You’ve seen them. You’ve read them. You’ve most definitely shared them. But do you know why listicles exist? Keep reading for a rundown of the three key strengths that have made listicles into the internet’s go-to content template, as well as three BIG weaknesses that might eventually lead to their downfall.
(In case it’s not obvious, yeah, this article’s pretty self-aware.)
1: Listicles Constrain Writers’ Ability to Write (Which Actually Helps Writers Produce More Content)
At this point, we all know what a listicle looks like. Each starts with a short-yet-intriguing introduction, continues with a list of X reasons “why peanut butter is better than jelly” or “you have to try CBD RIGHT NOW it’s so healthy y’all,” and ends with a fluffy, feel-good conclusion. Just the word “listicle” suggests an entire content structure that so many writers across the internet are tied to – and which is crowding out more interesting or complex write-ups on the same topics.
In this very article, for example, sticking to the listicle template has forced me to completely separate my first topic (this one – you’re reading it now) from my second one (item two – don’t skip ahead). In my mind, those topics are actually intertwined very interestingly. There’s a complex interplay between item one and item two that I’m most definitely NOT going to cover here, because the listicle format encourages me not to. Instead, it encourages me to write a brief take on item one, polish that take up a bit, and then move on – because I’ve met the demands of the format.
And that’s perhaps the sneakiest thing about listicles: They’re incredibly easy to write. In a world where brands, businesses, and bloggers are expected to crank out article upon article upon article (check out the Butler blog – now running weekly), listicles give content writers an easy template to start working from. Which they need, when they’re expected to produce so many different, fleshed out pieces within a week (as well as edit their own work, source and add their own images, etc.). Restrictions like the listicle format actually help writers work much more quickly – which is one important reason why listicles likely aren’t going away anytime soon.
2: Listicles Encourage Shallow Takes on Complex Topics (Which Are Easier to Read)
Listicles aren’t just easier for writers to write; they’re also easier for readers to read. According to some sources, readers now read as little as 20% of each article they pull up while browsing online. To put that number in context, this article is about 1000 words long. If your attention span lasts as long as the average reader you’ll have read about 200 to 300 words of this piece (or one topic’s worth of words) by the time you close this window or click away.
Knowing that, regardless of how much time and effort I put into this piece, you are going to read only 20% of it – why would I work to write something complex? Instead, I’ve written something simple that you might read all of, and that will be useful to you even if you read only 20% of it. Even if you read just this article’s headers, you will come away with some useful information. But that information is shallow, slightly obvious, and not entirely unique. If you really wanted to dig into this topic, you’d be better served by blocking out a couple hours of your day and digging through Google Scholar results.
But that’s not how the internet works, and it’s not how most readers prefer to interact with online content. We, as writers, know that readers prefer to skim easily-digestible content. And so we write towards that predilection, because we want people to read our work. Which makes for content that’s much easier to read, but maybe not as informative or insightful as it should be.
3: Google and Other Search Engines Won’t Always Love Listicles (Though They Really Do Right Now)
Speaking of getting your content read, one of the best ways to make that happen is by writing articles that rank highly in search engine results. And one of the best ways to make that happen, currently, is by writing articles in the listicle format.
Search engines prioritize sub-header content (among many other things) when retrieving and ranking relevant search results. And because listicles contain clear, concise, and highly-targeted sub-headers (as well as targeted titles, URLs, and body content), they rank extremely well. Which means people see listicles at the top of their search results, click them, and read them.
These clicks then “tell” search engines that the listicles they’ve chosen to show are, indeed, relevant to users’ searches, which then also contributes to the listicles’ high rankings. In effect, listicles create a perfect ouroboros of search engine activity – they rank highly because they fulfill the search engine ranking criteria, which causes them to rank highly, which causes them to fulfill the search engine ranking criteria.
But if there’s one thing that search engines and other online content providers are known for, it’s changing their algorithms. And I’d imagine that, sometime soon, all listicles might not perform quite as highly as they do now. What will continue to perform well is high-quality, readable content that users choose to spend time with – which some listicles are, and some listicles most definitely are not.
Personally, I won’t be sad to see the internet eventually move on from most listicles – if only because I want to see what the next big content craze will be. But until then, may this article continue to rank highly, and may the listicle continue to reign supreme.