Last Updated on September 29, 2020.
Writing for the web – make it easy to skim and scan
Internet users want to quickly assess your web page to decide whether to keep reading. They often don’t want to read every word on your page. When writing for the web, you must make your content easy to skim and scan, so users can quickly find points of interest. This will keep them on your page reading longer.
First impressions are important
Your visitors form an opinion of your webpage within milli-seconds. If they don’t get a good first impression, they will exit without a second glance – probably never to return.
Visitors are more likely to stay on your page if you make it EASY to SCAN the page for areas of interest.
How Users read on the Web
The way users read on the Web is different from the way they read printed pages. People rarely read word-by-word on the Web. Internet users scan a page until they find something of interest, and then they read.
Read a sample chapter titled “How we really use the Web” from Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think
Eye-tracking studies can tell whether users are reading or scanning a webpage. Heat-zone maps show red areas where users look the most, yellow areas where they look less, and blue areas where they look the least. The grey areas in the image below to the left show where they don’t look at all.
How are heat-zone maps produced? Eye-tracking technology uses eye trackers to bounce infrared light off a user’s eyes and follow the reflections to determine where the eyes are looking.
- View an eye-tracking demo on youtube (2 minutes)
In his article on How Users Read on the Web, respected usability expert Jakob Nielsen summarises the results of research studies which show that :-
- Over 79% of Internet users read by scanning rather than reading word by word
- Users tend to skim the first one or two sentences of each paragraph when scanning text
- Users tend to scan until they find something interesting and then they read
Writing for the web to keep your readers on your page longer
The most common mistake that web writers make is failing to write web content in an appropriate style to suit today’s Internet users. Make your article easy to read and scan. This will keep your readers on your page for longer.
Today’s savvy internet users are often busy and impatient for results. They find reading from their computer screen is tiring. They tend to suffer from information overload. So they want to be able to assess your web page quickly for areas of interest. By making this easy for them, you will keep them reading longer.
Help your readers keep reading
Write content that is easy to skim & scan
1. Start with your Conclusion
Start your webpage with your conclusion. Write an introduction which is a concise overview of your article. This can be useful not only for your webpage visitors, because it allows them to quickly assess whether they want to read your article in full; it is also helpful for search engines.
2. Use Meaningful Headings
Arrange all your content under meaningful headings so users can quickly skip to the next section of interest. Headings which are keyword-rich will help boost your position in search engine results.
3. Make every Paragraph easy to skim and scan
– Limit each paragraph to one key concept.
– Summarise this key concept in the first sentence or two.
This way users can safely skip a paragraph without missing a key point in your article.
4. Use Bullet points and lists
Users find it easier to read when content is presented with bullet points and numbered lists.
3 B’s to make your article easy to read
1. Be concise. Reduce your word-count to about 50% of what you would write for print – this is all that users are prepared to read on the Internet.
2. Be factual. Avoid jargon and marketing fluff. Users prefer a style that is factual and objective.
3. Be direct. Come straight to the point. Where appropriate, address your reader directly as “you”.
Users like images on a webpage
The popularity of many websites which are image-rich (think of news sites) seems to indicate that most users like to see images on a page. Text alone can be boring, while the right images can set the appropriate tone and bring a page to life. Even icons and thumbnail images can help break up long tracts of text. The important thing is that the images are relevant or helpful in some way. Here are some comments from my users:
To me, images make or break the presentation of web material. They should, of course, be meaningful and relevant to the text, not just decorative. They are even more of an improvement if they illustrate some aspect of the subject material that is difficult to put into words. Images … yes, yes, yes! David GS (June 2011)
Images will always spruce up a presentation – but with the warning that there can be too much of a good thing. Obviously, when the image illustrates a point, it can help the reader. There can be no ‘ruler’ for how many images there should be. It is a matter of taste. And, what works for one reader might turn another off.
Two other points I would make about images: They can bring out an emotion that can move the reader closer to the subject at hand. Also, they can be an opportunity for the reader to pause – a slight rest. So long as the image isn’t distracting, it can refresh the reader and help them return their attention to the article. Bill Cobb (June 2011)
Simple but POWERFUL web writing technique
These tips sound simple, but don’t be deceived – they are powerful. Put these tips into practice, and:-
- Users will find your page easier to read and scan
- It will keep them reading longer – this can translate into more sales and more returning visitors
So how do you get started, now that you understand the theory?
1. Do your Keyword Research
Many authors say you should do your keyword research before you start writing. Personally, I cannot write in that way, and I find myself doing keyword research after the piece is written. The result can be that I will amend some of my terminology to better match what users are searching for. Many of us fall into the trap of thinking that after we publish a webpage, the search engines will find it and send us lots and lots of visitors without any further effort on our part. In reality, this approach can leave you stranded with hardly a visitor. It is commonly asserted in web writing circles that it pays to do keyword research before you write your content. Keyword research helps you determine what keywords you should include in your content to generate more traffic to your webpage from search engines. Google provides a free tool to help you do this. It is not difficult to do, though it can be a time-consuming task.
The above 7-minute youtube video from www.internetmarketingsmarts.com will show you how to do keyword research.
2. Write an overview
Write an overview/concise summary of the article you intend to write. A summary can serve many purposes:-
- It can help you focus your thinking about your subject matter.
- It can be inserted at the top of your webpage content to allow users to quickly assess whether your content holds points of interest.
- Depending on your audience groups, it can provide an executive overview for readers who want only a quick summary.
- It should be keyword-rich, and when it is positioned at the top of your page, it helps Google and other search engines to determine what your most important keywords are.
3. Start with headings
Create an outline of your planned content by writing your headings first. Your article title and your headings should be keyword-rich. Ideally, by reading your headings, your users will get an overview of your article’s content. Headings have two benefits:-
- Headings help your readers skim and scan your content
- Keywords in titles and headings carry more weight with Google than keywords in your content
4. Create a separate article for each keyword phrase
If your article is going to cover several subjects, consider breaking it up into multiple articles, so that each article has one main topic and one set of related keywords.
5. Include only one key concept per paragraph
Limit each paragraph to one key concept, and start the paragraph with that point. (Research has shown that “Users tend to skim the first one or two sentences of each paragraph when scanning text).
6. Review the following 10 tips
Review the 10 Tips for Writing Good Content