Google to answer a quick question, but research suggests that up to 10% of users’ daily information needs involve learning about a broad topic.” The resulting algorithm change served to bring more high-quality, in-depth content to the search results page.
The Content Sweet Spot
So if it’s not the number of words that count, then what’s the perfect length for a blog post?
Content platform Medium did some research about the posts on their site that get the most engagement, and came up with some interesting conclusions. After examining post engagement from several different angles, they concluded that the posts that got the most engagement clocked in at a 7-minute reading time.
That’s right – seven minutes’ worth of a reader’s time is the sweet spot when it comes to content length. No mention of word count. (For those of you playing along at home, seven minutes of reading averages out to about 1700 words. Not that we’re counting words.)
Now, that’s not to say that everything you write for your blog needs to clock in at seven minutes of reading time. Some topics require far less time than that for reader comprehension. Other topics need a lot more time and concentration – and if they’re well-written, interested readers will follow them all the way to the last period. Think about revered publications such as The New Yorker or The Atlantic – long-form content is something of a specialty for them, even online.
In Search of Perfection
Word count isn’t the real issue when it comes to measuring a post’s potential; the real issue is quality of content. A quality post will get more engagement, regardless of length. It’s important to provide good information, pay attention to grammar and spelling, and to write just enough to be thorough without drowning your reader in a sea of words. As for Medium, they’ve found that on their site, longer posts tend to work well: “longer posts are higher quality, resulting in more sharing and, consequently, more traffic.”
Higher quality = more sharing = more traffic. There is no magic word count to substitute for this formula.
Do you have a formula that you follow for blog posts? Let us know in the comments.