A common misconception held by small business owners starting a new website is that their potential customers will be reading every single word on a given page. Unfortunately generally people don’t – they rarely read every word, but instead they scan the page and pick out individual words and sentences. Research published by the Nielson Norman Group found that 79% of people scanned web pages and found that only 16% of people read every word on the screen. Instead, their eyes skim over the surface of a web page and they grab clues about the content.
When people are reading online and come across a very large document or report they may print it out to read offline or they may just ignore it entirely.
The importance of links
A lot of people just read link text and so therefore click to jump to another place. This may be an unusual way to read and create a false impression of the web page’s content as links often divert people to digress onto other content. However, it does make a certain amount of sense given that links are sometimes a different colour visually to the body text or underlined and therefore, it is natural for people to click through your links and sometimes leave your website entirely if your links are external.
Given that web pages are embedded with links – you need to think about the various implications of links – where your links lead to, what text you should use for the link and where to place the links in your body text. Readers actually create their own understanding of your content by typing words into search, choosing a link and clicking.
Scrolling through your website
The majority of visitors to your website will stay on your website if you can capture and hold their attention. We can make the following broad assumptions which may help to explain why they will stay on your website:
- visitors usually prefer not to have to scroll too far down a web page to find the content they want
- they prefer to get the information they want after a maximum of three clicks
- they expect to see at least one heading and image regardless of their screen size
- expect a good ratio between clicking and reading
Fast-loading web pages
There are still people who may never look at any part of a website if is not visible when the page first loads (especially important when designing your homepage). The first half of a page is often referred to as ‘above the fold’ – like the top half of a newspaper. So your first impression or glimpse needs to be fast loading and offer interesting and compelling content. The images you use on your website need to be sized appropriately, the same idea applies if you intend to use video. People will not wait around for slow loading content.
People move around on websites
Your readers have options about what they read and do – unfortunately you don’t have a captive audience. Your readers are constantly making instantaneous decisions on whether they continue reading, click to another section on the page on your website or even find a new website. Remember that web pages are not the same as words printed on a paper page. Your readers respond to web pages differently.
Reading online is not like reading a book
A website can be confusing for your readers if they are unable to quickly get a sense of its entirety – they will lose the thread, get distracted and click away from your site altogether. So it is important for each web page to be self-explanatory and make sense by itself.
Unlike a book or magazine a website does not have numbered pages and chapter headings to guide you through which section or chapter you are reading. Even if your website has a sitemap, web visitors tend not to use them unless they are very desperate and very persistent!
People ultimately read your website with their index finger hovering above the mouse button to click, itching to visit another web page or even simply to make something happen.
How readers interact with your web page
Your readers have an overwhelmingly strong desire to click on something to somewhere – they want to do more than just passively read words, they want to use your website somehow – feeling like they’ve learned something and done something. People expect your website to have links to other pages that they can click on. They may enjoy being able to ask you a question directly using an online form, add a comment, or “Like” your website.
Online readers often feel a need to achieve a certain task before moving onto something else. So it is important to keep them engaged and give them the opportunity to interact. They are reading with their eyes and fingers.