Last updated on November 30th, 2010
Don’t be shocked by this – most users will only read a fraction of what you write on a webpage.
Now I’m by no means implying that web copy is useless. But considering the fact that readers typically scan a page for important points, you have to setup your content in a way that reflects this reality.
An experiment by usability expert Jakob Nielsen evaluated over 230 users and how they read a webpage. He found readers’ behavior was fairly consistent across different types of websites, exhibiting the following three general characteristics:
1. First is a horizontal movement that usually occurs across the upper parts of the content area, which forms the top part of the F-shape.
2. Next, users go down the page on the left side a little bit then read horizontally again for a bit, forming the middle part of the F-shape.
3. Finally, users will scan the copy’s left side slowly to the bottom of the page. Depending on the user and the content, this is either a slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid streak on the heatmap or a fast scan, which is evidenced by a spottier heatmap. Either way, this forms the stem of the F-shape.
Of course, this is just a generalization as users may take a third scan across the page (making an E-shape with the eyetracking heatmap) or only read across once at the top (making an inverted L-shape with the eyetracking heatmap).
And as the eyetracking heatmap shows below, users interact with pages differently depending on what’s included on each. But as you can see, each of these roughly follows the F-shaped pattern.
The middle image for instance, an e-commerce site, includes products and prices, which is why the second horizontal part of the F-shape is lower down on the screen.
On the third image, a search engine results page, the second horizontal line is a bit longer than the top since the second headline is longer. While the second headline seemed more interesting and was longer than the first headline, users typically don’t read secondary headlines as much.
What does all of this mean for your content?
As we’ve said before, users won’t read your copy word by word. Most will scan the page to pick out important points and see if the site answers their questions and addresses their concerns.
Therefore, you need to include the most important information in the first 2 paragraphs. In all likelihood, users will read the first paragraph more closely than the second.
Also, start sub-headings, paragraphs and bullet points with “information-carrying” words. Since users typically scan the left side of the page (as shown by the eyetracking studies), you will want to be sure you include high-impact words at the beginning to draw their interest.