Someone once asked me: how do users read on the web? My answer? They don’t.
Internet users scan. They pick out individual words and sentences.
Check out these statistics from a recent study:
79% of participants always scanned a new webpage.
Only 16% actually read word-by-word.
Users read email newsletters even more abruptly than websites.
On an average visit, an internet user reads only 28% of a web page’s content.
As a writer, that is probably pretty devastating news. I know it was for me. I labor over these witty words and no one bothers to read them?!
While internet users might not read everything you write, there are some ways to increase the likelihood of getting them to digest at least a little bit.
Make Your Content Scannable
If readers want to scan, let them. However, you should try to guide their wandering eyes. Here are some ways you can entice users to read what you want them to.
- Use bulleted lists (like this one!)
- Highlight the meaningful words. While you should use things like color and typeface variations, bold, and italics sparingly, you can use these subtle changes to draw a reader’s attention.
- Limit yourself to one idea per paragraph. Readers will skip a paragraph if they aren’t hooked within the first few words.
- Use meaningful – not clever – headings.
Consider the F-Shaped Pattern
First of all, acquaint yourself with the F-shaped pattern. The F-pattern is based on the premise that readers scan a page in a pattern that mimics the shape of a capital letter F, reading across and then down the left.
Here are some basic points to help you use this concept in your writing.
- We’ve already established that users rarely read word-by-word. However, we’ve also determined we want them to read as much as possible. So get to the point. Use the first two paragraphs to share the most important information. Your first two paragraphs will form the top of the “F”.
- Start headings, paragraphs and bullet points with information-carrying words. Readers scan down the left side of a list. Use the first three words to grab their attention.
- Always left-align your text; you should never use centered text for the body of an article or email. Only use full-justification for narrow columns, and avoid it for long lines of text.
When you pick up a copy of the Wall Street Journal, you feel pretty confident about the validity of the information. However, the internet doesn’t always offer such guarantees. Users will be much more likely to read your content if they feel you are a credible and reliable source.
How can you increase credibility?
- Use high-quality, relevant images and graphics.
- Make sure you content is error free (this includes everything from typos to inaccurate information).
- Link to credible, helpful sources.
Avoid Promotional Content
You’ve probably heard this before, but people prefer objective content to promotional content. However, getting people to read your writing goes beyond just preferences.
A recent study found that promotional language imposes an actual cognitive burden on readers.
They have to filter out the promotional nonsense to get to the facts. This makes them less likely to want to spend time reading what you have to say.
Use Eye-Catching Article Headings
Often times, print material will rely on an eye-catching or emotional photo to grab a reader’s attention. However, this doesn’t work as well online. No matter how outstanding your photo or graphic is, it can’t replace a quality heading for generating interest in your topic. Remember, you want people read your content, not just look at your photos.
Write Action, Not Narration
Many people rely on printed materials for entertainment or diversion. Therefore, they enjoy the anecdotes and lengthy narrations. As we are well aware, cyberspace is a whole other ball game.
Online readers are usually on the hunt for something. Sure, they might go online for a short distraction from the demands of life. However, most users are searching for something in particular.
In print, readers might enjoy the interesting narrative about the time you and your pet stayed in a not-so-pet-friendly hotel. Online readers, however, want a list of local pet-friendly hotels.
Well…did you make it to the end of this article? Did you read more than 28% of what I had to say? If so, what do you think?
Do you have any other tips to offer?
For more interesting reader stats, check out this Nielsen study.
Join the discussion 14 Comments
I think you’ve provided some valuable information here that all bloggers can use. I know I certainly can. I found the statistics quite interesting. I know I want more than 28% of to read what sometimes takes me hours to write. The best information for me was using titles and bullets and making things scanable. I think that makes a lot of sense. I definitely read more than 28% – I read all the way to the end! 🙂 Thanks.
Hi Barbara, glad to hear you made it through to the end. That was a scary stat, right? I hope after all the time I spend writing that at least SOMEONE reads more than 28%! Guess we should pay attention to that one.
I’ve heard that too Steve and I know that on most sales pages I never read the entire thing. I’m not the fastest reader ever born so I do prefer just reading the bullet points and main highlights. I can usually make a pretty informed decision based on that alone.
Now content on a blog I’ll take more time to read. I guess it depends on whether I find the content boring or not. Ouch, I know but I do find a lot of content pretty boring I’m afraid. I do my best to not do that to my readers but I’m sure a lot of my stuff gets scanned too.
Great pointers though and I’ve never heard of the F shaped pattern for how we should structure our verbiage. Now that was interesting so thanks for sharing that. Boy, you just gave me something to think about.
Great post and Thanks Carol for having Steve today.
Thank you Adrienne,
to say the truth, I never read sales pages too – I know they “lead” me to the purchase and try to quickly scan the bullets.
As you say, disheartening that only 28% of our beautifully crafted copy gets read (I read 100% of yours by the way.)
Thank you for sharing the F Plan, I hadn’t heard of it.
I’m a big believer that storytelling is the key to getting noticed: everyone can offer a 5% discount but no two tales are alike and a company’s differentiator – its USP – is its unique story.
Have been telling clients for some while that promotional ‘we are the best’ copy just annoys consumers, who aren’t stupid and will move on to someone who cuts to the chase. The study you mention seems to back that up.
Your post was very useful. Thanks again.
Thanks for the good words, I think infographics originally were planned to deal with that 28% issue, I’m wondering what are the bounce rates/reader engagement stats for them.
Yes, I read the WHOLE article, but yes, I’m aware of the F problem, so to speak.
However, since I’m well aware that online readers don’t even read half of the content of a post, I do use some of the tricks you mentioned here such italic, bold and grabbing sub-headlines.
This post of yours was easy to read all, however, and I usually don’t have any problem doing that, expect for sales page, as Adrienne mentioned. I rarely read the whole thing, UNLESS I want to buy 🙂
“I rarely read the whole thing, UNLESS I want to buy :)”
Apple copywriting crew affect me greatly – I do not really want to buy anything, than I read the headline, text, reviews – and I’ve got one 🙂
Your post had perfect timing. I was just about to write a post for a large and growing community of newbies. You e-mail gave me validation for my content. thank you as my experise is family dynamics. I did read every word. I was captured by your subject.
Thanks. Another quick tip here: it’s really difficult to cover the whole topic with one article, don’t be afraid to provide links to original resources with more data or detailed research – your audience and SE both will reward you.
Great tips Steve. I’ll start looking for the Capital F in my writing!
Makes you think, right? I bet you’ll never look at your text the same 🙂
Great tips that every writer should know. I actually needed a few of things myself. Content should be short and to the point on the web. This is something I still struggle with as the New Yorker in me tends to droin on and on. 🙂
Don’t feel bad Deb, I have the same problem. I write a LOT, it’s sort of a joke at this point with people who read regularly that they have to really prep themselves before tackling my posts. I don’t think that’s bad though – if you have something to say, just break it up and make it easy to scan through!