To Skim or Not to Skim: How We Actually Read Websites

It’s taken for granted that people don’t read websites—they skim. But some recent research by Microsoft qualifies that assumption, and it’s good news for those of us who like to write substantive content for the web.

As reported by web page usability expert Jakob Nielsen, the Microsoft researchers discovered that visitors make a decision whether to stay on a page within the first ten seconds. No big news here.

What’s significant: If the visitor is interested enough to stay for 30 seconds, chances are she’ll stay much longer—at least two minutes or more. While two minutes may sound like a toddler’s attention span, when it comes to how we consume web content, two minutes is a big deal. And more time is a huge deal.

If Your Content Is Relevant and Interesting, Visitors Will Stick Around
So the holy grail for writing compelling web content is—drum roll—write quality copy that’s actually interesting to your target audience, that hooks them in with a solid value proposition and keeps them reading to learn more.

The findings make sense if you think about your own web browsing habits. We’re inundated with information, and much of it is garbage. We’re so deluged with data that this week’s New York Times Sunday Review reports about the trend toward travelers seeking refuge at pricey “black-hole resorts” with no media connectivity.

We all skim web pages to decide whether or not there’s anything useful to read. And we decide very quickly, as the Microsoft research quantifies in no uncertain terms, whether we’re going to hang around to read more.

You Still Need to Remembers the Basics for Skimming
It helps, of course, if the page follows some basic conventions to aid skimming:

  • Subheads that summarize content
  • Bulleted lists of relevant information
  • Short paragraphs of one or two sentences
  • White space between paragraphs
  • An easy-to-read typeface
  • Great graphics that illustrate your main points

It also helps if the lead paragraph contains a strong hook. Among my favorites:

  • An entertaining anecdote that illustrates the main point of your content
  • A conflict to be resolved
  • A puzzle to be solved
  • A quick summary of what’s to follow and its value to the reader

And Then, Deliver
But once you have those basics in place, the Microsoft research validates the notion that we’re not only capable, but willing to read more than just bite-sized portions of content on the Internet.

It just needs to be well-written and relevant to our needs. Will wonders never cease.


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