Why Content Formatting Can Hurt Conversions (and What to Do About It)

If you’re reading this, then you’re likely not the person in charge of writing content for your WordPress sites. You may not be able to dictate how much content is written for a site or the actual words used by the writers, but you can finesse how it’s structured and presented.

Proofreading your blog posts for style is just as important as the content itself. While you should expect quality messaging from your writers, you shouldn’t always entrust the aesthetics to them.

When content is well-thought-out and well-phrased, visitors will want to stick around to read it. However, if the content on your site has been crafted with overly long paragraphs, missing header text, or the imagery distracts from it all, you might be hard-pressed to find visitors willing to give it a read in the first place.

Dense writing is highly intimidating to the visitor that is short on time and patience. This is why content formatting and layout matter a great deal if you hope to convert visitors with your content. In this post, I’m going to look at 9 content formatting factors you can use to greatly affect your WordPress site’s conversion rates.

9 Content Formatting Factors that Affect Conversions

A poorly formatted page can easily scare off visitors who don’t have the time or patience to read full-bodied paragraph after paragraph. With your bounce rate likely to increase as visitors debate whether or not the aesthetics are worth looking past, search engines will take notice and your site will be penalized in kind.

Think about content with lots of descriptive headers, shorter paragraphs, and fun, relevant images scattered throughout. A well-formatted page presents a more welcoming experience for visitors, which, in turn, motivates them to stay on the page and your site for longer–behavior which the search engines love to see.

If you haven’t spent a lot of time styling content on a WordPress site before or you’re simply curious to see a side-by-side example of how good and bad formatting look, check these out:

This is Shep Hyken’s blog:

And this is Neil Patel’s blog:

If you were given the two and asked to read only one, which would you be more inclined to peruse? Probably the one with bountiful white space, well-chosen images, and cleanly-styled text, right?

That’s not the only reason why content like Neil Patel’s would win out over those styled like Shep Hyken’s. Here are the 9 factors you need to think about when structuring the layout and applying formatting to your WordPress site’s content:

1. Title or Headline Length

Let’s start at the top of the page: the title or headline. For the most part, all of the content on your site–including the home page hero image, blog posts, case study pages, infographics, videos, and so on–will require a headline. The ideal length for which actually boils down to either 6 words or 55 characters.

If you don’t feel like counting every single page or post title on your site, you can use the CoSchedule Headline Analyzer tool to do it for you.

2. Sentence and Paragraph Length

One thing you shouldn’t worry about is the length of the content on a page. You’ll find plenty of rules about what the ideal page length is, though, what the experts have found is that this differs for everyone. Instead, you should focus on the smaller units that comprise the page. In other words, look closely at your sentence and paragraph structure.

As a general rule for sentences, don’t focus on word count, per se. Instead, pay close attention to how many lines they take up. If a sentence has exceeded two lines, then it should be broken up.

Another point worth mentioning here is about line length. Be sure your site is configured to hold the right amount of content within each line. Researchers have found that readers prefer shorter line lengths, so your lines should ideally hold no more than 50 to 75 characters.

As a general rule for <paragraphs, don’t worry about how many words are in it. Instead, aim to make each paragraph fall between two to five lines. As you can see in the Neil Patel example above, he often uses two-line paragraphs. For non-sales and marketing writing, however, it makes more sense to follow a traditional paragraph structure containing four or five lines.

Here’s an example from TechCrunch that does a good job with paragraphs, although it has a tendency to run a little long with sentences:

Of course, don’t become so rigid about sentence or paragraph length that each one becomes uniform in design. This isn’t about adhering to a tight formula (aside from the line length), so feel free to mix it up.

Perhaps one paragraph is a single sentence and maybe the next paragraph will have three longer sentences. Keep it interesting, but be mindful of the effort you’re asking visitors to make when reading it.

3. Header Structure

In the Shep Hyken example from above, you’ll notice that the section headers for that post were present (sort of). They were just incredibly difficult to find as the writer also used bolding for emphasis within the paragraph text and, in so doing, created an overwhelming amount of bolded text in general.

Here is that same blog post, only this time I’ve highlighted the missed opportunities where he should’ve used HTML header tags (yellow would be H2 and orange H3):

Now, here is that same post, reimagined with the proper header tags in place:

That reads much more nicely, doesn’t it?

To execute this type of stylization, be sure that each page of content is broken up into logical and related chunks and that each of those chunks receives its own sub-headline. This serves two purposes. It will break up large amounts of text in order to improve readability. It also creates a hierarchical system that enables visitors to skim through headers and see if the “story” is one they want to take the time to read.

4. Bulleted or Numbered Lists

Another way to break up the intimidation factor of a lot of content is to use bulleted or numbered lists. If you’re comfortable making this kind of change on your own, simply look for parts of the content where lists are written in sentence format.

For example:

I enjoy driving to the beach because it gives me a chance to catch up on podcasts, call my mom to see how she’s doing, and treat my dog to a fun car ride.

Could be written as:

I enjoy driving to the beach because it gives me a chance to:

Catch up on podcasts.
Call my mom to see how she’s doing.
Treat my dog to a fun car ride.

It’s the exact same message, but there’s something more appealing about reading a bulleted list–almost as if it speeds it up.

5. Table of Contents

For excessively long pages that contain information your visitors might not need to read all at once–like a training manual or other technical guide–use a table of contents. This enables them to pick and choose the sections most relevant to them instead of having to scroll through the page to find them.

The WordPress Codex is a good example of a site that uses this content formatting tool correctly:

6. Text Alignment

In general, you’ll want all the text on your website to be left-aligned.
Right alignment creates too much work for the reader as their eye doesn’t have a predictable spot on the left to move their eyes back to upon completing a line.

Center alignment may be okay for very small bits of text (like headlines), though it suffers from the same problem as right alignment.

Justified alignment might appear more professional as it avoids the ragged right side that comes from left-aligned text. However, justified content has a tendency to create too many gaps–usually inconsistently too–between words. Ambrose Designs demonstrates this point nicely:

It creates a more uniform appearance in the edges of the text, but it creates many irregularities within the content.

7. Typography Sizing and Spacing

There’s been a lot of research on the science of typography and how our eyes respond to it. Needless to say, there are many rules to abide by if you want to ensure that your content is fully legible.
Here are the main rules to remember:

  • Use either a serif or sans serif font for the main content.
  • At minimum, your font face should be 16 points.
  • Spacing between words and letters should never lead to more than 15 words on the same line.
  • Avoid using all-caps text when possible as it takes up about a third-more physical space than lowercase text, which makes for slower reading.

8. Visual Breaks

While you can improve readability of text with headers, bulletpoints, and shorter sentence strings, you can also give readers a break by infusing your content with imagery. Just be careful. According to Kissmetrics, you have to be just as mindful about the layout, formatting, and placement of imagery as you do the written content.
WPMU DEV has some nice examples of how to include relevant images within content:

Basically, think of your WordPress site’s visuals as an extension of the words written alongside them. They shouldn’t veer off into the gutters or create awkward breaks in the reading experience. And this rule goes for any sort of visuals you use on the site:

9. General Layout

Now that you have a better understanding of the more minute factors that increase readability and, in turn, conversions on your WordPress site, you can look at the bigger picture: the layout. While there is no one tried-and-true formula for how a page should be laid out, research has demonstrated that certain layouts are more effective than others.

First, think about how the usage of a sidebar alongside your content might help or harm the conversion process. Of course, the results are different for everyone, though there is an underlying logic to it: use a sidebar when it’s absolutely needed. A blog is one of those such places. Outside of that, though, it’s up to you.

Secondly, think about your calls-to-action and contact forms. Where you put these final conversion steps within or around your content can affect how well they actually convert.

And, of course, you have to think about how you lay out and style your content for the mobile experience. Most of the guidelines above pertain to the desktop experience since that was the standard for a long time. For information on how to style your mobile content, read Rachel McCollin’s guide on how to make any responsive WordPress site mobile-first-ready.

One other tip to keep in mind when it comes to general layout is to maintain consistency throughout the site. By establishing a set rhythm within your content, it will be more inviting to readers as they know what to expect. In other words, instead of spending time trying to readjust to a new page’s format, they can just focus on what the content says.

Wrapping Up

In general, when it comes to content layout and formatting, it’s best to err on the side of simplicity and logic. It may seem like the boring choice, but the more intuitive you make the experience, the more likely your visitors are to read the content. And that’s the bottom line here. You can dazzle them with a stunning web design and you can impress them with a brilliant turn-of-phrase, but styling the content on a page is not the time to get creative.

Brenda Barron
Over to you: Are there any websites or blogs whose content you’ll read regardless of how it’s formatted or laid out?

11 Responses

  • Mr. LetsFixTheWorld

    This is great material, Brenda. Having a lot of thoughts on this topic I’m breaking it up into multiple comment blocks.

    As evidenced all over this site, and even here now, I tend to be a bit long-winded. My intent is to ensure that I provide as much relevant information as I can about a topic to avoid responses that imply I’ve not thought of something, or worse in my industry, that I’ve left out some concept for personal gain.

    Consider your examples from Shep and Neil. That’s not really a fair comparison, but that is the way the real world works. The problem with that comparison is that (we can assume for the example) Shep has provided a wealth of information on a topic, but Neil has provided almost nothing of value on the same topic. In this world of ADD and the short attention span, Neil wins with an elegant but content-deficient web page, while Shep loses after all of the effort of sharing hard-earned in-depth information.

    The question that one needs to ask here is : Do I want to provide a real service to a smaller audience? Or do I want more conversions in a larger audience that isn’t that interested in serious content? Now it’s a matter of business goals, personal principle, ethos, etc. Way too many sites waste our time, promising “ultimate” guides without the substance to support the fanfare. They’re just interested in eyes for ads.

    A consequence of leaving out relevant content in the name of brevity or conversions is often that people fill in gaps with supposition or mis-information. (A guy in another site posted yesterday “WP wants too much money for WooCommerce so I’m using ZenCart” … there’s too much to correct there from whatever web page that guy got his info.)

    They might post such in comments or simply walk away thinking something that could easily have been set straight in content. If people do leave comments, we then find concise articles with extensive comment threads that require corrections or simply a re-working of people’s thought process, and that really ruins the mood around any core content. People start to think of a blog (or forum) like this as just a site for controversy – and that kills conversions (subscriptions, repeat visitors…). This used to happen a lot to me until I started to more fully flesh-out my content. But the consequence of fixing that problem is that there’s much more to read.

    What’s funny about that is that now I find people perceive some of my content to be ;TLDR; so they immediately skip down to comments to make a note of something that is actually fully covered in the content. (This just happened in one of my WPMU DEV threads. :) ) Don’t write it and they complain, do write it and it’s ignored – tough to win.

    My latest approach on sites that I’m building is to make use of Accordions (aka hidden spoilers) to collapse detailed content on any sub-topic so that a reader can expand what they want when they want it. This makes an article look a lot shorter without sacrificing content. This and other readability techniques are easily available with the Shortcodes Ultimate plugin and others.
    The new concern to manage there is not to hide so much content that the reader feels like they’ve been betrayed with what appeared to be a short article hiding a much longer article for which they don’t want to spend the time.

    Another similar approach, perhaps less “gimmicky” but requiring more effort by the reader, is to plan in-depth articles to be in to simultaneous parts: The first is concise with a number of “Click here to go into depth on this topic”. The second provides details with a number of anchors to receive the clicks. A concern here is that some readers will ask “why didn’t you just put it in one page rather than making me jump around?” … You can’t please everyone.

    Brenda – do you (or anyone else here) have thoughts on using dynamic visual techniques like the Accordion in websites? I mean, we’re talking about websites and conversions here, but all of the points apply to static content.

    > Spock: He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two dimensional thinking. — Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan

  • Mr. LetsFixTheWorld

    On images, I break up all documentation as you showed in Visual Breaks, using screenshots, code samples, and an occasional graph. I find too many sites break up content with non-relevant stock images – they keep falling back to that one-trick-pony technique that they know. The challenge here with which I sometimes struggle is to find/create relevant break-up images for topics that aren’t visual in nature, and to use other well-placed techniques.

    • New Recruit

      I also struggle with this – when a post is too verbose, it’s very difficult to find the right asset to give the reader a moment to rest. I end up using funny GIFs loosely-related to the content :-P

      @Brenda, congrats! I really enjoyed the post. Just one comment, regarding point 6 (Text Alignment): as you’ve already pointed out, justified content tends to contain inconsistent white spaces and ends up looking weird. This, however, can be easily fixed if you enable word hyphenation via CSS, a feature that’s already supported by most browsers (). The only problem: Google Chrome still doesn’t :-(

  • Mr. LetsFixTheWorld

    Another option to break up content is to break posts into pages. (Search wordpress.org plugins for pagination, page break, post split, and related terms). As long as the first page says “page 1 of n”, and the reader can see how much is in page 1, they know what they’re in for. This also provides the reader with a logical breaking point. If they’re interested they’ll continue or come back. If not you would have lost them anyway. And I believe multiple pages on a single topic is good for SEO.

  • New Recruit

    Hey Brenda!!
    Great post!! Probably the best post that I read on this topic. It’s really amazing and interesting to read. The way you describe this post is super amazing. Once again you did a great job by writing and sharing such a great post with all of us. It contains everything that I need. You did a great job sharing such an awesome post with all of us. It has been a great experience of reading your blog. I just loved it.
    After reading your blog I can properly understand the importance of content formatting. It is one of the best ways to make your blog look’s awesome and make it user-friendly. As you give the example of Neil Patel blog, content formatting makes your blog more interesting. After reading your blog I will definitely use content formatting on all of my websites. One of my websites is and I am sure that the tips given by you help my site rank better and increase my site traffic.
    Thanks for sharing such a great post with all of us. Keep sharing, I appreciate your work.

  • Design Lord, Child of Thor

    Nice article
    Actually, your bullet list isn’t different than a succession of lines, as it doesn’t have ullets :P

    Also, you said “If you’re reading this, then you’re likely not the person in charge of writing”, but it IS interesting for people who write as well, as sme advices are about the text itself and not its aesthetics.

    • Mr. LetsFixTheWorld

      > Also, you said “If you’re reading this, then you’re likely not the person in charge of writing”

      Yeah, that very first line took me by surprise too. I couldn’t guess as to whether Most blogs are self-written And formatted, or if Most blogs are lucky enough to have people who provide content Plus someone who does site formatting. Separation of concerns is perfectly reasonable – and you usually don’t want content providers messing with your UI. But someone reading this not “likely” to be the content provider? Meh, that’s debatable. Maybe the assumption is that anyone who can afford WPMU DEV is likely to be “just the webmaster”, not a typical blogger. :)

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