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How People Read on the Web | A Guide for B2B Content Marketing

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What do people do when they get to your website? They scan what’s on the page. Some skim. Fewer still, read.

Don’t be discouraged.

You can’t change the way humans do what they do. However, to maximize the impact of the content you work so hard to create, you can—and absolutely should—create and format your content based on how website visitors read.

Three research experts at Nielsen Norman Group, published the remarkably detailed 355-page treatise, How People Read on the Web: The Eyetracking Evidence. Though the report’s been around for quite some time, most of the lessons you can draw from it are timeless—and probably even more relevant in the smartphone era.

A Guide for Content Marketers:  The revelations in this post are based on this impressive research project and report.

Scanning 1, 2, 3

Of course, you want your website visitors to take it all in, gather the big picture, appreciate the details, and understand all that you have to offer. Again, they typically don’t.

People read as little as possible on your website and most sites they visit. They make quick judgments about which parts to read, skim or ignore. They make an appraisal—sometimes in a second—whereby they estimate the nature, quality and potential value of the information on the page.

According to the report, people actually scan in one of three different ways:

  • Motivated—Users think they need information on the page. They could be motivated simply by the content they find if they’re enjoying it.
  • Directed—Users are looking for something specific: particular words and/or visual cues.
  • Impressionable—Users are looking at the page with an open mind.

Different page types have different dynamics

Website pages mostly fall into the following three buckets:
(1) article pages
(2) segmented pages,
(3) search engine result pages (SERPS).

Let’s take a look at how they differ to the page scanners you hope to slow down and appeal to.

Article pages

On article pages, where text is organized mostly in paragraphs, and typically in one column, people look for reinforcement the page is about the topic they’re interested in. They’re bound to scan quickly and pick out elements.

Segmented pages

Segmented pages tend to have smaller blocks of copy often covering more than one topic and featuring images, videos, lists, etc. Most homepages would qualify.

Readers will look for headings and features that are visually called-out. The shape of the page has a big impact on how it’s looked at.

Search engine results pages

Readers scan SERPs looking at the titles of the results and bolded words.

  • People spend 1.5 seconds on average looking at a search result.
  • Unsurprisingly, the majority of people scan sequentially from the top down.

The research shows 40% of the total time on a SERP is spent on the top three organic results.

SERP results - eye tracking results

The number one reader repellant

In sometimes less than a second, a user completes an initial appraisal of a page.

In that moment, he or she estimates the nature, quality, importance, and potential value to them of the information on the page. During the appraisal, the reader is looking for an idea or concept that relates to their need.

They drop-off for a variety of reasons, but far and away the number repellant is a wall of text.

Let’s look at how to avoid the problem.

Important keys for effective formatting

The report clearly establishes the keys to formatting a web page to get a reader’s attention and increase their interest in reading. Let’s run through the most important tips it offers.

Headlines top the list (and the page)

The most important thing you can do is present meaningful headlines and sub-headers that pop off the page more so than the body text. Apply the following tips:

  • Make your headlines—and subheads—look visually different than the rest of the text. Do so with larger or bolder text and/or a different color and font.
  • Page titles give readers a sense of the page’s main topic. Assure your reader they’re on the page they hoped to go to by giving each page a concise title that instantly orients them.
  • Make your headlines and subheads descriptive of the content that will follow.
  • Choose interesting and provocative words.
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Get to the point

Readers bail—or at best, scan—when the first paragraph doesn’t offer useful information. It’s also going to be your most read paragraph. Make it meaty.

Think “top-down” and feed readers information in order of importance. As you would expect, readership declines with each paragraph. Journalists are taught to write in an “inverted pyramid,” meaning all the content is presented in order of importance.average percentage viewed of chronological paragraphs from eye tracking survey

Create lists

Skimmers love lists. Offer them.

1. Bulleted lists attract the eye. The report revealed people looked at 70% of the bulleted lists they encountered.
2. Keep the lists short and narrow. Be concise.

Consider tables

• Include descriptive headings.
• Be conservative with the amount of copy.
• Make your tables easy to scan.

Present narrow columns

Readers consume more content when the columns of copy are narrow. They’re simply easier to read. Think newspapers where column width is very narrow.

Rule of Thumb: Text in a column should typically not exceed 15 words

Think links

Readers like links. Even if they don’t click, they’re drawn to them.

  • Readers not only use links to click but to get a sense for what the content is about. Links act as visual callouts.
  • The easiest links to identify are blue (or a secondary color), underlined, or even bold. The general idea is they look different and, of course, clickable.
  • Generic links such as “click here” are not as effective as meaningful links that suggest subjects and/or the value of clicking.

Example of highlighting text when the content links to another page: 3 Mistakes That Will Slash your Website Lead Generation Opportunities

Things that attract eyeballs

We know that eyeballs bounce all over the page. The report claims the elements readers look for as they scan in a “spotted” pattern include:

  • Bolded words
  • Underlined words
  • Words in different colors
  • Numbers
  • Words in all capital letters
  • Long word
  • Words in quotation marks
  • Words above, below, or beside any of these elements.

Modern takes on this readability stuff

The research I’ve cited here is fascinating but old. So as to not be factually outdated, I avoided statistics and omitted ideas I believe may be easily challenged. In the end, I offered what I believe to be timeless lessons that will serve you as well—or even better—than they did when the research was published two decades ago.

And now, I want to offer even more tips I’ve discovered that help turn scanners into readers—or at least, increase engagement.

  • Show images, GIFs, infographics, and video.
  • Add captions. Skimmers’ eyes are drawn to captions.
  • Make your paragraphs short. Make your sentences short. But don’t make your articles or pages short. Just make them easy on the eyes.
  • Use white space generously.
  • Mix up column widths. Use the modern tricks of the trade to offer variety with grids, and slightly unpredictable rows and columns that break up the monotony of the page.
  • Insert quotes and elements that are easy to share such as “click to tweet.”

We use this heat mapping tool from CrazyEgg to track activity on a web page. Set up a free trial and monitor reading depth and click activity. It’s an awesome tool.

Whoa… You made it to this last paragraph.

I doubt you read the first paragraph first, so I must have done something right. Review this post and its tips.

Apply them.

A page that’s easy on the eyes is a page that gets read more thoroughly.

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