How long should it be on-line?

on-line is the same only more so – but extra rules apply

Controlled studies have repeatedly confirmed that in print, long copy that's packed with relevant facts out-sells short copy (click to read).

But what about on the web? Surely the generation that brought us ADD can't read more than a short sentence or two?

Well, the research has now been done and repeated. And the facts are that the web is just like print, only more so.

  • People who aren't interested in what you're offering will read even less of what you have to say.
  • People who are interested will read even more.
  • And the speed of turn-off when you stop giving fast information and start giving sales hype and waffle is even greater.
  1. It shouldn't be such a surprise. How often have you gone to a company's website wanting to know something specific about a product – will it do this, is it compatible with that – and left the site annoyed because it didn't answer your question?

If the information had been there, would you have read it? If the answer was long because that was what it took to pack in a proper understanding, would you have read it?

Well, your web audience are people just like you. They are looking for fast, factual information that will inform their decisions. If they find what they want they will read it.


Extra rules

The basic rules of communication and persuasion apply whether it's in print or on-line, but on line there are some extra factors we have to consider.

  • Device usability. Most people aren't going to be comfortable reading a lot on a phone. The environment matters too: a pad may be comfortable to read from indoors, but in the field glare may make reading harder. If this applies to you, provide a fast summary option (with bigger type and maximum contrast) – but give your readers the option to read more later, in better circumstances.
  • Reading styles. Brochures, like books, encourage linear reading; starting from the beginning and proceeding in a specific order. But online, when the option is provided, people jump from place to place following the threads of their own interest and create their own story. They read what they want, and ignore what they don't. Related to this, the total volume of material available to a reader on-line is not always apparent the way it is with a book or brochure. People see what they click to and can remain blissfully unaware of much more material that doesn't interest them. The appearance of big volume is not so daunting on line. So this difference is actually a reason to have more copy on-line than you would in print.


Test results: facts not opinions


One of the most comprehensive scientific studies of on-line reading was conducted by the respected industry site Marketing Sherpa. They ran a long series of tests where just one factor per sub-sample was varied and they compared actual results, not opinions.

Landing page copy

In a five-day test using traffic generated by key-word purchases on search engines, long copy on a landing page resulted in 40.5% more click through responses than short copy. With a 30% gross margin on sales, the short copy was unprofitable (Return On Investment negative 14%) while the long copy was profitable (ROI positive 21%).

The researchers then looked at a longer test, over ten days. Long copy won by an even greater margin, outperforming short copy almost 4 to 1 with an ROI of 50% compared with negative 66% for short copy.

(Interestingly, the short copy won in a one day comparison, but it was over in a flash. Then long copy started to gather momentum and deliver the orders, pulling steadily further ahead.)

Total information load

In a follow up test the researchers shortened the reading process for both long and short copy samples by cutting out a product description page. Instead of going from the landing page to the product info page and then to the order page, shoppers went straight from the landing page to the order page.

This time, the long copy page still outperformed the short copy page but both were unprofitable.

Clearly, on-line as in print, information sells.

Tips from the researchers

If you make it easy for your readers to navigate long copy (eg, highlight changes of topic, provide direct links to other areas) then people who prefer a shorter read can select just what they want.

  • Longer, key-word rich copy performs better in natural search engines (listings that are not paid for).
  • In general higher-priced products need longer copy to gain customer commitment.
  • Information-based products do better with longer copy.
  • The quality of the copy matters most: high-quality short copy will outperform poorly written long copy. Copy should be long enough to do its job effectively and not a word longer.

Creating your own reading experience

The key to understanding copy length is in how people read websites.

Books are read sequentially, one page follows another. But on websites people jump from one screen to another by following links that interest them.

On-line, people make up their own reading experience based on personal interest. What could be better? They read only what they want and don't even look at screens they don't click to.

How big should your website be?

As big as your story. As big as it needs to be to include all the information a browser might want.

Suppose that's a massive 300 screens. You'll be daunted when you come to proof read it. You'll say, who would ever read all that?

Well, no-one will. But every individual will construct their own reading experience by clicking to just the bits they want. What if they get part-way through and the information they want next it not there? The may be lost as a potential customer.

So you should make available all the information your users may need to create their own ideal reading experience. Every one of them may be different.

The average read may be say 10 screens, but over 100 people that might amount to 300 different screens.

Are these potential customers, daunted by the 300 screens? Of course not; they don't care about the 290 screens they are not interested in, and if your navigation options are good, they will never click to them and never even know they are there.

People look at your website one screen at a time, and then they click to the next screen. If they look at 10 screens then for them, for that reading experience, your website is 10 screens. Or 20, whatever they needed that visit.

But to make that personalised, unique experience possible for every visitor, you need to mount all the screens that your potential clients may need to draw on.