Not fully, people rarely read web pages word by word. Instead, they scan your webpage, jumping from words to sentences skimming to for key takeaways. Why? Because of the sheer volume of information online, they scan for important information to save time.
So when you don’t realise this is how people read webpages (by scanning) and you continue to publish text-heavy content with giant blocks of text your content won’t be read because it looks too time intensive.
This is such a shame because you could have spent hours researching, writing, editing an educational or informative article. You want to maximise its chances of being read and processed.
Understanding online reading patterns
Lots of research has been done to understand reading patterns online, via eye-tracking software. And 3 of the most common reading patterns are discussed:
- Layer cake
This is the most common way users will read your content. Don’t get caught up on it looking exactly like an F, it’s not always an exact F shape but more of an overall outline.
- First, across the top to read important headlines
- Next, down the left side of the page to view numerals or bullet points
- Lastly, across the page again to read bolded text or subheadlines
So there’s a heavy focus on the left-hand side of the page (for English speaking countries that read left to right for other countries that read right to left the emphasis is on the right-hand side).
Sometimes they can even skip the top line altogether if they don’t like the first word. They are looking for clues and to find out “If this is this worth deeper reading?”.
If they decide it is worth reading they move to the next reading pattern.
If they read your content via the layer cake pattern they are more committed to the content exploring the horizontal lines further for areas of key interest.
If the user is still interested after using the lawyer cake pattern to read, they will move to the 3rd pattern… spotted – to look for the main ideas.
Making your content scannable
So now you know that webpages are scanned not read. You can optimise your content so you maximise the chances of the spotted reading pattern.
There are ways you can chunk your content so you break it up from a giant block of text to sections, that way users can easily see which sections interest them the most and skip down to it.
The key is letting them read your content on their terms if they want to snack only on certain sections that’s fine. And if they like what they read they’ll keep reading. Here are some examples of ways to make key words stand out in text.
- bolded words
- underlined text
- words in colour
- 8 instead of eight
- words in CAPITAL LETTERS
- words in “quotation marks”
And stepping up from the word to the sentence to make the overall flow of your article look more visually appealing as they scroll down use:
- Bigger text for intro/summary paragraphs
- Bullet points
- Don’t be afraid of white space between sections(it gives your eye a breather)
Example of webpage optimised for F-pattern
Improving your content for web
So we just talked about improving your content layout to make it more scannable but what about the content its self and how it’s written? How can you improve it with web scanning in mind?
Neilson Norman Group developed five different versions of the same website (same basic information; different wording; same site navigation).
- Promotional writing (control condition)
- Concise text
- Scannable layout
- Objective language
- Combined version
And they found the text that measured the highest usability was the concise version (58% better) and for the scannable version (47% better). And when we combined three ideas(concise, scannable & objective), the result was truly stellar: 124% better usability.
Case Studies: Online reading patterns
Internet users read just 28% of an article’s copy during the average site visit. And articles are read word-for-word only 16% of the time, according to Nielsen Norman Group’s 2008 study on online reading patterns (1997).
“Skim readers” (who skim content rather than read it word-for-word) are usually able to pick out valuable information and therefore understand the gist of the article quite successfully according to Duggin et. al.’s 2011 study.
CXL did their own study where they wanted to answer a few specific questions:
- How are online articles read?
- How much of the article gets read?
- Do people read image captions?
- Do older internet users read articles the same way younger users do?
They used a short(100 words) but interesting article from National Geographic.
The article included a title, featured image, side banner ad, and varying font sizes. Even though it was short it had 3 folds. They wanted to study how far two groups of participants based on age(younger & older) read and was there a drop in reading rates when they had to scroll below the fold.
Their findings for both ages groups younger & older ((18-30 & 50-60 respectively) had similar reading patterns and scrolling wasn’t an issue they expected it(which is not surprising in an age of endless social media feeds e.g. Facebook and Instagram).
“Which elements of the page were looked at the most?”
“How much of the article was read?”
“How many people read the image caption?”
These topics were the last part of the “Attention Basics” module in the CXLs Digital Psychology & Persuasion. It’s all about holding users attention so make sure your content is scannable and easily digestible (layout & how it’s written).
That way you’re keeping their attention by giving them content in a way they want to digest it e.g. you’re not forcing them to dissect text-heavy content and pull out the key parts.
By doing that you’re not adding to their cognitive load(as discussed in last weeks article) e.g. making it easy not effortful. Because once they reach that tipping point they will bounce off your site thinking “This is too hard” the effort is not worth the reward.