They don’t; so make web pages scannable
Here’s the title of one of usability expert Jakob Nielsen’s earliest articles on writing for the web:
“How Users Read on the Web”
The first paragraph:
“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 eye tracking studies by Dejan Marketing. Remarkably, that’s the same percentage Nielsen came up with in his 1997 study.
So if they’re not reading, what are they doing?
They’re not reading; they’re seeking.
Web users spend most of their time looking for something specific. According to research findings by Xerox PARC, web visitors:
- Collect 71% of the time. They search for multiple pieces of important 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.
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 web pages? Not too long:
- The average page visit lasts less than a minute — but many are 10 seconds or less.
- 55% of visitors spend fewer than 15 seconds on your website.
- Visitors spend an average of 19 seconds looking at a web page.
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 web page for 10 to 20 seconds or so, how much of your content are they actually reading?
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.
“What’s important about this study is that it was completely naturalistic,” Nielsen writes. “The users didn’t have to do anything special.”
Here’s what he found:
- On average, web visitors read half the information on web pages with 111 words or less.
- As the word count goes up, so too does the amount of time visitors spend on a page. But reading time doesn’t keep up with the additional word count. Web visitors spend only 4.4 seconds more for each additional 100 words. Assuming an average reading time of 200 words per minute, that’s only about 15% of the additional words.
- Web visitors spent enough time to read at most 28% of the words on a web page during an average visit. However, Nielsen says, they don’t spend all that time reading. It’s more likely, he estimates, that visitors read only 20% of the words on the average web page.
But which 20%?
Where are they looking?
So which words do they read? The microcontent, or online display copy.
In a study by Conversion XL, web visitors focused their attention on the:
- Headlines. 97% read them. They averaged 2.9 seconds, which gave them time to read 7 words, according to the researchers.
- Decks, or the one-sentence summary under the headline. 98% in the ConversionXL study looked at these. They spent 2.8 seconds, or about 7 words.
- More than nine out of 10 viewed the captions.
Web visitors also look at the subheads, links, bulleted lists and bold-faced text.
And if you want to reach web visitors, that’s where you’ll put your messages.
 Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat; “What You Think You Know About the Web Is Wrong,” Time, March 9, 2014
 Kara Pernice, Kathryn Whitenton and Jakob Nielsen; How People Read on the Web; Neilsen Norman Group
 We also know that users look at web pages using the F-shaped pattern. With this eye movement, they start on the upper left corner. Their eyes sweep across the first line in a horizontal movement. But they hew to the left side of the page, reading less and less of each subsequent line.
 Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer; “Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of web use,” ACM Transactions on the web,vol. 2, no. 1, February 2008, article #5
 Madeleine Sidoff, “How People Read Short Articles [Original Research],” ConversionXL.com, Jan.19, 2018