A recent study by SEMrush found that 90% of marketers are producing blog posts, making the format the most widely deployed in campaigns to drive traffic, social shares, backlinks, and other key metrics and goals that are central to success.
As a follow-up to the Content Marketing Survey, SEMrush has released a new study about the “anatomy of top-performing articles” that takes a closer look at what exactly makes an article or blog stand out from the rest.
More than 1.2m articles were analysed and the data collected enabled a complete breakdown of how the length of a piece, the headlines it includes, the structure that is presented, and the visual content included can have an impact on clicks, views, traffic and shares.
The word count for a particular article usually dictates how the topic at hand is explored. Longer pieces are perfect for deep dives into complex subjects, while shorter blogs can deliver core messages and details concisely while still providing value.
Most marketers will use a mix of long-form and short-form to get the job done, but for overall performance, ‘long reads’ are the best.
The research found that articles with 7,000 or more words deliver a four times uptick in traffic compared to shorter articles with around 900 words. These long reads also lead to a much higher number of average unique page views.
However, for generating backlinks, articles with between 900 and 1,500 words are just as effective as longer pieces. The same is true for social shares, where long reads deliver an average of 30 compared to 28 for content between 1,501 and 2,000 words.
SEMrush noted that trying to hit a large word count just for the sake of it is unlikely to lead to success and that longer articles usually perform better due to the depth of information included.
When greenlighting new content, you should therefore focus on making it unique and engaging, and packing it with relevant information regardless of length. Sometimes, a shorter blog might work best, so always consider user intent and audience expectations.
While the main body of the content is the area that gets the most attention, headlines should not be overlooked as they can have a notable impact on key metrics. Headlines are also a core part of SEO, so some quick optimisation here can really pay dividends.
When considering how to frame a headline, the research shows that ‘lists’ are the most effective overall as they drive the highest number of unique page views and backlinks, while generating 80% more traffic compared to other headline types.
According to research by the New Yorker, listicles entice readers in as they usually include numbers, are easily identifiable within a certain category, and generally look organised and trustworthy.
‘How-tos’ and ‘guides’ are also top performers, with the latter leading to even more shares than lists. In contrast, articles with ‘questions’ as headlines lag behind the rest across all metrics.
The header length is another factor that marketers have to consider, as an enticing hook that provides context can make the difference.
While concise and snappier headlines can look better, H1 tags with 10 to 13 words perform the best, with more traffic and shares compared to those with seven or fewer. This is also the sweet spot for shares and backlinks.
Google’s John Mueller has said in the past that clear paragraphs and subheadings do help the search engine’s bots to understand the context of articles.
This means that structuring your content correctly with the right mix of on-page elements is crucial for making the copy shine, as large blocks of text can make it harder for Google to parse and less interesting for readers to consume.
SEMrush’s research shows that articles with a “complex structure” containing H2, H3, H4 tags are more likely to be high-performing, compared to those with two or fewer on-page headers. You should therefore try to include several subheadings to make your content more logical and digestible.
Lists also play a role in establishing the structure, and just a single bullet list per 500 words can drive a two times uptick in traffic and a notable rise in shares. The search shows that:
No lists generates an average 118 unique page views, 16 shares and five backlinks
One list per 500 words generates 204 unique page views, 19 shares and seven backlinks
If you really want to make your content shareable, adding three or more lists per 500 words could be the solution as social shares rise to 25 for this category. Both human brains and Google’s bots like lists, so don’t be shy in using them where necessary.
Finally, visual content can also change how an article is perceived by the reader as images can enhance and clarify messages while making articles more entertaining and memorable.
In terms of increasing unique page views, the more images the better. The research shows that content with seven or more images leads to 275 views, considerably more than the 65 for content without any images at all.
Shares and backlinks are not quite as inverted in favour of quantity though, as two or three images generate as many shares as seven or more, while one image leads to 12 backlinks compared to only nine for seven or more images.
Videos are also a worthwhile investment, but one per article should usually be enough unless you are focused intently on social shares. This is because:
A single clip drives 216 unique page views, 12 shares and 13 backlinks
Seven or more videos drive 187 unique page views, 21 shares and eight backlinks
The latest findings from SEMrush are very similar to those published two years ago. Long reads are still getting more traffic, shares and backlinks, and list-based headlines are outperforming other types. One interesting development is that articles with H2, H3 and H4 tags are now performing better. Back in 2019, those with only H2 and H3 were leading the way.
All of these insights can help you to craft better content that will resonate with readers. Just a few tweaks to your strategy could increase the quality of your output, making it more relevant, targeted and optimised so that it gets the right results.