When People Read Websites And Why It Matters

When People Read Websites And Why It Matters

By: Shelly Kramer
July 2, 2013

how people read websitesWhen it comes to website copy, knowing when and what people read is the key to developing an effective, lead-generating site. And while we often hear that people scan instead of reading, there are instances in which web copy (or at least a portion of it) is actually read.

When we write for the web, we tend to aim for copy that’s short, snappy and to the point. After all, study after study claims that people don’t read web copy (or blog posts)—or, if they do, they only scan headlines or subheads.

Yet a recent study from the Nielsen Norman Group disputes those claims. NNG analyzed 1.5 million eye tracking fixations from hundreds of sites and came to a surprising conclusion: people do read websites.

Take a look at this example of a zoo website from NNG’s study. Sure, there’s a lot of copy on the page that isn’t read. But look how many eyeballs zeroed in on that middle paragraph:

website eyetracking

What Makes People Read Websites

I love this stuff. And that’s because a lot of what we do is centered around websites that work. That eye-tracking map alone is enough to keep me fascinated for hours. My team and I not only love data—we’re also always on the lookout for a chance to dive deeper and find out why numbers or stats are so important.

In the case of NNG’s report, it includes a lot of helpful pointers to make your website more effective and more widely read by your users, clients, customers and prospects. Here are a few of the key takeaways:

User Experience Matters

A good UX on any website is critical. If your content isn’t organized in a way that makes sense to your audience and, more importantly, gives them what they need, well, the information isn’t going to do them much good. Make sure your site is clearly labeled and easy to navigate. A clearly laid out nav bar is a big help, as are drop-down menus—just don’t get too carried away with multiple categories and sub-categories. Think about why your customers or clients are coming to your site, and make sure you give them what they want and need in a way that’s clear, concise and easy to find.

If You’re Not First, You’re Last

The aforementioned zoo website example is an interesting one, since the most widely read paragraph is fairly far down on the page. NNG analyzed the data and found that, in most instances, users tend to look at the first paragraph:

website reading stats

And that means that it’s a good idea to include your most important information at the top of the webpage. Just as you optimize the first paragraph of your blog post to deliver the key points that will be discussed later in the post, use the top spots on your web page to clearly deliver the information that your users most want to find. Most people don’t do this. Trust me.

Writing Matters

Even though writing for the web is different than, say, writing for print publications, it still boils down to one key trait: good writing. And we love that the folks at NNG came to this same realization after analyzing their data.

“However, our eye tracking data also detected a third ingredient for converting users from scanners to readers: high-quality writing,” writes Jakob Nielsen. Have I mentioned yet that I’m an unabashed Jakob Nielsen fangirl? Oh, the grey matter there. Swoontastic.

I digress. High-quality writing. Isn’t that the truth? After all, how long do you stick with a website or blog post if the content is poorly written? I’m guessing you‘re like me and don’t stay around long at all—and if the writing is bad enough, you might just head over to that site’s competitor to find what you do need.

Lesson learned? Your web content counts—so treat it as such. If you’re not confident in your writing abilities, it might be worth it to hire a freelance writer to craft your site’s content. Sure, it’s an investment, but your website is the hub of your digital operations—and if it isn’t well-written, optimized and user-friendly, it can have a serious impact not just on your brand awareness, but also your bottom line.

What’s your take on NNG’s findings? Have you stumbled on a website that you’ve actually read, or do you still tend to scan web content? I’d love to know how your habits compare to the study stats.

Image: break.things via Compfight cc

  • Karen Thuente

    Your comments on when people read websites should help us in discussing where communcations staff spend time online during the next few months. Excellent info and good timing for us. Thanks!

  • I tend to think of website behavior as being task driven. That is, people go online to accomplish a task. When they get to a website they are looking tor a phone number, directions, pricing, a good laugh, etc. Sometimes, they are looking for information and in those instances, good copy is exactly what they’re looking for. Obviously the zoo had that content in that middle paragraph. I wish we could read it 🙂

  • ShellyKramer

    Thanks Karen. Glad you enjoyed!

  • Sorry for the microscopic print, Keith! We don’t have access to a larger version but here’s a snippet from Jakob’s post about what you’re seeing: “This was a well-structured page, with clear headlines delineating
    various pieces of information about a particular type of duck: its
    range, habitat, characteristics, behavior, and reproduction. In this
    case, the user was interested in the duck’s behavior, so she read that
    paragraph in depth, while treating the other paragraphs to ruthlessly
    abbreviated scanning.”
    Duck behavior? I gotta check that out! Hope that helps a bit, Keith. Thanks very much for stopping by!

  • Thanks for taking the time to find the answer even though I was half-joking about reading it. Ducks, huh? Could be a hidden gem of a blog topic 🙂

  • Making awesome stuff is so very important, but you still have to get them started 🙂

  • mikelking

    Any discussion on content length? Just curious as I know of some places that write gobs & gobs of content into a single long post… funnily enough they tend to get hundreds of comments even though I find the long posts boring… thoughts?

  • logistico

    I’m just do scanning if I feel boring when reading a certain article. But if the article catch my interest from the first paragraph, I read it completely. My suggestion is when writing a news blog or if it aim only to inform, rather minimize some unnecessary statement that only makes the selection long. I love reading blogs which is concise and helpful.

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  • Shelly Kramer

    I believe, Mikel, that 500-600 words is about as long as you should go. Any more than that and you run the risk of losing the interest of your reader. I find long posts hard to slog through, too. Not necessarily because they’re boring, but because they’re asking too much from me.

  • Shelly Kramer

    Absolutely Warren. Which is a focus for us every, single day as well!

  • ShellyKramer

    That’s exactly the kind of blog posts we try to write, because we feel the same way!

  • Sarah Bauer

    Well, Shelly, from one Jakob Nielsen fan girl to another, I say thank you and bravo! This article rules, especially because you highlight the value of high quality web writing – the stuff worth investing in. And now we’ve got the data to prove it!

  • Tema Frank

    So true. I think scannability is important, but it depends a lot on the type of website. If somebody wants to learn in-depth about a topic, there needs to be depth for them to read. However breaking that content into chunks with headings makes it more readable even for those who are truly committed.

  • Tony Dimmock

    JN fan too! Having data to prove something that we’ve known is great, especially for those clients who think that 1 x image and a paragraph of text (you know the type..”Here at we are proud to blah blah..) is enough for visitors..

  • ShellyKramer

    Another JN fan … awesome to know I’m not alone! And yes, I agree!!

  • jeroen delft

    These people were all looking for interesting information on this duck and only found it in this specific paragraph. It means that ‘it’s a good idea to include your most important information at the top of the webpage.’ What’s surprising about that? Absolutely nothing.

  • jabusamra

    Thank you, sharing with my team!

  • ShellyKramer

    You’re welcome!