September 29, 2011

How Long Should Your Online Copy Be?

If your business has a website, every one of your company web pages sells people on your company. Blog posts, press releases, newsletters, brochures, ebooks, etc. are all selling your company somehow – either directly or indirectly. While the decisions on what your company sells and how it is sold are entirely up to you, the words you use to sell your company should be chosen by a professional copywriter. Here's how the pros figure out how long content should be.

A Tried and True Copywriting Method

Bob Bly in The Copywriter’s Handbook says that length of copy should be determined based on the price, purpose, audience, importance, and familiarity of the product or service you’re selling. Put simply, a very involved purchase requires very involved copy.

Does the pen only cost $4? Then don’t waste your time with a lot of copy. Only expensive products demand long copy.

Are you looking to entice your reader into asking for more information? Then short, direct copy will work.

Do you want to sell a product on your website right now? Then longer, more descriptive content could do the job.

At this point, you might be asking: what defines short copy and what defines long copy?

This is subjective. I say for the online medium, 50–200 words is considered short, 201–500 words is considered medium length, and anything beyond 500 words is long.

Online Usability and Your Word Count

Jakob Nielsen, a website usability expert, says that most readers scan website content, and that if a website isn’t usable (i.e. easy to navigate and use, memorable, free of errors, and generally pleasing), web visitors will leave and businesses will lose out on potential sales, information sites will lose readers, social media sites will lose friends, etc.

According to Nielsen, only 16% of users read online content word-for-word, and that means 84% are scanning or not reading at all. To cater to the majority, Nielsen says your copy should be easy to scan (lists, bold formatting, short paragraphs, etc.), and the most important copy should rest at the top and down the left-hand side of the page. (Visit Nielsen’s site to see an example.)

Search Engine Optimization and Your Word Count

Search engine optimization (SEO) experts agree that you need a minimum of 250 words on your most important web pages. Beyond that, there aren't any firm guidelines on length from our friends in the SEO camp.

Most web pages that Google indexes have less than 1,200 words, but that's not necessarily a limit. Just remember that longer pages are less likely to be read in their entirety. If your content extends beyond 1,000 words, it's probably a good idea to include a basic table of contents at the beginning of your page and/or break up your long page into smaller bite-sized pieces.

Frankly, the best SEO word count recommendation should follow Google's Golden Rule that “it's all about the user.” If you can adequately describe and explain your product or service in a couple of short sentences and know that the user will be completely satisfied with that info, then you have your answer.

Sara Lancaster is the Denver-based website content writer behind No. 2 Pen. She specializes in helping businesses sound sharp on the web.