All writing, regardless of its format should be engaging and useful to readers, but there is a striking contrast between the expectations and habits of offline vs. online readers. In order to write user-friendly and compelling content for the web, it is crucial to understand how people read differently online vs in print. Some noticeable differences include;
- leisure activity
- few distractions
- linear reading format (front to back, top to bottom)
- task-driven activity
- many distractions
- multiple-direction reading format (back and forth between pages and content items)
Most of us were taught at school to read and write in a linear format (intro > main body > conclusion). In this style of writing, the author leads the reader through the written material in a logical sequence supported by peripheral cues. This structure is widely adopted in printed documents such as books, newspaper articles, and essays.
But this writing format offers little value online because most people do not read in a line-by-line manner when information is presented to them on a screen. Instead, web users tend to create their own multiple-direction reading format, flicking back and forth between pages and skimming through content to quickly find the specific details they are looking for.
In fact, eye tracking studies conducted by web usability consultant, Jakob Nielsen, show that when looking at written content online, a user’s eyes will navigate a page in a sort of ‘F shape pattern’ – starting in the top left-hand corner of the text and then scanning horizontally and vertically through the content.
Neilsen’s studies also found that;
- 79% of online users scan the page instead of reading word for word, focusing on headlines, summaries and captions. If a quick scan doesn’t show them the information they need, they won’t spend time searching for it.
- Web readers are three times more likely than newspaper readers to limit in-depth reading to short paragraphs. The longer the section of copy online , the less likely users are to read it.
- Of those online users who do read the entire page, most only absorb around 75% of the content.
Online content writers should, therefore, seek to accommodate these reading patterns into their writing to ensure their works are scannable, concise, and accessible in order to meet the specific needs and attention spans of online readers.
4 steps to improving your online content
1) Simple structure
Users tend to stay longer on web pages where content is presented in short paragraphs so lay your online content out in a format that makes it easy for users to scan to specific details supported with subheadings, bullet points, and numbered lists.
2) Keep it concise
A computer screen displays text with less detail and sharpness than a printed page, so letters can appear fuzzy, causing eyes to tire quickly, especially when presented on smaller screens. As a result, reading online text can take four times longer than reading printed text..
With this in mind, online content should be shorter than printed content. You should aim for your writing to get to the point, and quickly. If you wish to share heaps of information and ideas about a particular topic, then consider splitting it up across multiple articles and pages.
3) Use links
The ability to incorporate links into web content can, to a degree, make the process of online writing far simpler than print writing. Rather than explaining every fine detail, you can simply provide a mention and link to a further resource – giving readers the opportunity to decide for themselves the amount of detail they want or need.
4) Consider SEO
Although it’s important to encompass search engines into your online audience, SEO efforts should never jeopardize a quality user experience. Focus your efforts into writing for your audience first, and consider search engines along the way.