The most successful online content is able to balance people’s tendency to scan, their desire to consume detailed content once they’ve found what they’re looking for, and Google’s preference for longer content by being:
- Easily scanned for content clues and key points.
- Long enough to provide in-depth content that search engines and users will find valuable.
- Worthy of being read from start to finish.
Online Readers and the Need For Scannability
Sorry fellow writers, but people aren’t reading everything on your page, no matter how clever it is. They are scanning headings, bulleted lists, and bolded words to see if you’ve answered their question(s).
If they don’t know if their answer lies in your content, they won’t read more to find out. They’ll just leave and go look somewhere else.
So, use your headers to let them know what you’re actually talking about in each sub-section. Be accurate, not just clever.
Your headings need to act as a road map through your content, making it easy for people to get where they want to go as fast as possible.
Patterns that People Use When Reading Online
Pattern 1: F-Pattern
This is the default viewing style of the reader who can’t find what s/he wants. You want to avoid this style of engagement with your content.
Pattern 2: Layer Cake
A guided tour through most of your page, this is what you should be aiming to achieve through judicious use of headers and clear text formatting.
Pattern 3: Spotted
This pattern is often seen from users who arrive on a page through search. It indicates they’re looking for a particular word, and you should make sure your page can help them find it.
Pattern 4: Commitment
Here is the holy grail of online content, during which a reader does actually devour every word you’ve written. The only way you get here, however, is by using design and content clues to prove that your page contains the content they were searching for.
Limited Engagement with Online Content: The F-Pattern
Whatever pattern they exhibit, nobody is reading your whole article/post when they land on your page. Instead they are scanning:
“when scanning, people look at words, headings, or sections of pages, often out of order, fixating on only some of the words, rather than entire lines of text. When users scan they are usually doing two things: looking for a place where they want to commit and read, and/or collecting pieces of information from the noncontiguous portions of text that they fixate on.”
When people arrive on a page and can’t find any content clues, they start using an F-pattern to scan the content. (That’s if you’re lucky. If you’re not, they’ll just leave without even trying to check out the written content.)
On a heat map an F-pattern looks like this:
Readers fixate on the left hand side of the page, skimming content to see if anything jumps out. Since we can’t control the size of screen they’re using, writers and designers have little control over line breaks and therefore no control over what particular content readers will see using this scan pattern.
This means we can’t be sure readers using an F-pattern scan will find the crucial pieces of information we’re trying to convey.
Structured for Scrolling: The Layer Cake Pattern
Well structured content, on the other hand, will allow readers to bypass the unfortunate F-pattern of reading and let them consume a much higher percentage of your content through the layer cake pattern.
This means a layer of heading, followed by a layer of text, as you can see in this heat map:
See how much further down the eyes go with this pattern?
The researchers from How People Read on the Web found that, “People can be motivated to scan quite lengthy pages, as long as pages have discernible, descriptive headings and content divided into obvious chunks.”1
Then the hope is that by helping a reader dive deeper into your content they will find what they’re looking for and will then engage more fully with a particular section through the spotted and commitment scanning patterns.
Spotted Scanning: Finding The Online Content You’re Looking For
“In spotted scanning, the user scans more for specific word shapes, particular words, and text treatments that are different from normal text.”1
They’ll typically only move to this type of engagement with online writing if they have identified the page as likely to contain the particular word/phrase/content they were searching for.
Commitment Scanning: Someone Actually Reads Your Writing Online
The final scanning pattern, and the holy grail for online writers, is the commitment scanning pattern. Pernice, Whitenton and Nielsen note that, “[t]his pattern indicates more precise and thorough reading in only areas related to the topics the reader is most interested in.”1
Heat maps showing this scanning pattern indicate that a user has found the content they were searching for. They’ll often read this content word for word and do quite a bit of scrolling around it. This, my friends, is what those of us writing online are aiming for, but we have to work hard to get it.
How Layout Can Influence Online Readers
There are two main ways we can drive engagement with our writing online: using clearly formatted headers that accurate reflect the content below them and incorporating styling elements that make key points obvious. The design of a page/site also plays a role in reader behavior.
Encouraging Scanning With Formatted Headers
These lines of text are what allow people to efficiently scan your content, so they absolutely must be differentiated from the rest of your text.
Larger font size, different colors of bolding, and good use of whitespace are all crucial parts of a good header.
You can use different header sizes (h2, h3, h4, etc.) to indicated sub-sections and help further break up your piece. The bonus here is that search engines use these same header tags to help figure out what your content is about, so you’re helping out both your human and bot readers by using them properly.
Guiding Readers With Spot Scanning Anchors
You need to be using different styles and content types within your writing to identify important pieces of content, answers to possible searchers’ questions, and keywords in general.
These styling elements are what readers are looking for during spotted scanning, and they include:
- bolded words
- underlined words
- words in colors other than that of the main body text color (e.g. links)
- numbers written as numerals
- words in all capital letters
- long words
- words or initials that begin with a capital letter, appearing within a sentence
- words in quotation marks
- words with trademark, copyright, number power, or other symbol attached
- words that are shaped like specific words they are looking for
- words above, below, or beside any of these elements.
Don’t overuse any of these, or you’ll risk overwhelming readers very quickly. But incorporate them judiciously, particularly around your targeted keywords, and readers will be confident that your page can answer their questions.
For example, Jakob Nielsen found that taking a webpage’s content from this:
Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).
In 1996, six of the most-visited places in Nebraska were:
- Fort Robinson State Park
- Scotts Bluff National Monument
- Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum
- Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer
- Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park
Improved usability 124%.1
All hail the bulleted list!
Use Stereotypical Content Layouts to Increase Trust
Follow web archetypes so that people instantly understand how they should consume your content. Create trust by creating and then meeting expectations throughout your site.
Take a look at the design of your page as a whole. When people first arrive on your page they are instantly in an evaluation mode, “during which they estimate the nature, quality, importance, and potential value of the information on the page.”1
An expected page layout, professional looking images, and page elements that conform to current internet conventions and best practices will help them feel confident in your site’s authority. Without this confidence in place, they are likely to bounce off without ever looking at your carefully formatted written content, so don’t neglect design.
Google and Readers Prefer Long Pages
Neil Patel, founder of KISSmetrics and CrazyEgg, was curious about how shorter pages might affect his conversions, so he did an experiment. His findings were amazing:
“The average content length for a web page that ranks in the top 10 results for any keyword on Google has at least 2,000 words. The higher up you go on the search listings page, the more content each web page has.”2
So much for the dominance of the 500 word blog post.
It can be easy for online writers to see these types of stats and get a little depressed, because we also know that about 60% of our visitors aren’t going to scroll beyond the halfway point of our article.3
But the trend toward giving SEO rewards to longer content actually helps us provide useful pieces, because it means we can cover more ground on a single page.
Optimal Content Length for Online Readers and Search Engines
Basically, as Patel points out, Google “prefers content rich sites because data shows you like it.”2
Users spend more time on longer, well-designed pages. They also create more links to those pages, because they want to help out their network by disseminating useful content.
Time spent on site, the number of backlinks, and the number of social shares are all key data points that signal to Google that longer pages are what their users are looking for.
Longer content makes it possible for more visitors to find the particular information that they were looking for on that one page, and that means more of what we write will get read, Google will see that people are spending more time on our page, and our painstakingly researched articles will climb in search results.
It’s easy to conclude that online writing is doomed to labor in obscurity, forced to produce in-depth, valuable pieces of content that few, if any, visitors will actually read.
But the reality is that while few readers will read every word on a web page, ultimately every word will probably be read by somebody IF you’ve done your formatting homework and enabled visitors to use the layer cake scanning pattern to engage all the way down your page.
Quality is King for Online Writing
Ok, so maybe only your mom and your editor will read every single word of your 2,200 word article, but probably nobody else will. Ouch.
The good news is that with good headings and page layout, even people who skipped the first two-thirds of your page might engage with the last bit.
The bad news is that means you can’t ignore the last few paragraphs of every article because that might be all somebody reads.
Have you tried writing 2,000 words about something lately? It can be challenging. Right now you’re about 1,600 words into this article (although there’s very little chance you’ve read all 1,598 words before this).
So maybe everybody who visits your page will only read 300 words, but not everybody will be reading the same 300 words. Many people (ok, most people) will stick above the fold, but if you’ve structured for scannability and included good content throughout, somebody should be just as likely to find something of value to them at the bottom as at the top.
And remember, Google knows how long people are staying on your page.
If you’ve got good scannability that is guiding people to the section(s) they want to read, that means they’ll be staying on the page not only to scan through your content, but then to read the section(s) they like.
This high level of engagement helps SEO, and that helps you get more readers to your painstakingly written content.
And remember that users enter your site with a moderate level of trust and a healthy level of skepticism. People don’t read much online. If they read yours and it’s not good, you break the limited trust they had in your site as a whole, making it less likely that they’ll read anything that you release in the future.
Go forth, and write well.
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