I’m not reading your website!

Face the facts…

Your web pages are NOT READ word by word. Instead, readers SCAN your web pages… picking…  out…  individual…   words…  and…   sentences…   at…   will.

In research on how people read websites, web guru Jakob Neilsen found that: 79 % of test users only ever scan a new webpage.

Only 16% read it word-for-word.  Oh dear.

(A more recent study found that users read email newsletters even more abruptly than they read websites.)

As web writers, we have to employ scannable text, using:

  • Highlighted keywords (hypertext links serve as one form of highlighting; typeface variations and colour are others)
  • Meaningful “sub-headings” (not “clever” ones)
  • Bulleted lists
  • ONE idea per paragraph (catch them in the first few words)
  • Inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion
  • Half the word count (or less) than conventional writing

Average readers can take in about 240 words per minute (wpm) on paper but we can only absorb about 200 wpm on screen.

Inefficient and tired readers can manage only half this rate.

Credibility is important for web users. We don’t always know who is behind a website, or if a webpage can be trusted. Credibility can be increased by high-quality graphics, good writing, and use of outbound hypertext links. Links to other sites show that the authors have done their homework and are not afraid to let readers go away. (And come back!)

Users detested “marketese”; the promotional writing style with boastful subjective claims (“hottest ever”) that abounds on websites. Web users are busy: they want to get the straight facts. Credibility suffers when a website exaggerates.

Measuring the Effect of Improved Web Writing

To measure the effect of content on reader interest, Neilsen developed five different versions of the same website. (Same basic information; different wording; same site navigation).

Web users then read the five different webpages. Measured usability was dramatically higher for a CONCISE version (58% better) and for a SCANNABLE version (47% better).


“When we COMBINED three ideas for improved writing style into a single site, the result was truly stellar:124% better usability,” Jakob Neilsen.

“It was somewhat surprising to us that usability was improved by a good deal in the objective language version (27% better.)

“We had expected that users would like this version better than the promotional site (as indeed they did), but we thought that the performance metrics would have been the same for both kinds of language…

“…As it turned out, our four performance measures (time, errors, memory, and site structure) were also better for the objective version than for the promotional version.

“Our conjecture to explain this finding is that promotional language imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get at the facts.”

Source: Jakob Nielsen