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The anatomy of top performing articles: Successful vs. Invisible Content – SEMrush Study

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

36% of articles with H2+H3 tags have higher performance in terms of traffic, shares, and backlinks Shorter articles (300-900 words) have zero shares 4.5 times more often than long reads (more than 3000 words) Articles with longer headlines (14+ words) compared with shorter headlines (7-10 words) on average get: 2x more traffic/shares

By: SEMrush

What makes an article stand out?

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

Read: Current social lead generation and future social lead building- Research says

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.

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. 

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

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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. 

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.

Read: Report sheds light on today’s consumers and how brands can connect with them

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.

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.


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

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.


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.