How we read on the web

You’re probably going to read this line.

It’s short and at the top of the page. It’s surrounded by white space. It’s in small type.

To really get your attention, I should write like this:

  • Bulleted list
  • Occasional use of bold to prevent skimming
  • Short sentence fragments
  • Explanatory subheads
  • Did I mention lists?

SO What Is This Post About?

This is about how people read on the web.  I am often challenged with explaining to clients why I have edited their content.  Many welcome the help, but most get offended, especially those who have a writing background.  But there is a very specific science when it comes to how people read on the web, that has been proven with eye tracking studies.  This is what we consider when we design sites and prepare content.  (Keep in mind there is a whole other consideration to web content we have to factor in such as SEO value) The following is a brief overview on the science of how we read on the web:

We are Informavores

Jakob Nielsen’s is a usability expert who writes a biweekly column on eye-tracking research and he champions the idea of information foraging.  Humans are informavores.   On the web, we turn into hunters looking for facts. In the old days, when switching between sites was time-consuming, we tended to stay in one place and dig.   Now we move quickly, looking for an “information scent” then  move on if there isn’t food around.

Sorry about the long paragraph. (Eye-tracking studies show that online readers tend to skip large blocks of text.)

Also, you probably had to scroll at this point. Losing an incredible percentage of readers.

Back to the Hunt

Nielsen’s description of the online reader:

“Users are selfish, lazy, and ruthless.”

You pluck the low-hanging fruit.  When you arrive on a page, you don’t actually plan to read it. You scan. If you don’t see what you need, you’re gone.

And it’s not you who has to change. It’s the us, the writers:

SO how do we do that?

There are many things you will need to consider when editing your online content.  To start:

  • One idea per paragraph
  • Half the word count of “conventional writing”! (Ouch!)
  • Kill the Fluff and get to the POINT

Your headline must grab attention in less than 1 second.

Online readers are grazers.  They  spend 4.4 seconds for every extra 100 words on a page.  They move fast and nibble.  If you want to hook them into spending time reading about something, catch their attention very, very fast.

No FLUFF. No meandering copy. No “throat clearing” to fill space. You have to get to the point instantly.

Smaller type promotes closer reading.

This is a hard point to get across.  Clients always want BIGGER and BOLDER.  It sounds practical.  But smaller type  makes sense because smaller type is harder to read. So, to read it, you have to really focus. Larger type promotes scanning rather than reading.

Understand how a reader reads.

  • Users first read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F’s top bar.
  • Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F’s lower bar.
  • Finally, users scan the content’s left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eyetracking heatmap. Other times users move faster, creating a spottier heatmap. This last element forms the F’s stem

Now you know what to watch for when writing for the web.  Be careful before writing content or making any major content edits or formatting changes to your site.  Allow your web designer to edit and reformat accordingly.   It isn’t personal….it is a science!

Thanks to the following resources for some of this articles content:


Latest Facebook changes

Wondering why you’re only seeing status updates from the same people on your Facebook page?   Facebook has changed its News Feed so that by default you can only see updates from people you have recently interacted with!   To change this, click the arrow next to “Most Recent” on the top right of the page then “Edit Options” and click the box to receive updates from ALL friends.

For more information on what Facebook has coming check out their blog!