How Users Read Online

Written for, May 3, 2013

It’s a tough pill for many writers to swallow—people don’t read the same way online that they do in print. Book authors usually favor long-form writing to short blocks of content. But if you write for the Web the same way you write for print, you may not be connecting with your audience. Studies find that readers scan pages for content rather than digesting large blocks of content. (There’s a reason it’s called “web browsing.”) As painful as it may be to rewrite copy for—let’s face it—a pretty lazy audience, with some knowledge about how information is consumed online and tips for crafting content, you can optimize your message for the Web.

“Information Foraging”
Usability expert Jakob Nielsen coined the phrase “information foraging” to describe how users read online. Nielsen’s research found that 79 percent of users always scan a new Web page—only 16 percent read word-by-word. A visitor to your site will start by scanning the text for the information she seeks, clicking links to dig deeper, and bailing quickly if she doesn’t find what she’s looking for. There’s a reason for this fickle behavior—there’s so much information available that if the user doesn’t find what she needs quickly, she’ll find it elsewhere.

How the eye moves across the screen is also something to consider. Nielsen did a study tracking the eye movements of users as they browsed thousands of Web pages. He found that users tend to read Web content in an F-shaped pattern: first, two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe. Nielsen identified the following behavior:

  • 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.

Your Content Strategy Starts at Home
There’s a temptation to use your homepage as a place to list everything you think visitors should know about you and your books. This is a mistake—a metaphor I offer clients is that the homepage should be a springboard to the true site content. Think about the “F” pattern above, and map your site accordingly. Within 10 seconds of hitting the homepage, the user should be clicking through to interior pages based on the choices presented to them.

Often, authors want to lead with lengthy, descriptive text on their homepage. Studies show that when they are greeted with lengthy blocks of text, not only do readers not read the information, they bail on the site altogether. A good rule of thumb is to keep your copy under 150 words on the homepage, with a link to the deeper information for those who seek it on an interior page.

Another key to designing a successful homepage is being visually engaging. This means less copy, more images or brief blocks of type to draw the user in.

Tips for Writing Online
Here are some best practices for writing online:

  • Use easily scannable, bulleted lists
  • Sparingly, using bold can help draw the eye to important points
  • Use headlines and subheads to help break up copy
  • Pull quotes are a great way to highlight individual text
  • Break blocks of text into short paragraphs
  • Use links to allow users to drill deeper into your site for topics they care about

If you consider the medium as you write for online sources and build your site, you will engage your audience in a whole new way.