Understand how people read online (to create great content)

Screens have changed the way in which people read and consume the written word. Research has shown that users are now scanners rather than readers.

This is highlighted by these facts:

  • 8 seconds – average time before a person is distracted (Microsoft).
  • 81% – percentage of people who skim when reading online (Nicholas Carr).
  • x650 – posts with images have x650 higher engagement than text-only posts (Adobe).

If you understand how the process works you can use that knowledge to make your posts more interesting and readable. Its implications were the subject of New Yorker writer Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. The book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2011.

Carr examines how much the internet has changed us. For example, he pointed out that 80 per cent of college-educated people were browsing or skimming their reading and avoiding in-depth content.

He asks:

“Is Google is making us stupid?”

It may be, or may not be. But knowing how people read, absorb and understand content today can help you to create better content marketing.

Change article structure to suit the scanners

Publishing has undergone more change in the past 30 years than in all the time since the introduction of the Gutenberg printing press in 1440.

Print may have brought the written word to the masses, but the internet – and more specifically screen readers – have changed the way people generally read.

One of Carr’s points was there is a greater tendency to scroll through an online article without actually reading it.

woman reading phone. Only likely to read online article once

While in 2005, a survey of 113 people by San Jose State University concluded that people reading on screens take a lot of shortcuts.

It found people spend more time browsing and hunting for keywords compared with people reading on paper. They are more likely to read a document just once.

Many readers start with the introduction before heading straight to the conclusion. They may stop off at a subhead on the way.

If they are still interested, maybe they will read the middle.

Key points:

  1. Break the article up into chunks with keyword-optimised subheads.
  2. Try and link the introduction with the conclusion.

Print and online: different platforms

Until fairly recently, print and online were considered one and the same. But in reality, people react to them differently.

This was highlighted in a 2013 study by the University of Stavanger in Norway.

The experiment asked 72 10th-grade students (15-16 year olds) of similar reading ability to study two texts of around 1,500 words. Half the students had the documents on paper and half as a PDF file on a 15-inch monitor.

Afterwards, students answered multiple-choice questions with access to the texts.

The result? Students who had read the texts on paper outperformed those who read from a PDF.

Screens get in the way

The researchers found that screens impair comprehension by limiting the way people navigate texts.

The University of Stavanger’s Professor Anne Mangen believes students reading from PDF struggled to find specific pieces of information when referencing the texts. They could scroll or click through them only one section at a time.

student outperform those reading from screens

Students reading on paper could view the text in its entirety and easily switch between different pages.

She says: “The ease with which you can find out the beginning, end and everything in between, and the constant connection to your path, your progress in the text, might be some way of making it less taxing cognitively. So you have more free capacity for comprehension.”

The Stavanger study highlights changes that may need to be made to article text in terms of structure and layout. For example, a long piece of content online will be easier to read if it has on-page links and large subheads.

Content marketers should aim to stick to the obvious when producing content that will be read on a screen.

Key points:

  1. Use on-page links
  2. Break up text with subheads
  3. Remember the longer the piece, the more signposting it will need for reference.

People read pictures as well as words

It is no secret that images and infographics are excellent ways to pull in the reader. People are generally becoming more visually oriented too.

In IQ tests, the ability to solve visual problems is rising above the standard rate of improvement.

Visual IQ graph

Visual IQ – rising against overall IQ (source: Webdam)

Key points:

  1. Look to bring visuals into the story
  2. Integrating text with images helps users to navigate
  3. Make your subheads work harder to pull in the scan-readers.

How the brain reads

Screen size makes a difference. If you have a complex argument to convey in an online post, don’t try to explain it in a wall of text.

The smaller the screen, the bigger the wall will appear.

Neuroscientists at Georgetown University found the area of the brain responsible for reading was located in the left visual cortex. Neurones there are designed to process written words into unique objects.

It has been known for some time that the eye takes in sections of a line of text at a time rather than scanning along a line.

Such findings suggest that you should bullet-point your content into small chunks of digestible information.

This is backed up by a study from Dartmouth College in the US that found content was absorbed differently when read online.

In fact the brain “retreats”, focusing on smaller details rather than the overall meaning of the piece.

Dartmouth researchers found that while those who read short stories or studied using computer screens tended to grasp the basic facts of what they were looking at, they often failed to process the “higher-level” or abstract ideas behind the material.

Unsurprisingly, the trend was even more pronounced on mobile.

Another element picked up by the Dartmouth study was the likelihood of being distracted by apps while reading on a screen.

Users were less likely to immerse themselves in the copy when they subconsciously expected an email or chat notification on the device.

Key points:

  1. Use lists or tables to make points, rather than relying on text alone
  2. There’s a strong likelihood your article won’t be read. So make your key points obvious and upfront
  3. Social media is ever present. Take advantage of it by encouraging readers to tweet or share key points of the article.

underwater. go indepth

Don’t dumb down your copy

At the same time, don’t assume this is an invitation to dumb down or shorten your copy. It is more important than ever to keep your pages long, knowledgeable, and with a high word count.

Users – and Google – want in-depth content.

Anecdotally and analytically, feature pages perform best if they are upwards of 1,000 words long.

A recent study by SEO applications specialist Moz found that although text was the most important element to a post, a page with video images and graphics would be more successful.

Moz was focused on attracting inbound links. But if someone is prepared to link to a page then it’s a fairly safe assumption they liked it.

Keypoints from the Moz study:

  1. Posts with extra visual content attract extra links
  2. Posts with videos included will attract almost three times more inbound links than text alone
  3. Long posts seem to attract more links than posts with 900 words or less.

Make your content memorable

The best way for someone to react to your content is for them to enjoy it. But enjoyment is not just about putting in lots of information.

This new style of reading – with people scanning content – can increase curiosity and pull them in.

Curiosity is strongly linked with memory and makes people more likely to recall facts.

Whenever you read something you want to remember, a part of the brain called the hippocampus springs into action.

In fact there are three stages to memory creation. If you are paying attention, the memory gets encoded and then stored.

But practising the third stage – retrieval – is one of the best ways to boost a particular memory. Every time you recall it, the more the entrenched that memory becomes.

So subheads and images should provide plenty of signposts.


books are permanent and reassuring

Content needs to be designed for the environment as well as the reader. It is not just about target markets, but also target platforms such as desktop, mobile, e-readers and print.

The idea of simply rehashing print content for use on other screen media should be long gone.

Evidence shows they are shoes for different-sized feet.

Running an online-optimised article means you could be missing the tremendous opportunities print can give you in terms of explaining complex ideas and products.

But if you are writing for an online audience, remember: it should be visual, concise, easily navigated and easy to understand at a glance.