How people read web content

People do not read web content, in the same way, as printed material. When writing content, you should reflect this, and write your content for ‘scanners’.

Who or what are scanners?

  • People do not read web content; they scan them,
  • The vast majority of Internet users do not read any web page word by word.
  • They scan it and focus on individual words, phrases, or sentences, often the words most tightly connected with their task.
  • Users only read 20 – 28% of words on a web page.

For the above reasons:

  • It’s particularly crucial for the title, summary, and the first section to be understandable to a broad readership.
  • Readers need to be able to tell what a page is about, and whether they are reading the correct page, even if they already know the topic in detail.

Most of your readers are busy people, reading your content because they need help to accomplish a task.

  • Unlike your peers, they are not reading your content for fun, or even out of interest.
  • They don’t want to be entertained or teased, taken on a journey, or be impressed by your command of the English language. Save that for your blog.
  • Your writing should address these (pretty harsh) realities by quickly taking them to the essential content.

Write for scanners

So how do you write for scanners? Eliminate words that do not directly support your core idea. Ruthlessly edit your remaining text.

  • Place critical points at the top of the page (headlines, summaries, images).
  • Organise information with short headlines and links, so visitors do not have to read unwanted topics.
  • Keep it short (aim for 50% of the printed size).
  • Make it chunky, avoid large blocks of text.
  • Make it simple (aim for small paragraphs with one idea in each).
  • Use lots of headings (more than you usually would in printed material).

Less is more

  • Stating everything you know about a subject is easy, and won’t necessarily help your reader.
  • Give them enough information to be able to make sensible decisions, but no more.
  • Readers will almost certainly not want to ‘see your workings’, but where you need to explain your rationale, provide this supporting material elsewhere (for instance in footnotes, appendices, or external links).
  • If you’re not sure if something belongs in your draft, it should probably go. If in doubt, cut it out.

Findings from GDS research

There’s lots of information at the GDS pages for those who are interested. The main implications for writers are:

  • Users won’t read your text thoroughly in a word-by-word manner.
  • Exhaustive reading is rare. Some people will read every word, but most won’t.
  • The first two paragraphs must state the most critical information. There’s some hope that users will read this material, though they’ll probably read more of the first paragraph than the second.
  • Start subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice when scanning down the left side of your content in the final stem of their F-behaviour. They’ll read the third word on a line much less often than the first two words.