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Reading on the Web

by Jean Baker
March 06, 2005

The majority of web readers tend to scan rather than read web text, according to Jakob Nielsen and John Morkes. In their study, they found that 79% of those tested scanned a new page of information compared to 16% who actually read each word. Therefore, the results of the study indicate most readers are in a hurry to gather as much information as possible in very little time.

Considering the above, web content writers may want to keep in mind the reading habits of their audience as information is disseminated. Similar to the lessons in a journalism class, it is essential to place the most important information or message at the beginning of the text. The reader may never get past the first sentence without the writer using a powerful heading and hook. Just as in the media of movie film or published materials, the writer’s message may end up lying on the cutting room floor.

Nielsen suggests some of the following tools for creating scannable text:

  • Highlighting is an excellent tool for bringing attention to titles, sub-titles and keywords.
  • Spacing is essential in providing white space for the reader’s eyes.
  • Bullets can help make lists stand out from the rest of the text.
  • By focusing on the main idea in each paragraph, the writer keeps the reader from getting lost in unnecessary information.
  • Sticking to the subject and giving concrete examples that show rather than tell the main points help the reader understand the writer’s message.
  • Be concise. As any teacher will tell a writer, edit your work. Write and rewrite.

Credibility is very important, according to Nielsen. There are many skeptical readers who will grant more weight to solid writing skills, excellent graphics and the use of outbound links that actually take the reader where they want to go.

The researchers also determined from their study that readers “detested marketese,” such as the obnoxious boasting that one often hears on commercials. Web readers do not appear to respond well to subjective ads that over-exaggerate any more than radio listeners and tv watchers who suffer through extensive claims.

Nielsen and Morkes actually created a guide to “measuring the effect of improved web writing.” By testing five different versions of the same word content, they concluded that readers graded the concise writing sample as 58% better. The scannable version rated 47% better. By combining three of their ideas for improving writing style, the result was “124% better usability.” The objective approach appeared to pay off compared to the promotional version. In stead of having to subconsciously argue with the adamant, subjective nature of the promotional version, the reader was released from that burden in reading the more open, objective version. As in any text, the reader feels more comfortable in making his own determinations rather than being forced into believing exaggerated claims.

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