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The Anatomy of Top Performing Articles: Successful vs. Invisible Content – SEMrush Study

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The Anatomy of Top Performing Articles: Successful vs. Invisible Content – SEMrush Study

This post is in English
Alina Petrova
This post is in English
The Anatomy of Top Performing Articles: Successful vs. Invisible Content – SEMrush Study

What makes an article stand out?

There is no secret formula for creating highly engaging articles that will work for every blog or brand. However, repeated research has consistently demonstrated a strong correlation between certain content characteristics and a copy’s performance.

Having data at our disposal, an interest in research, and a desire to find the less obvious interconnections, we collected 700,000+ articles and analyzed them under different content metrics. We are excited to present the results of this study below, and we hope it will help you improve your content strategy for 2020. 

***This research was conducted as a part of the Global State of Content Marketing Report 2019. The report is designed to help content marketers across the world gain a better understanding of the industry and draw more relevant conclusions for their strategies.***

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The Key Findings

  • Longreads of 3000+ words get 3x more traffic, 4x more shares, and 3.5x more backlinks than articles of average length (901-1200 words).

  • Shorter articles (300-900 words) have zero shares 4.5 times more often than long reads of 3000+ words.

  • Articles with long headlines (14+ words) get 2x more traffic, 2x more shares, and 5x more backlinks than articles with short headlines (7-10 words).

  • Articles with list headlines (those that start with a number like “N things…”, “N ways…”, etc.) get 2x more traffic and 2x more social shares than other types, followed by guides and “how-to” articles.

  • 36% of articles with H2+H3 tags have higher performance in terms of traffic, shares, and backlinks.

  • Articles with 5 lists per 500 words compared to articles with no lists get 4x more traffic and 2x more social shares.

Anatomy of Top Performing Articles

An In-Depth Overview of Engaging Content: Findings

For this research, we tried to establish the reference values for the most common characteristics of the content, specifically: 

Let’s take a look at how these characteristics impact a copy’s performance in detail.

1. Blog Post Length: Impact on Performance

Before an article is laid out, one of the main struggles content creators face is determining how broad a topic should be covered. So in this research, the first content characteristic we wanted to analyze to see if it correlates with an article’s performance is copy length. 

Our Ranking Factors study has already proved that pages with longer content rank higher on average. The main intention back then was to see if there is a correlation between content length and a page’s position in the search results.

This time, we wanted to see if there is a correlation between an article’s length and its overall performance — social engagement, traffic, and backlink profile. 

Article Length Impact on Performance

Key Takeaway: In comparison with articles of average length (901-1200 words), long-form content (more than 3000 words) has:

  • 3x more traffic

  • 4x more social shares

  • 3.5x more backlinks

Non-shared Articles by Length

Key Takeaway: Shorter articles (300-900 words) have zero shares 4.5 times more often than long reads (more than 3000 words).

We found out that long-form content with a word count of over 3000 performs better than shorter articles. 

The study proves the hypothesis that people are more driven and engaged by blog posts containing more information. Other research studies carried out by Brian Dean and HubSpot have similar findings: longer posts usually perform better on every level, 3000-word content gets 77.2% more links compared to 1000 words, and articles with a word count over 2,500 get shared the most on social media. 

And the most unsettling part of this data is that if your article contains less than 3000 words, there is, based on our study, only a 50-50 chance that you will get any social shares.

However, these findings don’t mean you should avoid using short-form content at all. We want to make a crucial caveat here — content length should vary depending on the user’s intention in the first place and, secondly, on the type of content. 

The SEO Writing Assistant helps you to identify the appropriate length for your future content based on the keywords you want to target in your copy.

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2. Blog Post H1 Length: Impact on Performance

There is an art to creating headlines that are attractive for both readers and Google. The H1 tag provides the defining moment when your audience and search engines understand what the copy is about. Therefore, it is crucial to make them see the value a piece of content brings at first glance. 

We wanted to take a sneak peek at several H1 factors and their correlation with an article's performance. 

The first factor we checked is the H1 tag length, and we hope that the findings can help you to understand how long your headline should be to bring more engagement and traffic.

H1 Tag Length Impact on Performance

Key Takeaway: Articles with longer headlines (14+ words) compared with shorter headlines (7-10 words) on average get:

  • 2x more traffic

  • 2x more shares

  • 5x more backlinks

As you can see, articles with longer headlines perform better by every parameter — pageviews, shares, and backlinks. Backlinko research also confirms this data — headlines that are 14-17 words in length generate 76.7% more social shares than short headlines. 

The least attractive headlines on every level are those that contain less than 7 words; they got 2x less traffic and shares compared to articles with slightly longer headlines (7-10 words).

The obvious conclusion is that a longer headline compared to shorter ones gives more insights about an article’s value and thus drives more people to read and share it.

3. Blog Post H1 Type: Impact on Performance

Not only is choosing the correct article format for a topic crucial when striving for a reader’s attention, but so too is revealing this format in a headline.

The next important characteristic we analyzed is the H1 tag type to see if it correlates with an article's success or failure. Based on the frequency of some words in our articles dataset, we divided the H1 tags into five groups: questions, guides, lists, how-to, and others, to see which performs better.

Headline Type Impact on Performance

Key Takeaway: Articles with lists in the headline get up to 2x more traffic and up to 2x more shares compared to other types.

This and other studies confirm that list articles (those that start with a number like “N things…”, “N ways…”, etc.) are the most attractive and most shared in social media among title types. This might be due to the simplicity and speed of perceiving information by a reader. So, if you want to get the most reach on social media, list articles might be your choice.

It’s no surprise that guides and how-to articles also drive 2x more traffic compared to other types, so our suggestion is to do a quick check whether you have them scheduled in your content plan.

The Topic Research tool helps you find the most resonating headlines and questions related to your topic.

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4. Blog Post Heading Depth: Impact on Performance

Next, we looked at the structure of the copy — the distribution of heading depth (H2, H3, and H4 tags); this information can help you understand how your copy should be formatted to bring more engagement and traffic.

We looked at the frequency of using H2, H3, and H4 tags together in our articles dataset and its correlation to their overall performance — traffic, social shares, and backlinks.

Distribution of Heading Depth by Performance

Key Takeaway: 36% of articles with H2+H3 tags have high performance in terms of traffic, shares, and backlinks.

The conclusion is that well-structured articles (in this research, articles with both H2 and H3 tags) are more likely to be high performing. 

You can also see that you shouldn’t overload a reader’s attention too much — only 11% of articles containing up to H4 tags show high performance.

The Content Audit tool helps you to check the performance of your content in a few clicks and automatically breaks down your articles based on your Google Analytics into four sets for future work: 

  • Rewrite or remove

  • Need to update

  • Quick review

  • Poor content

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5. Lists: Impact on Content Performance

The last characteristic we analyzed is the presence of lists (<ul> and <ol> tags), their distribution in a piece of content, and overall correlation with blog post-performance. 

As we have previously found, articles with list headlines perform better than other types. So, we decided to check the exact number of lists to use in an article to drive better traffic, social shares, and backlinks.

Number of Lists Impact on Performance

Key Takeaway: Articles with 5 lists per 500 words compared to articles with no lists get:

  • 4x more traffic

  • 2x more social shares

Our data shows that the presence of a list boosts your copy’s performance, and the more lists you use, the better for your article. 

Research Methodology

We collected 700,000 articles’ URLs from domains with a blog section that had between 50,000 and 500,000 average monthly unique pageviews. 

To evaluate the performance of each article, we considered the traffic (average unique pageviews), engagement on social media (Twitter + Facebook), and backlinks.

After that, we tried to establish the reference values for the most common characteristics of the content, specifically:

  • Length

  • Title types (how-tos, lists, questions, guides/studies, etc.)

  • H1 length

  • Structuring (subtitles depth)

  • Presence of lists

For better representation, we split all the articles in the research by word count:

  • 300-600

  • 601-900

  • 901-1200

  • 1201-1500

  • 1501-2000

  • 2001-3000

  • 3000+

SEMrush Content Platform

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In Conclusion

According to our research, we can see that a detailed and well-structured article performs best. The reason may be that it provides readers with comprehensive replies to their questions and all the necessary information to solve their problem.

It is also crucial that an article is easy to read and understand, and this is where a copy’s structure plays no small part. But above all, content performance depends on your industry and audience. 

Our research shows just a general trend that can help you choose a direction in developing your content strategy. Do our findings resonate with your writing experience? Have you already applied these practices when writing articles? What best works for you?

Alina Petrova
SEMrush

SEMrush employee.

Speaker, blogger and Content Marketing expert with more than 5 years of experience in content creation and distribution. Creator of the French SEMrush Blog, one of the most popular corporate marketing blogs in France. Passionate about languages, modern art and new technologies.
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Enthusiast

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An excellent article if you want to build a brand especially Start-ups.
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

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Asif Hassan
Thanks for your comment :)
Khuldoon Hameed
Helper

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Hi Alina

Such an insighful article,

In my experience writing with topic indent also works best i write one article of around 2000 words and explained everything about that in those 2000 words i can write more but writing more will make it boring as i dont have any information left but the ranked article some of them are on branded keywords but you know what that article ranked on top 10 in less than a month with number of keywords ranking in first page an second page

So what you have written above writing long headline to explain to reader fully and also give all relevant information is more important than writing for search engine only once google liked the written stuff based upon the provided value and user intention and interaction it works like a charm most of work done on auto pilot
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

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Khuldoon Hameed
Hi Khuldoon, thanks for your comment! It definitely works better when you create relevant content for your audience. Google always tries to provide users with quality content that answers their questions or helps them to solve their problem. So, it's more important to focus on the user's intent in the first place, secondly, on the article optimization.
Suraj Kadam
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Thank you so much for this guide! It was super detailed and well researched!

Want to know one thing, you have mentioned that headlines with 14+ words perform better. But, Google has made some changes to the search page by reducing the length.

What you will suggest dealing with that?
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

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Suraj Kadam
Hi Suraj, thanks for your comment! Google provides recommendations on the meta title length, because it appears in search results. In this study, we analyzed only H1 and other article elements present on the web page.
Suraj Kadam
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Alina Petrova
Ohh! Got it! Thanks :)
Enthusiast

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Hi Alina, thank you. This is super interesting. :) One quick question: those 700.000 articles you researched, are those only English articles? Or were other languages also included? I wonder if there might be some differences, like the preference for the length of a title.
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Tineke Pauw
Hi Alina. I'm currently writing an article about this research. I hope you have time to react to my question? I would love to know if those 700.000+ articles in this research where only English articles.
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

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Tineke Pauw
Hi Tineke, thank you for your interest in our study! We analyzed articles in different languages in this part of our report, but the majority of blog posts were in English.
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Alina Petrova
Thanks, Alina! :)
Rosie Pugh
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Thank you for outlining your research so clearly!

I did a content performance analysis of our blog recently and was surprised to find that 2 out of 5 of the top performing blog posts in terms of bringing us organic traffic were under 400 words.

Even though both of the posts were written in 2015, they both offer answers to specific technical questions that are still relevant today ('How to automate Google Analytics data in your excel document', 'How to Check Image Traffic in Google Analytics') and are accompanied by illustrative screenshots.

I came to the conclusion that short-form content can rank and pull in traffic if it is clearly targeting a specific audience or answering a specific question.

Would love to hear your thoughts. :)
Alina Petrova
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Rosie Pugh
Hi Rosie,

Thank you so much for sharing your experience and your thoughts!

Short-form content can definitely have a good SEO performance if it brings an answer to a specific question and helps a user get the necessary information quickly and easily. This kind of articles should be more likely to appear in Featured Snippet, so they can provide you better visibility on SERP and bring more organic traffic to your website.

In this study, we analyzed the overall traffic coming to the blog post and engagement metrics such as social media shares and backlinks. We didn’t look at how different article elements can impact organic traffic, because we didn’t focus on SEO performance in particular.

According to the general trend, long articles have more traffic, shares and backlinks. But, of course, it doesn’t mean that every long read will perform better than a short article. Content length should vary depending on your goals and your audience’s needs.
Enthusiast

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Thanks a lot Alina for your interesting post! My question is « are long articles the best way to have nice contacts... (or meetings where some famous professionnals are mixed with a lot of food & drink) »?
Alina Petrova
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Antoine Izarn
I think both, because a good meeting with food and drinks can be followed by great guest posts published on your blog :)
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Alina Petrova
Right!
Enthusiast

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In the article, you mention that articles with 14 words or more get more shares, but when you run content through your Writing Assistant, it marks down your score if your title is over 12 words and has more than 60 characters. Thoughts on how to balance this? Which should we listen to?
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

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Britta Yeager
Hi Britta, thanks for your question!

The SEO Writing Assistant helps to create SEO-friendly articles that will be more likely to have better rankings. Google generally displays the first 60 characters of the meta title, that’s why it’s better to keep your title tag under 60 characters.

In this study, we analyzed the performance of articles in terms of overall traffic coming to the webpage and engagement metrics (social media shares and backlinks). That’s why we focused on H1 that is visible to all users on the web page. We didn’t look at how a meta title can impact SEO performance of an article, because our goal was to understand what kind of blog posts are more likely to be shared and visited through different channels, not just search engines.

In my experience, it’s better to have a clear and concise meta title to generate clicks and a more comprehensive H1 that will encourage users to go deeper into the article.
Helper

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Well written and great information to write effective articles.
Alina Petrova
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Thamizhchelvan
Thank you! Happy that you find it useful!
Enthusiast

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When you're referring to the H1 of the article, is that interchangeable with the title? Or are you saying that your title is the H1. I generally have my article titles as H1s with section headers as H2s, but I want to make sure I'm taking full advantage of the header tags if there's a better way to use them.
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

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Britta Yeager
Hi, Britta! In this study, we analyzed only H1. Meta titles are mostly related to organic traffic performance and they shouldn’t have any impact on social media shares, backlinks and traffic driven by other channels. This is why we focused on the blog post elements that are visible on the web page, not on SERP.
Pro

Asks great questions and provides brilliant answers.

Thanks for the great tips! I always appreciate seeing this stuff backed up with data.
Alina Petrova
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Alison Ver Halen
Thanks for sharing your feedback Alison :)
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Hi Alina,
Thanks for sharing valuable information.
Alina Petrova
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Mike Anderson
Thanks for your kind feedback Mike!
Enthusiast

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GReat stuff!
Alina Petrova
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Patrick Ferry
Thank you :)
Enthusiast

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Thank you! So helpful!
Alina Petrova
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L. Detrick
Thanks for your comment!
Beryl Vaughan
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This was incredibly interesting and helpful! My clients are in an industry where content is text-heaving. (Forensic psychiatrists and Psychologists- legal Expert Witnesses) and the topics tend to be niche and require a lot of "teaching" We always struggle with article length lest it bore readers. Still not sure if it will but I have been increasing use of introductory headings, paragraph breakouts, imagery and bullet points to make it easier to digest.
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

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Beryl Vaughan
Hi Beryl,

Thanks for your interest in our study! Thank you also for sharing your feedback and thoughts in the comments. I very much appreciate that :)

Creating a long article that will retain the user’s attention is a real challenge! Long posts with no visuals, highlights or bullet points are difficult to read because it is generally harder for a user to extract key findings from plain text. Well-structured long reads with valuable and unique information will definitely perform better and bring many loyal readers.
Enthusiast

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This is very helpful. Thank you, Alina.
Alina Petrova
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Indusara Darshana
Thanks for your comment! I'm happy that the article was helpful for you :)
Jeff Green
Helper

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Great information on content posts. I wonder why the presence of H4 lowers the shares and backlinks etc. I would think that going deeper like that would help the structure of the article and flow.

Any ideas?
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

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Jeff Green
Hi Jeff, thanks for your question!

The presence of H4 doesn’t lower the number of shares and backlinks. Moreover, the share of articles with H4 is 2% higher among articles with good performance (11% for high-performing articles vs. 9% for low-performing articles).

However, the presence of H3 makes a more significant difference (36% for high-performing articles vs. 23% for low-performing articles). While the share of articles with no H2 or with H2 only lowers progressively as far as the article performance becomes higher.

Knowing this, we can say that articles with H3 are more likely to have a higher performance than articles with H2 only. But the usage of H4 does not seem to have any significant impact on an article’s performance if it’s already structured with H2+H3.
Enthusiast

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Can you give us an example of 5 lists for every 500 words? So, if I have a 2000 word article I need to have 4 lists withing the article? Is that correct?
Thanks,
Mike
Jeff Green
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michael scarpignato
Good question I was wondering the exact same thing. The 5/500 words was a confusing concept.
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Jeff Green
I read it as for every 500 words, you need 5 lists, which seems extreme to me.
Jeff Green
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Brodie Capel
I agree that is a lot of lists.
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

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michael scarpignato
Hi Michael, thanks for your question!

Indeed, in this part of the study a list was considered as a standalone segment of the text, so the number of words in lists wasn’t taken into account. For example, if an article contains 2000 words and includes 10 lists of 100 words each, we will consider that this article has 5 lists per every 500 words of text with no bullets.

We adhered to this methodology because the number of words in the lists varies widely across different articles. Some bullets contain one word, others contain many phrases.

We have noted that this part of the study was confusing for many users. We very much appreciate your feedback and we’ll definitely work on it in the next report to make it clearer for our readers.

If you have any ideas on other statistics that would be helpful for you, feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments!
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This is an interesting study with great data, but I question the conclusions reached. There's a definite case of correlation being equated to causation in the analysis, which neglects the possibility that other variables affect both sharability AND the data points that were measured.
For example, it's possible that a key factor in sharability is high-quality writing aimed at an engaged, targeted audience. Maybe well-written, interesting articles 1) attract a more engaged audience by nature, 2) are typically better-researched, longer, and better-formatted, 3) are typically produced by more reputable websites, not content farms, and 4) have headings that speak to highly-targeted, interested audiences, and are thus longer. That's just a hypothesis, but it illustrates a critical point that should have been addressed in this article.
This is still useful research and a well-written article - I just worry that the conclusion many people will reach after reading this is "I need to churn out tons of 3,000-word how-to and question-based listicles with really wordy titles."
Beryl Vaughan
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Keegan Robbins
This is also my issue. And high quality writing for my clients' websites is very different from any other as it tends to be more scholarly or include medical and legal vocabulary. It always fails the Yoast tests for difficulty in reading. The readers have post-graduate training..
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

SEMrush employee.

Keegan Robbins
Hi Keegan, thanks for your comment!

I agree that creating 3000+ word articles doesn’t guarantee the effectiveness of your content strategy. Content performance depends on quality and relevance in the first place. The purpose of this study was to reveal major characteristics of a blog post that make it more likely to perform better.

The data shows that long reads generally have more traffic, shares and backlinks. As a marketing specialist, I think that long articles obtain better results, because they generally deliver more value by providing an in-depth response to the user’s question. But, of course, it doesn’t mean that every 3000+ word article will perform better than a 1000-word blog post. It depends on many factors.
Normand Lemieux
Helper

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It would have been interesting to include the impact of the image/video distribution on the performance of a blog in this research.
Andy Crestodina recommends 1 image per scroll depth. It makes sense but I would love to see data backing up that hunch.
I was surprised by the density of lists required to get a disproportionate impact on pageviews. This article, for instance, is 1800 words long and contains "only" 8 lists, that's between 2 and 3 lists per 500 words. I am not sure how anyone could squeeze much more than that in a blog post.
Beryl Vaughan
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Normand Lemieux
Yes I agree. I use a lot of imagery just to give the eye a rest while reading something long. Not sure if it impact data, positively or negatively but it definitely is appreciated by the user (if the imagery is apt and alt text included.)
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

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Beryl Vaughan
Hi Normand and Beryl, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts! This is a great idea to analyze the impact of visuals on the article performance. We'll definitely include it in our backlog for the next State of Content Marketing report!

It was quite surprising for me as well to see that articles with 5 lists per 500 words generate more traffic on average. Of course, using a lot of lists may not be relevant for all types of articles. But I think that, generally, articles with lists are more likely to be high performing, because readers can easily understand well-structured content and get the necessary information to solve their problem.
I. S. M. Habibullah
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Hello, Alina, I'm not sure what you meant by saying, "Shorter articles (300-900 words) have zero shares 4.5 times more often than long reads of 3000+ words."? Would you mind rephrasing this a bit and reply to this comment what are you actually saying here?
Normand Lemieux
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I. S. M. Habibullah
I think it would go something like: "Posts with a word count between 500 and 900 are 4.5 times more likely not be shared on social media than posts with more than 3000 words."
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

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Normand Lemieux
Right :) According to our research, 52% of 300-600 words articles and 47% of 601-900 words articles have no shares at all, while only 13% of longreads (3000+ words) have 0 shares.
Beryl Vaughan
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Alina Petrova
I gave this some thought too. My marketing clients write in the 1500 word target range. They could write 3000 words but the content is extremely dense (they are doctors) and 3000 words would put users to sleep. I break it up with subheadings and lists, etc. but I do feel 3,000 words would not improve results in this field. It is unfortunate that the data is generalized because they apply to everything from a blog about how to make candy to "Assessing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and communicating it to a jury (my clientele)"
Newcomer

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Great ammunition for my Content Strategy meeting this week! Thanks, Alina.
Alina Petrova
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Paul Walsh
Thank you Paul! I hope these insights will help you adjust your content strategy and achieve great results in 2020.
Paul Lovell
Master

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Thanks for Sharing Alina, I am working on a lot of content lead projects at the moment
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

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Paul Lovell
Thanks for your comment Paul and good luck with your projects :)
Enthusiast

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Long tail content still plays huge role to reply more people's questions and satisfy their intent. Lists with reviews save a lot of time with researching.
Thanks, Alina, for sharing this study.
Alina Petrova
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Mohit Munjal
Thanks for your comment Mohit :)
Beryl Vaughan
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Mohit Munjal
I work a lot with longtail content but do not understand if my h1 tag should be the most targeted longtail "phrase" (which I think is a more useful way of thinking about it than longtail keywords--but that's just me.
Enthusiast

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Comprehensive and great article. Thanks for this excellent post.
Alina Petrova
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Kredi Bilgisi
Hi Kredi, thank you for your kind feedback!
Anatolii Ulitovskyi
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Long tail content still plays huge role to reply more people's questions and satisfy their intent. Lists with reviews save a lot of time with researching.
Thanks, Alina, for sharing this study.
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

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Anatolii Ulitovskyi
Hi Anatolii, thanks for sharing your thoughts :)
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This is a heck of an article. Great research and a lot of insight into the topic. Great post!
Alina Petrova
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Brian Fischer
Hi Brian, thank you so much for your comment! I'm happy that you find it useful :)
Daniel da Cruz do Amaral Rocha
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Muito bom o artigo Alina! :)

Realmente artigo grandes promovem bastante acesso, mas para complementar... O tamanho perfeito do artigo é quando ele consegue responder grande parte das dúvidas sobre determinado tema.

Os títulos longos você havia mencionado de ser grande mas é apenas na tag H1 correto? Pois vi uma atualização recente do google, onde a meta tag title teve seu espaço reduzido na SERP.

Lista é realmente sensacional, e funciona! O que é bacana o quão artigos com formato de lista se propagam em compartilhamentos!
Alina Petrova
SEMrush

SEMrush employee.

Daniel da Cruz do Amaral Rocha
Olá Daniel!
Obrigada por compartilhar seus pensamentos :) Sim, no artigo estamos considerando os títulos longos como o H1 longo. Os meta-títulos estão principalmente relacionados ao desempenho do tráfego orgânico e não devem impactar nos compartilhamentos nas mídias sociais, nem nos backlinks e tráfego direcionado pelos outros canais. Por isso na matéria nos focamos nos elementos do post do blog que são visíveis na página web, e não na SERP.

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