Recently, 52 Weeks of UX posted an article that challenged a commonly held opinion regarding web content — that it should be as concise and simple as possible in order to appeal to the average web user, whose attention span online doesn’t often creep past a few seconds. The popular theory goes, that if you don’t deliver the pertinent facts quickly, your website visitors will get frustrated and go elsewhere to find the information they desire.
In response to the point that web copy should be brief, the article’s author, Joshua Porter, stated: “There are several problems with this assumption, however. First, people do actually read on the Web…scanning is simply the first step in the process. Second, short text can be just as poorly written as long text (and often is). Third, people actually seek out and enjoy reading longer texts.“
Here are the author’s points supporting this statement, and our take:
Porter: People scan first, then read. Scanning is merely the first step, not a substitute for reading a full text, and this step isn’t affected by the length of the text. Once we discover that we’ve found what we are looking for, we dive in and read the rest.
Webcopyplus: This is true, therefore, it is still important to make the scannable parts quick and easy to find. However, objectives and the type of information are important to consider. For example, when visiting a business website, people want to know right away what that company can do for them. Business prospects looking for products or services aren’t likely inclined to grab a tea or latte, cuddle up to their computer and spend an afternoon perusing a website. They want to quickly complete a task and get on with their busy day, so they’re usually better served with clear, concise content.
If someone is reading fiction online, or in-depth investigative journalism, yes, well-written, longer text can be fitting.
Porter: Text length doesn’t equal quality. For a bad writer, short copy is easier to write than long copy.
“It is important how short text gets short. If text is kept short merely to stay within the guideline, chances are it doesn’t do all that it needs to do. But if text is short as the result of careful writing and revision, with a strict adherence to saying all that is necessary as briefly as possible, then your text won’t just be short, it will also be good. (and thus read)
“Short copy shouldn’t be a goal, it should be an ideal. Like Einstein’s famous quip, ‘Make it as simple as possible, but not simpler’, in writing we want to ‘write as concisely as possible, but don’t leave anything out’.”
Webcopyplus: Bad copy is bad copy no matter the length. It’s also common for business owners to get carried away endlessly waxing poor poetics about all the things they love about their business, unless they’re armed with professional copywriting skills and the marketing insight to recognize what’s important to their customers.
In support of the Einstein quote, you don’t have to, nor should you ever, leave important points out in order to abide by the concise copy rule. Unless, of course, you want to instill curiosity to entice your web visitors to contact you for more information.
Porter: People enjoy longer texts. Given the choice, most people would choose a longer, well-written piece of text than a shorter one. This is proven by the rising popularity of e-readers like Kindle and the iPad, and the success of long copy used by Groupon.
Webcopyplus: Again, if we’re talking about fiction or an article on VanityFair.com this point is valid. As fellow writers, we certainly see the value in a nice chunk of good writing that we can sink our teeth into. But who goes to a business website in place of a good book? Most people go to a business website to get facts and get something done. On a side note, concise web copy can be creative and compelling, too. As for Groupon, the most enticing aspect is likely the large type dollar amounts that represent the savings.
The right choice between short and long web copy often comes down to the objectives, key messages that need to be conveyed, the audience that’s being targeted, and the task that needs to be completed. Both can work effectively.
However, studies primarily support the use of short copy, including comprehensive research carried out by Jakob Nielsen, which suggest copy should be even shorter for newsletters and mobile consumption.
To see an example of short web copy versus longer text, check out this WhichTestWon.com A/B test. Make your choice, and then see which version performed better.
What’s your take? Do you prefer your web copy long or short?