Monday, August 13, 2007

How People Read Online

Common wisdom on web copywriting holds that people tend to skim web articles. Good web writing keeps things concise, breaks up paragraphs into small, easily-digestible bites, makes good use of lists and bullet points, and relies on bold-text headings to help readers skip to the most relevant info as quickly as possible.

There are plenty of studies backing this up. Jakob Nielson's 2006 eyetracking study states that in-depth reading of online text is rare. They've been finding the same results since 1997.

Here's where it gets interesting: a new Poynter eyetrack study has found that people actually read more online than they do in print. Overall, 63% of online news stories viewed during the study were actually read to the end. That's significantly higher than the number of stories read to completion in print: 40% for broadsheet and 36% for tabloid.

These results make intuitive sense to me when I think about how I read on the web. If I'm looking for specific information, I'll skip and scan. I'm definitely more likely to pay attention when paragraphs are small, and bold subheadings help. But when I'm interested in something, I read the whole thing--and it doesn't matter what the paragraphs look like.

I think these results are significant, too, because they might mean that people are getting more accustomed to reading online. So far online news sites and books haven't replaced print publications, mainly because most people still prefer reading in print. But it looks like that's changing. Will this mean the extinction of the print newspaper? The death of the book? World domination by Reuters Online?

Maybe it just means we have a little more freedom in our web writing than we realize. Maybe long articles with big blocks of text are okay, as long as the writing is compelling, the topic is interesting, and things are well organized. But I've been following common wisdom since my first stint as a web copywriter, and I'll probably continue to for the time being--the study results are still preliminary.

What do you think?

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