A lot of organisations specify a word count for web pages. This is supposed to help usability — we know people generally read less online than they do on paper.
But word counts are often used as a tool to try to control bad writing, not to promote good content.
(Different audiences will go to different lengths to get their information and they’ll want it in different ways. For this blog post we’ll assume your content design and writing to user needs tells you that you need a page of words and not a tool or calendar etc.)
You can be boring in 5 words or fewer
Quite frankly, you can be boring and pointless very quickly. You can lose your audience in 3 seconds or less. It’s not the amount of words on a page that will give you usable, shareable, informative or engaging content. It’s the words you use.
If you have an arbitrary word count, you could find authors filling up the space because they can or having to split content because they were a paragraph over. This means mucking about with good structure and interrupting a good user journey for no real benefit for you or your audience.
Example of government word counts
At Directgov, a big, orange, pre-GOV.UK, government website for citizens, we had a 750 word limit for each page of content. We also had a minimum of 300 words. This was meant to stop departments writing reams and reams or publishing a page when there was very little to say. It worked to a degree but it wasn’t great. We had departments publishing content that was 301 words long, which could have been 80 words on another page, just because of a word count limit. The audience had to read 221 superfluous words on another page in their journey for no real reason. This didn’t make sense for either the people writing it or the people reading it.
The content’s purpose will give you your word count
If you are writing to user needs you will know what your audience wants to know at what time. For example, let’s look at renewing an adult passport in the UK.
We know from research that most UK citizens renew their passports in 2 steps: first they find out the price and then they do the application (mostly offline or on another device).
You can see from the picture below that the first part of the task is taken care of in the search results.
If you type ‘renew adult passport’, you’ll still get the price from the results. When I was at GOV.UK, we didn’t have traffic as a performance indicator. Success was getting the information to the users quickly, so we didn’t need to measure click-throughs.
Going through to the copy itself:
There’s 358 words on this page. Would have just got through the Directgov test 🙂 But there’s no need for a word count. There’s no superfluous content on the page. It’s just what you need to know at the time you need to know it, based on the task you are trying to complete.
This content is a mix of:
- research (knowing the task is usually performed in 2 steps)
- good copy (keeping the information tight to the task and the user story)
- content design (pulling out the most relevant information in a way that’s easily consumed)
Word counts can be harmful to usability. Structured, user-centred, well researched content is all you need. To avoid word counts, you’ll need to:
- answer — and only answer — the user need
- cut superfluous words
- think how your audience will use the information (this will influence the format it is in — classic content design)
- respect your audience’s time and the environment they are in (this may influence how long they will read for)
Note: good content doesn’t need to be boring or lacking in imagery or inspiration. GOV.UK is task-orientated and just an example here. Just because you are trying to keep your content tight to a need, doesn’t mean it has to be without feeling. You just need to know your audience and what they need.