20%? Please tell me you’re joking. I don’t spend hours crafting a perfectly worded article only to have four-fifths of it ignored!

Sadly it’s true though. On average a user will only read 20% of the content on your page.

There is one very simple reason for this slightly depressing fact... scanning.

You could stop reading this article now because I’ve already spoiled the ending (more on that later). But if you want to know why people scan and how do deal with it then please read on.

If you want to learn lots more about writing for the web from somebody who’s been in the business for years, try our online copywriting or online copywriting advanced training courses. 

Scanning

People don’t read a web page in the same way as they do a book or a newspaper. When people browse the web they are looking for quick answers.

This isn’t just the educated guesswork of an online writer. Eye-tracking studies have found that the majority of people read online content in an ‘F’ pattern.

The image below shows you what the F pattern looks like. It is a heat map, so the red parts are where people spent the most time looking and the blue parts the least time.

The F shape content scanning

The F shape explained 

As you can see from the image above, the heat map generated by the eye-tracking study forms a rough F shape. Let’s break down each part of the shape.

  • Horizontal movement across the first paragraph forms the top of the F.
  • Second horizontal movement slightly further down that covers a shorter area than the first.
  • Vertical scanning of the left side of the content.

Why do people scan?

Are we getting lazier? Less literate? The continuing popularity of door-stopping novel series such as George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire would suggest not.

You could argue that it is simply more difficult to read lots of text on a computer screen. It strains the eyes and therefore makes it far less pleasant than reading something on paper.

But there is another simple reason for people scanning in this way: they are looking for a specific piece of information and they don’t want to read the whole article to find it.

Think about the behaviour of someone using a search engine. They are ultimately looking for an answer to a question.

They will click on a link and scan the content for that answer. If they don’t find it quickly and easily they’ll leave, go back to the search engine and try another link.

How to write for scanners

Here are some other things you can do to make scanners’ lives easier, which should always be your aim when writing online content:

  • Create bulleted lists like this.
  • Use plenty of descriptive subheadings.
  • Write in short paragraphs.
  • Give each point or idea its own paragraph.
  • Create plenty of white space.
  • Highlight key points in bold.
  • Put important information near the beginning of sentences and paragraphs.

You can see from this post that I use paragraphs of only one or two sentences. This helps create the white space I mentioned so people can easily scan the article for what they want.

I also use simple language so that someone scanning the copy can easily pinpoint what they’re looking for without having to struggle with technical jargon or marketing fluff.

Keep everything clear and easy to navigate. Remember you are dealing with fickle readers who will make a decision about the usefulness of your content within seconds.

I'm not saying you should dumb things down for your readers, but yes actually that's exactly what I'm saying. Far from patronising them you'll actually make their lives easier and they'll thank you for that.

If you got into online writing because you wanted to be the next literary great then you're in the wrong business. This is the business of delivering information as quickly and clearly as possible.

Spoilers welcome 

You should also aim to get the main point of the article into the first couple of paragraphs.

I mentioned earlier that I’d spoiled the ending of this post. The point of the article is that people only read 20% of content because they scan, and like I said you could have stopped there.  

You’re not writing a thriller novel, so forget about building mystery and revealing the big twist at the end.

Tell people your main point/s as early as possible and as clearly as possible. Then go into further detail in the rest of the article for those that want to read it.

Did you scan this post?            

I’d be interested to know how much of this post you actually read, or how much of an article you think you usually read in general. Please let me know in the comments.

I promise I won’t be offended if you only say 20%.

For more about online copywriting…

12 elements of a user-friendly blog page

12 handy tips for writing better web copy

Jack Simpson

Published 14 September, 2015 by Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson is a Writer at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn.

252 more posts from this author

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Comments (34)

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Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Very good article. Worth re-reading, so I read about 150%. The only thing I'll add is that a picture can replace a lot of text (not 1000 words, but quite a few). So if you can find a picture that signposts the content of your post, it's a good idea to include it above the fold.

about 2 years ago

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Achim Cremer, Senior UX Strategist at C3

It would be interesting to know if these facts have changed since NN/g published these findings. Do modern immersive storytelling formats work better? What about reading on smartphones?

about 2 years ago

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson, Writer at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

@Pete - thank you, and glad to hear you made it past 20%! Definitely agree on your point about images. If a picture can help get your message across more efficiently then it's definitely worth including.

about 2 years ago

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson, Writer at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

@Achim - I think immersive storytelling is unlikely to please the scanners coming in from the SERPs who want quick answers, which is the main demographic I'm referring to here. As for smartphones, I personally scan more on my mobile but that could just be me!

about 2 years ago

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Chuck Dietz, Director - IT at SMB Value Partners

I'm an "E" with your post. That said, I saw enough content to get me to read the full post. The F/E read will help me remember the post if I need to re-read to further implement your points.

about 2 years ago

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Catherine Roger, Marketing Coordinator at Parker Hannifin BeLux SPRLEnterprise

I first only read the titles... as always. But I will read the entire article because it's really interesting me.

about 2 years ago

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Michael Bate, Multi Channel Customer Experience Manager at Homebase

Good article Jack, I always try to make sure content is setup for scanners but you did a great job pulling out the key points and applying them in this article. Be good to see more behavioural articles that get under the skin of how people engage with content.

about 2 years ago

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Tony Edey, . at RCL Cruises Ltd

It's been a truism for years, just look at newspapers. Interest grabbing, large, short headline. Intro/summary in mid sized text, and detail in priority order in ever decreasing font size down to the minimum allowed. Web has the benefit of no print cost or paper wastage, so can space things out to make content more digestible and more easily scannable.

I've even started using web based design in internal emails, particularly long ones, with large font headings, short bullet points, key things in bold/colour as it makes scan reading so much more effective and minimises the risk of someone missing an important point.

It can be a difficult battle to fight on the web. Design vs content vs branding vs SEO vs user journey vs what needs to be said vs what the company wants to say vs signposting other content and more. It's a huge tug-of-war, but hey, it keeps many of us employed as there is no 'one size fits all' answer :)

about 2 years ago

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Drayton Bird, Founder at Drayton Bird Associates

I only read 5%, perhaps because I vainly imagine I know a lot of about copywriting. I am surprised the figure is as high as 20%

The big challenge is to get people reading at all.

Loved the bit about immersive copy. People love making up fancy new words for old things - like native advertising for advertorial and content for words and pictures.

I wonder if John Caples knew when he wrote they laughed when I sat down at the piano 80 odd years ago that he was writing immersive copy

about 2 years ago

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Drayton Bird, Founder at Drayton Bird Associates

Of course being senile I know very little about literals like the redundant "of" in the first sentence.

about 2 years ago

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Ross MacLeod, Head of Marketing at LEBC Group

Interesting article - I wonder if the "F" changes for tablet / mobile users? A lot of heat mapping is done on desk tops.

about 2 years ago

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martin bexley, director at revolve

very true but lots of people still don't get it!

about 2 years ago

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David Crump, Head of Business Incubation at Cockpit Arts

Would be interesting to know if eye tracking research has been done on mobiles and tablets

about 2 years ago

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Simon Waters, Marketing Manager at The Postsnap Group

I like this article. I only scanned it though, but from what little I read I've learned to make everything in an F shape, use bold text occasionally, write short paragraphs, and the bullet points. So if that's what you wanted a scanner to learn, you've succeeded.

about 2 years ago

Paul Stevens

Paul Stevens, Search Marketing Manager at BrightHouse

I have to say I read around 20% initially, then realised it's worth reading so I went back and read 100%!

about 2 years ago

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claire dolling, Senior Partnership Development Officer at NHS Blood and Transplant

I think the fact that I was expecting to only read 20% made me want to read it all! Good article, to the point and very useful. I'm always banging on about plain English in copy writing and turns out I was right :)

about 2 years ago

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Jim Hunter, Consultant at VersionUX

Good article and probably covers most usage of the web. There will be times when people will want to read every nuance but in general who cares. A lot of blogs fail in this and the novel analogy is a good one.

about 2 years ago

Jason Doggett

Jason Doggett, Business Owner, Marketer at Muddy Plimsolls Ltd

Thanks, Jack. I certainly agree about your comment on Spoilers. 'Get to the point' might be a good piece of advice for a number of sites I visit each day. And, as a small business owner, it is small businesses who often wibble.

I do feel though I should defend those 'fickle' readers. To a greater or lesser extent, it has been years of reading the same old, regurgitated content that has programmed visitors to hit the back button. People don't willingly skip fresh, targeted writing that educates or informs them.

For the record I read 75%.

about 2 years ago

Peter Leatherland

Peter Leatherland, Online Sales Manager at Ethical Superstore

I would say where they came from makes a big difference. I clicked through from the econsultancy email. The article title which looked interesting so I clicked through and read the whole thing. However if I'd arrived from a search engine I'd have probably typed something like 'what percentage of a page do people read' clicked the result and scanned around for a number and perhaps read a couple of lines and gone away with my useful bit of information.
I don't think the second scenario is bad, if I'm searching for a specific bit of information and your website provides it then I'd say you've done your job.

about 2 years ago

Ravi Chopra

Ravi Chopra, Senior Consultant at Private

Thank you for these tips - I probably read around 40-50% of article. As you've suggested, reading the first few words of the sentence told me if that sentence was of added value to me and hence I either read or skipped.

I do agree with the point about breaking this down as simply as possible for readers, but do you think adding a lot of white space has an impact from a scrollability point of view (i.e. users not wanting to read lengthy articles), especially on mobile?

about 2 years ago

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mike foskett, Senior front-end UI developer - tesco.com at TescoEnterprise

Good article and yes I scanned it.
All hail the new king TL;DR.

about 2 years ago

Robert Genz

Robert Genz, Account Manager at Econsultancy, Centaur MarketingStaff

100%. Great article Jack

about 2 years ago

Darryl Robertson

Darryl Robertson, Senior Software Engineer at Homecare Direct Shopping

Interesting article which confirms my own habits.

I got through about 50% and mid-paragraph, noticed a new heading. I was tempted to skip the paragraph and find out the next important point - but then realised you'd probably notice :)

about 2 years ago

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Priyanka Upponi, Web Analyst at Big Bus Tours

Pretty much read through the whole post, although I did first scan through to see how 'long' it was. But I think it is the first few paragraphs that get you hooked on.

Absolutely agree on the fact that web visitors these days tend to skim read. Useful article.

about 2 years ago

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Ian McKenna, Email Marketing Manager at Supergroup plc

We are currently debating this around copy within emails, whether it is completely missed and people just want to see product, or if its best to educate people about your brand. Obviously more difficult to heat-map than websites as they arent live (without strapping a camera to people's heads)

about 2 years ago

John Fox

John Fox, I help public bodies to be more effective and efficient at delivering their services through digital transformation. I'm currently assisting the government of the States of Jersey. at Muckle Flugga Services Limited

Heat maps are incredibly subjective, and the results depend enormously on the website being viewed by the users. Heat maps don’t confirm any understanding or success on the user’s part, they just tell you where they are looking.

There is much value to be gained by testing your own site, and testing it with a few users to see if they are finding what they need, then there is in looking at heat maps. I once sat in on a user testing session, with eye tracking, and watched the user look directly at the link while saying out loud to the facilitator “I can’t find it”.

We see what we want to believe, just like a good politician can always twist government statistics! User observation is the best way to go if you really want to understand your users, and help them (and you) get the best out of your site.

For the record, I read the whole article!

about 2 years ago

Nicolette Beard

Nicolette Beard, Director Structured Digital Services at Industrial Strength Marketing

While the professional copywriter laments scanners, I learned a long time ago that users will go back and read the full text if its actionable. My advice: write the best benefit-rich copy you can, then go back and break it up into bite size pieces as the author suggests.. That way, you meet the needs of both kinds of visitors.

about 2 years ago

Jack Simpson

Jack Simpson, Writer at Econsultancy, Centaur Marketing

Thank you for the comments everyone. Clearly this is a topic that gets people talking! :)

@Ross and David - I'm not sure but I'd love to see some studies around that. Personally I scan far more on my mobile but I can't speak for everyone.

@Jason - I think you're right there. As internet users we've trained ourselves to filter out all the cr*p (of which there is plenty!), which is probably half the reason we scan in the first place.

@Ravi - When I say white space I just mean avoid enormous blocks of text. Those are more likely to put people off than a post broken into smaller chunks where readers can quickly skip between paragraphs to see what is of interest to them. And provided your site is designed well it shouldn't look unnatural, even on a mobile.

@Ian - Personally I would apply similar principles to emails: avoid large blocks of text, keep the language clean and simple and get to the point early. But as with anything it all comes down to testing in the end!

about 2 years ago

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Diamonel Stone, Owner at Online Business

Awesome article. I read every word because it is very important to me. I sell online and agree with everything you said. When I search for anything online, you've got about 20 seconds to tell me if this is the information/item I am searching for. This article is so important I'm going to share it with fellow sellers. Thanks

about 2 years ago

Manpreet Bansal

Manpreet Bansal, Digital Specialist at Eaton

Interesting article - I definitely read all of it!

about 2 years ago

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Joel Berman, Analyst at Berman Systems

Yes, I scanned it. And got out of it that people scan in an F.

The secret is to

BREAK THEIR SCAN

Perhaps 20%

about 2 years ago

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Avis Produits, Webmaster at Avis produit

It does not surprise me in this mass consumption where visitors no longer have the time

9 months ago

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Anouk Perquin, Translation Innovation Consultant at Anouk's Awesome Agile Approach

I read the beginning, the end, and the bullets.

7 months ago

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Ostii Ananda, Owenr at Flowji

I would be keen to see any supporting research done more recently than 2006. I have seen this same piece of research from Jakob Neilson quoted in many articles but not much other research at the time or since.

26 days ago

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