Why scannable web copy?

Because ‘readers’ don’t read

Here’s the title of one of usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s earliest web-writing articles:1

Why scannable web copy?

How people read on the web They don’t. So make webpages scannable. Image by Lacie Slezak

How Users Read on the Web

The first paragraph:

They don’t.

“People read paper,” says TJ Larkin, principal of Larkin Communications Consulting. “They use the web.”

In fact, just 16% of people read word-by-word online, according to research by Dejan Marketing.2 Remarkably, that’s the same percentage Nielsen came up with in his 1997 study.

So if web visitors aren’t reading, what are they doing?

They’re not reading; they’re seeking.

They’re looking for something specific. According to a study by Xerox PARC, web visitors:

  • Collect 71% of the time. They search for multiple pieces of information, maybe research for a Writing for Mobile workshop.
  • Find 25%. They seek something specific, like “What is this bacalhau they want to serve me for lunch?”
  • Explore 2%. They look around without a specific goal — aka “surfing.”
  • Monitor 2%. They return to the same website to update information — say, checking CNN for the latest news.

What are they doing on your site? They’re looking for something specific 96% of the time. Note: “Reading” is not on the list.

In other words, web visitors have a goal 96% of the time, according to the PARC study. So much for “surfers.”

Same thing’s true on mobile. In fact, the No. 2. mobile task is searching for specific information. (No. 1: wasting time.)

“The dirtiest four-letter word in the English language: ‘read.’”
— Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics website

Mobile visitors often seek information relevant to the here and now, like “Where is the nearest gas station?” In fact, according to a Pew study, some 49% of mobile users use their phones for location-based information.

How long do they spend?

So as they look for information, how much time do visitors spend on webpages? Not too long:

  • The average page visit lasts less than a minute — but many are 10 seconds or less.3
  • 55% of visitors spend fewer than 15 seconds on your website.4
  • Visitors spend an average of 19 seconds looking at a webpage.5

During that time, according to Kara Pernice, Kathryn Whitenton and Jakob Nielsen, authors of How People Read on the Web, web visitors’ eyes land an average of 72 times on different elements on the page.

“As you watch users’ eyes negotiate pages at mind-blowing speeds, you might think that … it is just pure luck that anyone ever finds anything worthwhile on the web.”
— Kara Pernice, Kathryn Whitenton and Jakob Nielsen, in How People Read on the Web

Let’s do that math: 19 seconds divided by 72 “eye stops” equals about a quarter of a second per glance.

Definitely. Not. Reading.

“As you watch users’ eyes negotiate pages at mind-blowing speeds,” write Pernice et al., “you might think that … it is just pure luck that anyone ever finds anything worthwhile on the web.”

How much do they read?

As web visitors’ eyes race around your webpage for 10 to 20 seconds or so, how much of your content is actually sinking in?

They’re just not that into you Visitors read about 20% of the words on a webpage, according to the Nielsen Norman Group.

About 20% of the words on the page, according to a Nielsen Norman Group analysis of 50,000 page views that European computer scientists, psychologists, sociologists, engineers and other highly educated professionals completed while going about their daily lives.

But which 20%?

Where are they looking?

So which words do they read?

The microcontent. They read the:

  • Headlines
  • Decks
  • Subheads
  • Links
  • Lists
  • Bold-faced text

And if you want to reach web visitors with your messages, that’s where you’ll be too.

Pass the skim test: Embed your key messages in the microcontent, or online display copy.

  • Lift Ideas Off the Page

    Reach nonreaders with display copy

    Once you’ve written your headline, David Ogilvy famously said, you’ve spent 80 cents of your advertising dollar. That’s right: Display copy — headlines, captions and callouts, for instance — gets the biggest ROI of everything we write.

    Lift Ideas Off the Page in Dallas

    That’s why I’m often amazed that the same folks who spend hours polishing the analogy in the seventh paragraph of their message toss off a headline in the 17 seconds before happy hour on a Friday afternoon. Most of your readers will never read the seventh paragraph. But many more will read your display copy.

    People don’t read. So how can you reach them with words?

    At Catch Your Readers — our two-day hands-on persuasive-writing master class on Oct. 2-3 in Dallas — you’ll learn how to put your messages where your readers’ eyes really are — to use your display copy to pull readers into your message, make your piece more inviting and even communicate to flippers and skimmers. Specifically, you’ll learn how to:

    • Reach “readers” who spend only two minutes — or even just 10 seconds — with your piece.
    • Avoid dropping the piece of display copy that 95% of people read — but that many communicators forget.
    • Run a simple test on your message to ensure that even folks who will not read your message no matter how well you write it still get your key ideas.
    • Make your copy 47% more usable by adding a few simple elements.
    • Pass the Palm Test to make your message look easier to read. Because if it looks easier to read, more people will read it.


[1] Jakob Nielsen, “How Users Read on the Web,” Nielsen Norman Group, Oct. 1, 1997

[2]Here’s Why Nobody Reads Your Content,” Dejan Marketing, June 11, 2015

[3] Kathryn Whitenton, “Satisficing: Quickly Meet Users’ Main Needs,” Neilsen Norman Group, March 30, 2014

[4] Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat; “What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong,” Time, March 9, 2014

[5] Kara Pernice, Kathryn Whitenton and Jakob Nielsen; How People Read on the Web; Neilsen Norman Group


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    1. […] more, we recommend this article put out by highly-sought-after communications expert, Ann Wiley: wyliecomm.com/2018/04/why-scannable-web-copy/ TLDR? Top-notch headlines and subject lines. Subtitles. Subheads. Lists. Pull quotes. But this is […]

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