Is the average attention span getting shorter? Is ‘goldfish attention span’ really a thing?
Contrary to popular belief, there is actually no evidence that our individual attention spans are shrinking. In fact, the goldfish attention span myth has been around for about 20 years. Since then the attention span of an actual goldfish has mystically progressed from 5 to 9 seconds in the popular discussion while the human attention span is thought to have shrunk from 12 to 8 seconds.
So what content creators and SEO specialists should be really concerned about when it comes to capturing people’s attention?
In this article, we’ll cover some science behind the attention span and how it applies to the challenges of SEO.
What Is Attention Span? (And the Science Behind It)
Merriam Webster defines attention span as the length of time during which one (such as an individual or a group) is able to concentrate or remain interested.
As Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine explains:
“The cognitive ability to allocate our attention selectively allows us to prioritize only some elements of the environment while filtering out others.”
Our attention span depends on both internal and external factors. The internal factors are things like genetics and human biology, while the external factors are the environmental elements we choose to concentrate on or tune out.
What makes it harder to have longer spans of attention is the abundance of distractions in the way.
While research into whether or not the human attention span is shrinking on a biological level is inconclusive, there is no denying the rise in available distractions, especially on a computer or smartphone.
The Guardian reported on a study a few years ago that looked for changes in global collective attention and found that the abundance of information was correlated with increasing rates of change within collective attention. An example of this:
“When looking into the global daily top 50 hashtags on Twitter, the scientists found that peaks became increasingly steep and frequent: In 2013 a hashtag stayed in the top 50 for an average of 17.5 hours. This gradually decreases to 11.9 hours in 2016.”’
However, we are also seeing that the consumption of long-form content is growing. When people are focused on something they’re actually interested in, they won’t be easily diverted. Long-form content is alive and well as long as it’s valuable and engaging.
For example, in 2006, only 22% of the adult US population was listening to podcasts compared to 75% in 2020.
The same applies to videos. In 2006, the average length of a YouTube video was about 2.4 minutes, compared to 15.1 minutes in 2018. You may ask why short TikTok videos are so successful then?
Basically, entertaining people on TikTok is one thing while explaining complex subjects like physics on YouTube is a totally different matter. Yet, you may do both: post a longer, brainiac-like video on YouTube and publish a 60-sec science experiment video on TikTok – this way you just smartly tailor your content to each platform and engage with the audience the right way.
Why Attention Span Is a Tricky Metric to Measure
Attention span is not an absolute value, it differs depending on the person’s age and context. Blindly making your content briefer for every channel as well as going into too much detail should not be your absolute goal – it won’t do you any good. Your ideas, context, and user intent are playing a huge role when we talk about attention span.
For example, a social media post about a new podcast should be compact, yet clearly emphasizing it’s value for the user, thus raising the probability that they will click on the link to the podcast. It’s important for such a post to stand out in a neverending newsfeed on a social media network since the feed is constantly flooded with new distractions (posts). This is one case of how attention span works.
The other example would be when the user clicked on the link in a social media post and started listening to the podcast – here their concentration is at its peak since the user is simply trying to figure whether the podcast is really that interesting as it was labeled in the social media post.
Finally, we can take a closer look at videos. We see how successful the short video format has become, especially among people aged 16-24. Interestingly enough, the stats show that the average time spent daily by a user in TikTok is 52 minutes – somewhat similar to the time one may spend watching an episode of a favorite show on a streaming platform.
The attention span in both cases is the same but the content format, the way it is distributed, and the user intent are different. TikTok users are consuming small bits of content entities within a long period of time, while the target audience of an online show is consuming a much bigger piece of content basically within the same period. Both work fine because the user is engaged with the content.
What Are the Most Common Online Distractions?
How a google SERP for ‘travel’ search query looked in 1999, with 14994 matches
Are there more distractions than ever, making attention harder and harder to hold as a marketer? Over the years, SERPs have evolved tremendously. Below are just some rich results that the user may see after pressing the Search button:
Image and video packs
How a google SERP for ‘travel’ search query looks in 2020, with over 5 bln results
These rich results maybe appear in various combinations on one page. Some results will distract the user, while others will give them exactly what they want. The user will have to spend some time looking for the right information navigating through distractions. That is why digital marketers should research the presence of SERP features in a target keyword list and plan to optimize for or around those special blocks on the SERP.
In the case of SEO, we are faced with the challenge of first, finding the most relevant audience for your content. This can be done by conducting keyword research to find the most relevant queries to what you offer.
Then, the second challenge becomes holding their attention in the face of all of the distractions on the SERP – from the other organic links, SERP features, to advertisements. This can be done by optimizing your titles and descriptions, implementing schema, and using empathy to stand out on the SERP.
Then, there are non-user-friendly website elements that test people’s patience, like:
To combat any potential patience-testers, you should be regularly auditing your website to ensure it is up to speed, free of broken links and pages, and user-friendly.
How to Keep User’s Attention With SEO
The challenge of holding someone’s attention can be faced by employing time-tested principles of storytelling.
John Steinbeck put it simply when he recommended always writing for an “audience of one.”
“Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theatre, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.”
How to Adapt an SEO Strategy to the User Attention Span
When you write (or podcast, vlog, etc) as if you’re speaking to a large, vague crowd of your target audience, it may be harder to really empathize with that mass of imaginary people and write naturally.
Instead, write as if you’re talking to a friend, and if you’re in SEO, you’re helping your friend find something that they’re already looking for.
In the words of Ann Handley:
“Assume the reader knows nothing, but don’t assume the reader is stupid.”
Below are some tips and how-tos on how to tweak your SEO efforts and content creation to the user attention span.
How to empathize with your audience and keep their attention:
Ask questions and listen to your audience
Take polls on social media
Learn your audience’s goals, interests, and even their hobbies
Request feedback about your product/website
Ensure that every piece of content brings value to the intended person
Make content skimmable – include headers and lists
Add timestamps and chapters to videos
Use GIFs and images when appropriate, but don’t overdo it
How to appeal to attention spans with SEMrush:
Practice social listening with SEMrush’s Social Media Toolkit.
Connect your Facebook to Social Media Analytics to see demographics and stats about your social media audience (when they are online, age/gender, etc.).
Schedule your posts in Social Media Poster to ask for feedback from your followers.
See how your social media competitors are appealing to your shared audience and discover how people respond to their top posts with Social Media Tracker.
Use SEO Writing Assistant to check your content’s readability, tone of voice, and more to make sure it is reader-friendly.
Set up the Brand Monitoring tool to see how your audience talks about your brand name or a topic related to your business, mentions updated daily.
Connect your Google Analytics account to Content Audit to see your site’s content pages with high bounce rates and other content performance metrics.
Some metrics that will help you measure how well your website keeps attention vs. distraction include:
These metrics can be measured using Google Analytics, YouTube Analytics, and SEMrush’s Content Audit.
How to Appeal to Attention Spans With Engaging Content Using SEMrush Tools
Attention Span and SEO: Expert Q&A
We asked some friends in the SEO industry about their view on the matter and got some great tips.
Q: How do you think people’s attention spans are changing as a result of Google’s actions on the web?
We used to have to access new data in long-form formats, because that was all that was available – books, newspapers, etc – but now we have a small device that we carry with us, that’s always connected – and thinking – for us.
While they provide the innovation on format, search engines are capitalising on a shift in our expectation, that has been happening since the dawn of the internet – a need for answers now, with new intelligent services acting as a catalyst.
Remco Tensen, Founder and Technical SEO Consultant at Remco Tensen Consulting:
Identifying true causes is difficult. We’re looking at things in reverse. That leads to bad assumptions. It’s hard to say how much of it is culture, how much of it is trained, how much of it is just a new registered response to something that hasn’t been tried before.
Abhiraj Das Ghosh, Digital Marketer & Strategist:
Given how search engines have integrated features like the “Zero Result” and other micro-data, searchers are now relying more on the actions rather than visiting the site.
For example, recently we’ve implemented some schema on a client’s site. The Impressions and ranks went up by around 23%% in the first quarter, but the CTR dropped rapidly. Users could now just get the information on the SERP and there was no need to go to the site and look for it.
David Amerland, Author, Corporate Speaker & Analyst:
We all prefer smaller chunks of information to consume that provide a pay-off quickly. A piece in The Guardian in 2019 (complete with links) showed that attention spans over the last hundred years or so have been constant. Things that are truly important to us will always command our attention.
Q: What are some simple things to remove from content or a webpage to make it easier to read quickly and not lose quality?
Grant Simmons, SEO strategist, Futurist, Speaker & Author:
There’s a time for the white-space favored by designers, but not necessarily on the web. Removing the acres of white space many designers love to build into a page design, while still maintaining a visually well-structured layout is key to satisfying users.
Seth Godin wrote a great book “The Big Red Fez” whose premise is quite simple “a web site visitor is a lot like a monkey looking for one thing: a banana. If that banana isn’t easy to see and easy to get, your visitor is gone with a quick click on the ‘Back’ button”.
Hero images that cover the entire screen, riddles that leave people to do guesswork, too much imagery tiring the brain, topic irrelevant content, overselling, SEO elements standing in the way of my quality user experience.
Flashy graphics, unnecessary videos.
Q: How can Schema and other markups help with short attention spans?
The implementation of schema markup helps search engines provide quick answers in the form of lists, tips, etc which can then take those who are interested deeper in the page.
Schema can help in earning Featured Snippets, hence answering the question in the SERP and/or driving users to the most relevant section/element of your content.
Schema makes you think about information structure, which could obviously benefit readers. You can use structured data and tie them unto web features, the same as Google. You can use it to set up analytics loops, dynamically manage, and track entities on your website, improve internal search, manipulate internal links, etc.
Q: Do you have any writing hacks that work for short attention spans?
Start by listening to talks given by popular politicians and online influencers. Pay close attention to the words they’re using, structures, how they draw people in, how they appeal to emotion. Obama is a classic example. A speaker who uses speech patterns you’ll easily notice. Test them in your copy.
For writing, yes: Start with one true sentence. It’s Hemingway’s tip. I use Goodreads to give tips on writing, none of them come close to Hemingway’s devastatingly simple and effective tip on how to start.
Q: What technologies on the whole and search trends, in particular, do you think will continue to change attention spans in the near future?
We’ve seen video rise dramatically as a way to access information quickly and in an engaging format – from stories to TikTok, I predict this will continue to shape how we prefer to consume information in the future. We’re yet to see the mass adoption of smart glass technology – which has the potential to be ubiquitous; Google recently bought North, an innovative player in the space – although the purpose of this acquisition is unclear.
I do think human behavior and interactions with search results are a reflection of how the search results are presented. Google says they want to give answers quicker, but I think that’s less of an altruistic action and more of a Google ‘stickiness’ i.e. getting folks to come back because the results are good and presented in an easily digestible manner.
The same is true of web content. SEO folks should be striving to get users to return to their site by focusing on query satisfaction, value, and great experience.
The success of an SEO strategy that treats the user’s attention spans smartly is strongly tied to content creation and its optimization. This is a continuous process since digital trends, with SEO in particular, and user behavior are constantly evolving. There’s no universal recipe that will work for all content types and channels. You won’t capture the user’s attention in 100% of the cases but you can make your content as engaging as possible.
Each content piece, platform, and channel for its distribution should be approached individually in order to make the content truly engaging for the audience and stand out among the online distractions. Understanding user intent, SEO trends, and finding the appropriate content formats and distribution channels for your ideas and products is the key.