Writing for the Web: Understanding How Surfers Read Web Content

Writing for the web is NOT like writing for a newspaper, magazine or a book.  If you want to write well for the web, you have to understand what surfers are looking for and how to deliver it to them.

How long do visitors spend reading text?

According to a recent study by Nielsen Online, the average time spent on an entire website is 56 seconds!  A different study by Harald Weinreich analyzed nearly 60,000 web pages and broke down the time spent.  On pages with significant amounts of text:

  • 17% of pages were viewed for less than 4 seconds
  • 4% of pages were viewed for more than 10 minutes

This same study found some interesting patterns in how visitors read pages. When web pages had just a small amount of text, such as 100 words, they read the text from start to finish.  When the pages had longer texts, such as 1000 words, the reading style became very erratic.  The readers jumped around the text.

The longer the text, the less of it gets read. Study results vary, but only about 20% of web text gets read at all.

What do visitors want?

All website visitors want something, which is usually information or entertainment.  What is important to remember is that they want it fast and easy!  How you go about delivering these wants depends on your business model.  Let’s say that you are selling toaster ovens.  Your visitors aren’t likely to stick around to read a 2000 word detailed review of each toaster. But they would like to look at a very organized chart listing the pros and cons of each model.

Let’s face it: most of the text on the web is pretty useless or repetitive.  Web surfers know this, which is why they aren’t willing to spend a lot of time going through the thousands of webpages filled with text about their inquiry. Further, web visitors are in a hurry and they are distracted.  They probably have several other tabs open, so you are competing with a bombardment of information.

What is the goal of writing for the web? To get your message across in an efficient way.  To do that, follow these simple tips for writing for the web:

1. Keep Content Short: The longer your content is, the less of it gets read.  Keep your content short and to the point and you are more likely to get the full message across and keep readers’ attention.

2. Make Content Scannable: All of the key points of your content should be easy to identify at a glance.  Divide content into segments and provide a short, bolded headline for each.

  • Bold text for important ideas/facts
  • Bullets
  • Numbered lists
  • Q & A formats

3. Keep Content on Subject: Don’t veer into another subject on that page.  You can always make a new article about the topic and put a link to it.