A librarian once asked me how people read on websites. I replied, “They don’t.”
Aghast, she repeated what I’d said to all her colleagues. I realized I’d committed a serious faux pas—that of saying people don’t read—to a librarian!
According to Jakob Nielsen, principal of the Nielsen Norman Group and considered the world’s foremost expert in web usability, people don’t read on the web. Instead, they scan pages, picking out individual words and sentences.
More specifically, they’re impatient! They want what they want and they want it now. Isn't that how people browse the web today? If what we land on doesn't sufficiently capture our attention in 10 seconds or less, we’re gone!
So how, as web content managers with important information to communicate, do we write website content that people will read?
Think Above the Fold
Web users spend 80% of their time looking at information above the page fold. Many don’t scroll at all, they simply look at what’s visible and use it to determine if they want to stay or leave.
So put your most important information above the fold.
F is for fast. That’s how users read content. In a few seconds, our eyes move at amazing speed across a website page, in a pattern that’s very different from the way we read a book or piece of paper.
Think in terms of horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area (the F’s top bar). Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement (the F’s lower bar). Finally, they scan the left side in a vertical movement (the F’s stem).
Once we understand how this works, it’s easier to break up our content with headlines and subheadlines that follow the user’s eye tracking pattern and allow them to absorb your content.
Use Organizational Cues
If you’ve ever read a newspaper, you know that headlines and subheadlines grab attention and encourage reading. These are called organizational cues because they make text visually scannable and encourage the reader to stop and visit. On the web, these organizational cues are even more important because they grab attention by directing the eye. Try placing your headlines in the horizontal F pattern mentioned above.
Cut It Down
As educational institutions with tomes of intellectual information to convey, we tend to write long sentences studded with lots of commas. However, content packed with too many long paragraphs is thick and intimidating. Readers are likely to skip even a single lengthy paragraph. So how long is too long?
Make sure each paragraph contains only one idea, expressed in two to three short sentences, and takes no more than four to five lines on the page.
If you have a series of three or more items, break them out into bulleted or numbered lists. Bullets not only break up a paragraph, they also cut words!
Remember to practice 50%. That’s how much shorter your web copy should be than your print copy.
Keep It Simple
If you have complex information to share, keep it concise. The goal of conciseness is to improve clarity by deleting unnecessary words, phrases, and excess detail. In other words: simplify. How? Benchmark your content against these established averages:
- 22 words per paragraph
- 23 words in the lead paragraph
- 20 words per sentence
- 4.8 characters per word
Write In the Active Voice
Sentences in the active voice have energy and directness, and are more apt to keep your reader reading. They are also shorter, and as we’ve established, removing unnecessary words improves the chances your reader will read more.
- Active voice: Save over 50% by renting your textbooks!
- Passive voice: Students who rent their textbooks can save up to 60%.
Don’t Forget the WIIFM
The first thing your reader wants to know is, “What’s In It For Me?” (Advertising writers long ago shortened this term to WIIFM, pronounced wiffum.) So, think like your readers!
One way to do this is to shift your focus from event—what happened—to impact, or what it means to your audience. Sometimes I refer to this as “Why Should They (or Anyone) Care?” If you can tell them succinctly, you’ll answer their number one question: What’s in it for me?
By now you’re starting to understand just how powerful every word on your website can be. The power lies in your ability to arrange your content so people can easily scan through it, then pick out individual words and sentences related to what they are looking for.
The reward—or shall we say WIIFM—is your audience will more readily comprehend what you write (even if they don’t read every word) and perform the action you want them to take. Whether that action is understanding a concept or signing up for a service, you’ll know how to influence the outcome.
So, the next time a librarian asks you how people read on websites, you can confidently say that how you present the content encourages people to read on websites today!
A bout the Blogger
Marie Wise, APR, is Lower Columbia College’s Web Marketing & Communications Coordinator. With 15+ years of marketing and public relations experience in the local community, she is the college’s strongest advocate for maximizing the potential of the website. Recently, she began training and supporting the college’s group of web editors, who continue to be amazed at the efficiencies provided by OU Campus. When she’s not working, she can be found painting in her home studio overlooking the scenic Columbia River, taking walks with her golden retriever, or reading art history fiction on her eReader!