A Few Words About Word Count

A post in which website marketing makes a surprising entry into Mike’s website about writing fiction.

I’m a senior product manager for legal websites, which means I’m regularly asked for my opinion on writing content. As a professional writer, too, I have a fairly passionate opinion that is desperate eager to be expressed. Fortunately for my colleagues, I’m judicious in editing and in my use of the backspace key.

Usually.

OK, sometimes.

Ironically, a recurring topic concerns website page lengths. Word count.

A brief tangent about my bias: I like to read and research, and I tend to be verbose. As such, it could be assumed that I fit in the more-is-better camp. However, I’m also pretty good at skimming and scanning, so word count on a webpage is less relevant to me than many readers. The posts I write for this site are probably in the 400-800 word range, anecdotally-speaking.

The topic usually resurfaces when an article is written about search engine marketing or optimization (SEM, SEO). The articles say something like this: “We’ve found that high quality pages are often longer pages.” To many people in the online marketing industry, this is distilled into the inaccurate “more words = higher quality”.

Point One: Correlation and Causation

But that interpretation is not what was said, is it? There might be a correlation between count and quality, but that doesn’t mean there’s a causation. Said simply, having more words doesn’t necessarily impact the quality of a page.

If you’re familiar with the old saying, “All elephants are grey, but not all grey things are elephants,” then you’re already with me.

Because there was a time when SEO/SEM was more formulaic, there are many people still striving to do X + Y + Z on a website to ensure that it’s found by search engines and given prominent placement in search results pages (SERPs).

That’s just not the way it works anymore. And humans don’t simply want long pages, they want ones of quality and ones that are easily consumed. Since that’s what humans desire, machines are learning to reward the websites that provide that kind of content.

Unfortunately, it also means that many sites are stuffing their pages with unnecessary words, grandiloquence, or words that some marketer thought would satisfy search engine crawlers. The unflattering result being a page of content stuffed with fluff and far less engaging than a certain honey-craving bear.

Point Two: Reader Need

Does this mean that all webpages should be short and digestible? Certainly not. Not every page serves the same purpose, and your site will likely benefit from a bit of variety. Some users want bite-size pieces of content that answer some quick questions. A few users don’t mind scrolling on their phone through 2,000 words when they want in-depth info (though that’s 4 Word doc pages, and that’s a lot of scrolling).

What they certainly don’t want is a page filled with repetitive and synonymous variations of their desired information. That’s basically a Mad Libs approach to writing and way less fun because it’s written for machines, not humans. And it sucks. Readers will be unhappy they’ve found garbage content and they’ll bounce (bounce rate is a measure of how long a user is on a page, and a high rate suggests you’ve missed the mark).

Understanding your intended readers is more important than knowing the perfect number of words you need to write. The latter could get you visitors, but the former will ensure they stay. This is especially important if you want to establish a relationship with readers and entice them to return. They’re coming back for your style and quality, not your word count.

Point Three: Data in Context

Do some sites benefit from having a higher word count? Absolutely. Some sites need to be authoritative and exhaustive in the information they’re providing. Most don’t, and that’s what reporting sometimes misses. A broad data sample might have websites with vastly different purposes, or a report might be misconstrued as applicable to all industries.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been given a report on tactics that work for retailers or news agencies that just aren’t applicable to my customers’ websites. Something that works for one doesn’t necessarily work for all. Imagine every Amazon product having Wikipedia-style entries. They’d probably have lower sales and much higher writing expenses (though perhaps I’d be interested if they adopted a style like this: About J Peterman).

All of these sites have content of appropriate lengths because that is what their users desire. They’ve met the need, consumers reward that with return visits, and consequently, search engines are more likely to reward them, too.

My general philosophy goes something like this: If search engine companies are trying to get their machines to better understand human intent, why write webpages that cater to machine intent? It doesn’t matter how many times your content is presented if no one reads it, recommends it, or returns for more.

Finally, consider what a post would be like if you hit your target word count and stopped without–

–Mike

If you like a post like this, check this one out: https://thelostroyals.com/2019/08/31/12-content-tips-to-make-consumers-love-you/

If you prefer more info about writing fiction, try this one instead: https://thelostroyals.com/category/writing-process/


© Michael Wallevand, July 2021