Patrick Berzai

For good or ill, the internet is inundated with lists and if you’re like me, you roll your eyes when you see another seemingly meaningless list article (or “list-icle”). But they still exist and this kind of content has proven it’s more effective rather than less. Why?

“People are attracted to lists because we live in an era of over-stimulation, and lists help us in organizing what is otherwise overwhelming,” David Wallechinsky said wrote in ​’The Book of Lists’. Thinking of my own relationship with the lists I read (and sometimes make), I couldn’t agree with David more.

It’s not that lists are a new phenomenon. From Santa, to the Ten Commandments, to American Top 40, to the BCS poll in college football, lists have always been important to us. In the TV and blogging era, list blogs like “Stuff White People Like” or David Letterman’s Top Ten List have garnered large audiences with promises of easy-to-digest web content paired with big laughs. Lists are the perfect way to organize relational information in a logical structure that builds to a climax, almost like a story. Lists help us keep appointments, complete tasks or appeal to morality – and they can help your branded web content become much more appealing.

If lists are “overdone”, why are we still reading them?

One big reason we’re attracted to read lists is that they appeal to our brains and the fundamental way we all think. Daniel Kahneman’s seminal book “Thinking Fast and Slow” enunciates a difference in the two systems our brains use in processing information we receive. The judgments that we make with “System 1” are different than the judgments we make with “System 2.”

Lists are one of the most popular content formats because they're easy for readers to understand.

  • System 1 is the involuntary system of our brains. Always on, it takes visceral stimuli and processes it very rapidly to make (almost) automatic decisions about the world around us. This system is largely powered by emotion.
  • System 2 on the other hand, is our more rational system. It is the conscious part of our brain that uses data and rules to make actionable and deliberate decisions.

Now each system does not work in the void and separate of each other. Usually, System 1 makes some quick judgments that we then later affirm or deny in fact with the rational coolness of System 2.

It turns out that lists satisfy both systems because they have:

  • An anchoring effect – people are biased by irrelevant numbers.
  • Lists offer a quick way to ‘hack’ (or quickly learn) a concept or trick.
  • A list is a thing (almost a picture) that we can comprehend quickly, but then deliberate over and asses the rationale.

Why should we continue to write lists?

Esquire Magazine recently published 14 Reasons You’re More Likely To Read This Because It’s A List. It’s a comprehensive study about readers’ love affair with lists. They are very pleasing to the eye and encourage a browsing behavior that makes a user more highly engaged. An engaged user scanning a list will perhaps have their eye drift near the call to action on a page, encouraging them to take that next business step.

One thing to certainly remember is how well lists do in search engine results pages (SERPs). In fact, SERPs are a ‘list’ that we do not even think about but we make (or is made for us) every time we search.

Lists are one of the best content formats because internet users are looking for how-to tips more often.

As you can see from this chart, people increasingly turn to the web to ask questions about the world by asking “Who, what, where…(but mostly) how?” in their search queries.

The best thing about lists is that they have a beginning, a middle and like this note to you, a foreseeable end

As the web becomes more structured and keyword extraction more complex, the way that Google understands the query “How do I learn SEO?” can be in list form. The questions we ask can easily be answered with lists because of the completeness of the answer provided, coupled with the succinct-ness of the content. Google likes them.

The other reason that lists do so well in search is that they have a higher tendency to be liked and shared, key metrics that Google is looking for as it develops from a web of facts and into a web of meaning.

The best thing about lists is that they have a beginning, a middle and like this note to you, a foreseeable end.