The shrinking page

Why are web articles getting shorter and shorter? Is it yet more evidence of the shrinking attention span of the average reader?

Why are web articles getting shorter and shorter? Is it yet more evidence of the shrinking attention span of the average reader?



Have you noticed that any useful information on the web, assuming you can find any that is actually useful, is shrinking in size? I mean physically shrinking in size.You might think that this is just another manifestation of the well known shrinking attention span of the average user. However this isn't the reason - it's all down to the economics of production and reward... let me explain.

In the days of paper an author was commissioned to fill say 2 pages. This implied that a given number of words were to be written and a certain number of illustrations produced. Why an exact number of pages? Good question but it is obvious that planning a magazine is much easier in terms of a whole number of pages. The result of this approach was never completely satisfactory because the author was forced either to compress a good topic into too few words or stretch material to fill an over-sized allocation. Hence articles had a tendency to be rushed or far too slow and very rarely just right.

You would think that moving to a paper-less production medium like the web would remove this restriction and hence result in better quality where articles are always "just right". It is possible to commission an author with a flat fee and say - "go write your heart out on the subject" - with the unspoken subtext of "but don't expect any more money". Of course in a world where work is always rewarded this isn't a good strategy as the author would always work towards the shortest article possible and the publisher would have a hard time working out if the material was well covered or not. Much better to commission content by the meter and how much content you need depends on the revenue it can generate.

As a web site's success is measured using a new metric which has little to do with article quality any article has to be presented in a way that maximises the measure. In most cases the measure is some mixture of visitor numbers, page impressions, advertising impressions and click through rates.

Now consider an article with one page on a topic that delivers 100 readers per day via a search engine - then adding another page isn't going to increase the number of readers because the search engines usually only send visitors to the first page. Adding a second page might increase the number of page impressions is say 50% of the users reading the first page actually move on and read the second page but you can see that overall we are into diminishing returns. But page impressions are correlated with advertising impressions and click through totals so it might be worth increasing the page count.

Hence the one- page article is optimal and if you have a lot of material then the pressure is to split it into as many small pages as possible. Given that content is expensive to generate, and nearly always priced by the length,  you can see that the overall pressure is to shrink the average size of an article. The ideal article from the point of view of cost of production versus potential payback is a single short page. If you can't for some reason dispatch your topic in a single short page then as many short pages as it takes is the best second option.Putting it simply, if an article is 1000 words and attracts 100 visitors per day then a 2000-word article which costs twice as much to originate also only attracts 100 visitors per day and hence is less cost effective.

Hence web articles are getting shorter and hence shallower, or if you want to be charitable "more focused", and it's not just because web users have shorter attention spans.

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Last Updated ( Thursday, 11 February 2010 )