Searching for the Perfect Blog Post: Readability, Length and Searcher Task Accomplishment

Joseph Volk / 5th December 2017 / Comment

searching for the perfect blog post: searcher task accomplishment, readability

Is there an ideal length for posts or articles? How much does readability matter (and which metric is the right one)? Should we focus on listicles and snackable hot takes, or pivot to long-form deep dives? And has the internet killed reading or are web users actually reading more than ever?  

Anyone who writes content for the web has asked these questions. Even your less web-savvy friends and family members might have read a trend piece or two on the topic. Search results pages reveal an endless flood of articles offering the ideal word count, the perfect formula to hook readers, or the newest and best data on readability and engagement.

At Wheelhouse, we recently decided to take a closer look at the research and online conversation on length, readability, and content strategy. One of our clients needed help fine-tuning their editorial guidelines for news articles and in-depth blog posts and we wanted to make sure that the advice we gave them on the length, style, and structure of their content was grounded in sound data rather than just relying on prevailing wisdom or a quick Google search for best practices.

By combing through nearly 20 years of studies, best practices, and expert insights on this topic, we arrived back at one of the fundamental principles of the new SEO: content should help users accomplish their tasks and leave the page satisfied.  Any formulas, guidelines, or goals for length, readability, or other facets of content should support that most fundamental priority. Along the way to this insight though we found plenty of interesting data and insights, artifacts from a multi-decade search for that illusive perfect post.

Content should help users accomplish their tasks and leave the page satisfied #contentmarketing #SEO Click To Tweet

Background: The Long, Slow Death of Reading

In the late 90s, as research and punditry caught up to the explosive growth of personal internet use, it was never difficult to find warnings of how the web was poised to change or replace beloved traditions and longstanding behaviors. Early warnings about reading’s demise begin in this period: much like radio, comic books, and TV before it, the web was going to kill reading.

Of course, some of these critiques fell squarely in the “kids-these-days” category of crankery. Yet some were based on emerging research techniques and yielded alarming results. A 1997 study from UX researchers at the Nielsen Norman Group explored “How Users Read on the Web” and offered a blunt conclusion: “They don’t.”  This study and other work like it introduced a host of new behaviors that had apparently replaced reading online. Gradually, quasi-reading behaviors like skimming, scanning, and scrolling attracted further research and media attention.

These topics attracted another major wave of articles and insights over a decade later as mobile internet use skyrocketed. NNG added more evidence to their pessimistic prognosis, concluding that a mere 20-30% of the words in a piece were likely be read in an average page visit. And in 2013 and 2014, two widely read articles along with other books, talks, and blog posts brought broader attention to the slow death of reading. Slate‘s Farhad Majoo drew from web analytics firm Chartbeat’s research to cleverly emphasize just how unlikely it was that users would finish his own article. The Washington Post took a reflective approach, drawing on both research and a range of personal experiences and anecdotes to report that “serious” reading was under assault “from online scanning and skimming”.  Here at the Wheelhouse blog, our content strategy expert Scott weighed in, calling for readers to be more mindful and to commit to investing greater time and focus in worthy online content.

Taken together, these sources and others like them could easily paint a bleak picture. As of only a few years ago, one could have soberly concluded that reading was dying (if not already dead) and that the only response was for lovers of the written word to start changing their own habits to hopefully stop some of the bleeding.

Yet this is not the whole story. Upon further inspection, the state of online reading may not be quite so dire, or so straightforward, especially from an SEO perspective.

For Google, Longer is… Better?

Up to this point, this article has not mentioned the standard elephant in the room for any discussion of web content: Google. During the same period as researchers, writers, and others were worrying that only vapid, skim-friendly content could survive the march of online progress, Google’s ranking factors and search algorithms begin to suggest quite the opposite.

First, it appears that, in at least one part of their vast search empire, Google actually prefers longer, more in-depth posts and articles. Google’s own ranking guidelines for Google News articles emphasize that they value “rich textual content”.

Second, research and expert advice from serpIQ and other outlets like Search Engine Land point to the possibility that long form content had considerable search value. Guides like Crazy Egg’s “Step-by-Step Guide to Creating Long-form Content That Converts” demonstrate how longer, denser, expert content has gained prominence across digital marketing disciplines.

And in an especially fascinating counterpoint to the “online content=death of reading=short skimmable pieces only” equation, research begins to suggest that long, in-depth posts and articles may perform well on mobile. In fact, they may even perform better on mobile than on desktop.

Mobile Reading & Content Length

Another NNG study from 2011 published some discouraging, yet seemingly intuitive findings: mobile content is more difficult to read and requires more cognitive load then desktop content, driving down comprehension and engagement. However, in 2016 they updated those findings: new research revealed that mobile readers actually did not suffer from lower comprehension than desktop readers, though they did slow down on longer, more difficult pieces.

Joint research from Pew and Parse.ly went even further in its optimism about long content on mobile devices: in their study, longer form content actually outperformed short content on mobile in terms of engagement and performed about equally to short content in terms of traffic.

This research is intriguing, but for the average content producer or digital marketer it doesn’t necessarily offer any easy answers. In fact, the years of competing theories, conflicting studies, and changing technologies become overwhelming. With mobile browsing growing, SEO constantly evolving, the field of UX studies rapidly expanding, and users steadily adjusting their expectations and habits to new content types, how can we make the right decisions about content formatting, length, style, and readability?

The Quest for Metrics, Templates, and Formulas

In response to this uncertainty, experts have tried to find data, tools, and guidelines to inform content creation processes.

Metrics like “dwell time“, “engaged time“, and “total time reading” have emerged, zooming in on user behavior in relation to textual length and difficulty as part of a larger focus on engagement metrics. For some content marketers, concepts from eye tracking studies like “scanners” and “readers” have become a means of segmenting audiences. And readability tools have become part of the SEO toolbox, each with its own methods for analyzing and contextualizing textual factors like lexical density and sentence complexity.

Within this paradigm, “Estimated reading time” has become a well-regarded content feature for blogs and news sites. Medium even estimated reading time data to derive their “optimal post length”.

That Medium post is a good example of an entire micro-genre of content strategy advice: a quick glance at Google results pages reveals high-ranking posts offering “ideal length” advice, promoting “formatting tactics” to increase engagement metrics, or identifying the average word count for “top ranked content”.

Yet other authorities on length, readability, etc. draw more nuanced or ambivalent conclusions: an Optimise-U case study found that Google’s first page rankings often contain a range of different levels of readability and writing style, while Search Laboratory’s extensive experiment on the topic revealed almost no correlation between formal readability scores and search performance. On the other hand, a PM Digital content readability white paper argues for an optimal length-readability combination and even supports the idea that readability and length factor differently for positions 1-3 than they do for positions 4-10.

For the average content strategist or SEO, this set of new metrics, complex research tools, too-good-to-be-true formulas, and conflicting case studies could easily be overwhelming. Without conducting extensive in-house research on length, readability, and related text features, how can you identify the right principles to guide your content strategy?

Helpfulness is King: Focusing on Users, Not Tips & Tricks

At Wheelhouse, while we do engage with research, expert tips, and other inputs on content strategy, we don’t rely on any sort of foolproof formula, checklist, or other one-size-fits all tactics for content length, readability, style, or format. Instead, we focus on understanding one key factor in each client’s unique competitive search landscape: searcher task accomplishment.

To understand what kind of content will perform well for each client and each set of queries or keywords, we first need to assess what searcher tasks Google seems to be attempting to serve in their results. Then, we can help our clients craft content that will empower searchers to accomplish those tasks. All our judgment calls about the language, style, and structure of the content follows from that strategic process. Rather than going all-in on a specific readability tactic for blog posts or magic word count for news articles, we help clients write content that will serve their users well.

Rand Fishkin expresses a similar concept in a MOZ Whiteboard Friday on the “perfect” blog post: his research and experience have led him to prioritize user goals and searcher task accomplishment, informed by thoughtful keyword strategy and SERP analysis, rather than attempting to formulate a quantitatively “perfect” content strategy.

Our experiences at Wheelhouse have led us to similar conclusions and to a consistent strategic focus on searcher task accomplishment. So, unless Google changes their algorithmic functions related to readability, length, or reading time or announces some secret quirk that SEOs haven’t figured out yet, it seems that the best approach is to focus on users and intended audience while using available tools to assess readability thoughtfully and strategically.

Focus on understanding one key factor in each client's unique competitive search landscape: searcher task accomplishment #contentmarketing #SEO Click To Tweet

How to Write the “Perfect” Post: A Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Content for Searcher Task Accomplishment

To flesh out what this approach would look like, let’s consider a hypothetical based on my personal favorite thing to research about and shop for online: running shoes.

Imagine you’re crafting content strategy for the in-house blog of an up-and-coming running shoe retailer. What kind of posts do you prioritize? How do you begin to develop an editorial calendar? What word counts and post formats should you provide as targets for your writers?

Step 1: Find the searcher tasks

At Wheelhouse, our answers to these kinds of questions would begin with understanding the primary searcher tasks revealed in the search landscape.

  • Dedicate time to both quantitative analysis of traffic and ranking data and qualitative analysis of the SERPs.
  • Gather insights into how Google interprets the intent behind different high-volume queries.
  • Identify key categories of user tasks that a post or article could help fulfill.

This process helps us sort through the hunches, intuitions, and possible trends and move towards actionable insights. To take my example of running shoes, a range of different searcher tasks could emerge from keyword, traffic, and SERP analysis. Maybe content freshness is a huge priority for the high-mileage runner looking to assess 2017’s newest shoe models before making their next purchase. Maybe a vast number of searchers are seeking out running shoes that also work well for cross-training. Maybe runners trust shoe-focused race reports and narrative product reviews and devour those posts wherever they can find them. Maybe most casual runners just want the most durability they can find at the cheapest price. As a runner myself, I could easily see any of these being true, but I can’t identify the key searcher tasks worth prioritizing until I spend time with both the data and the SERPs.

In guiding our hypothetical running shoe blog towards a verified content strategy, we would categorize clusters of related searches into basic searcher tasks: “I want to understand what shoe features are worth paying more for”, “I want to purchase a durable pair of trail shoes”, “I want to evaluate minimalist vs. traditional running shoes”, etc.

Step 2: Develop a prioritized editorial calendar or batch of content ideas

A prioritized list of tasks lends itself naturally to building an editorial calendar or creating an initial batch of posts or articles.

  • Use search volume data and an opportunity analysis of SERPs to identify the most valuable searcher tasks to target with new content.
  • Create an editorial calendar or other content plan that translates those tasks into specific posts or articles.
  • Establish basic parameters for length, format, tone, etc. for posts and articles based on the nature of each searcher task.

A single searcher task can easily yield a diverse set of content ideas. A task like “I want to purchase a durable pair of trail shoes” invites a range of different posts: a narrative from a runner who discovered their worn-down shoes were affecting their race times, an infographic identifying key features of a high-mileage trail shoe, an expert interview from a sports medicine doctor affirming the importance of investing in high quality shoes, etc. Because this task is a “purchase” task, these posts would likely be shorter, include more aggressive linking to product pages, and feature more transactional verbs and calls to action in headlines, meta data, etc.

For a site with more traditional journalistic editorial standards, this style of content strategy may not seem applicable, but searcher task accomplishment can be just as useful for writing and editing news or feature articles as it is for blog posts. If your goal is to craft journalistic writing that is genuinely helpful to as broad an audience as possible, or simply to find traffic-driving angles on big topics, the steps above can inform your process. One way to apply these tactics in a news writing context for example would be to consider segmenting broad coverage of an issue or development into shorter stories that fit discrete tasks: perhaps dividing out basic information and context on a topic into one article and a human interest narrative into another, and then using good internal linking to connect the two and help each drive traffic to the other.

Step 3: Use empathetic thinking and expert input to guide your writing process

Skilled writers and content creators can draw from both empathy and research to craft content that is genuinely helpful for their audiences.

  • Develop basic empathy for the customer and a fine-tuned understanding of the site’s ideal customer journey.
  • Identify key information, content features, or other factors that will make your content genuinely helpful.
  • Turn to relevant, authoritative resources to fine-tune your understanding of user’s reading behaviors.

The right blog post or article could help thousands of trail runners find the best shoe features to reduce wear on their knees while also driving further engagement with the site. The wrong blog post or article could get lost in a crowded SERP, alienate the user with thin content and aggressive selling, or engage the searcher without promising any real business value to the company.

Identifying the underlying task or intent behind a series of related queries allows for informed empathy and empowers a smart editor, SEO, or content strategist to fine-tune decisions about post length, format, style, readability, etc. rather than relying on formulas or best practices that may or may not be effective for their specific readers.

Once you reach the point of weighing those kinds of tactics and judgment calls, it can be quite helpful to consider the UX research, content engagement studies, post length advice, etc. referenced earlier in this post. Within a defined task accomplishment framework, these are highly valuable tools in your toolbox. Yet the process must begin with identifying what users are trying to do and how your content can help them do it.

Conclusion: The Power of Searcher Task Accomplishment

By first asking “what would a searcher need to read to accomplish this task?”, you set yourself up to eventually make strategic, informed judgment calls about your content throughout the entire editorial process

Without a thorough consideration of searchers’ tasks and a user-centric strategy to help them accomplish those tasks, no amount of research on word count or article length or readability metrics is going to make a meaningful difference in the performance of your posts and articles.

The trends, data, and narratives around online reading and text length and readability have evolved over the last few decades and will continue to do so. It’s a fascinating area to study, and with a clear focus on user’s tasks and intents, you can be well-equipped to act on the latest research or attempt a new style or format for your content without losing your guiding strategy.

By Joseph Volk