The Diminishing Value of Reading Online

If one hundred people were in a room and reading this article on a device connected to the internet, thirty-eight of them would already “bounce” from this page, or spend no significant time engaging, and go to another page. Trends indicated that you have less than one sentence to draw your audience, you better make it count. Read any article describing on how people read online, most likely the author will conclude that we don’t!

Online readers are addicted to answers, they don’t have time to sift through exposition and fancy language. The secret to curing cancer could be in this very paragraph but since it isn’t in big bold font, a startling majority will skim past it in search for their desired content. Unfortunately, the public probably won’t plan to break their habits to cater to the content, so we have to create content that reflects online reading habits.

How Do People Read The Internet

Eye tracking tests aren’t anything new. According to the National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY), eye tracking studies have been conducted since the 1800s. Here are some observations the NICHCY makes that appear to be deeply tied to how we read:

  • Our eyes sweep over text and only stop periodically. Once that information is fully processed, our eyes move forward or reread what was already swept over.
  • Fixation on individual words depends on word length.
  • Key/content words are more likely to be fixated on (about 85% of the time) while function words are likely to be skipped (read about 35% of the time)

The point is, people are more likely to engage in keyword-rich content. If keywords are diluted within your content, it creates less chances for a reader to engage in a critical way. Well written web content needs to focus on creating more footholds for readers, create more opportunities to provide your consumers what they seek, and it needs to be easily accessible!

Writing Within the “F”

In 2006, the Nielsen Norman Group ran a study on our internet reading habits. In the test, readers had their eye movements tracked, this data was overlaid the page they viewed, thus giving us a visual concept of common reading habits. The images gathered from their study shared many similarities to this image:


The study showed that readers online look for information in three areas. They make two long horizontal scans near the top of the page, then one final vertical scan down the left side of the page, most eye tracking studies will resemble an “F” shape. Here’s what you can draw from this data:

▪ Users expect to find the most important information in the first two paragraphs
▪ Users check for headings that might yield information

If you should take anything away from this information, is that most users probably have not, and will not read this sentence. Get the most important information within the F. If you only had two paragraphs to get your point across, what would you share?

Shares Don’t = Times Read

It’s important to note that just because people are sharing your article, it doesn’t mean it’s actually being read. Check out these graphs from Slate on shares and how much of the article was read:

Shares per read




There is absolutely no relationship between sharing an article and whether it was actually read. This article could have taken a shocking turn about how we endorse baby seal clubbing! Most readers would have no idea they were promoting our stance on baby seal clubbing by simply sharing this article on social media!

Consuming information has increasingly become a passive activity. Where we once flipped through endless television channels to find something to occupy our next half-hour, now we passively scroll through links, looking for the next mildly interesting article to preoccupy the next few seconds.

We didn’t anticipate anybody would make it this far in the post, sorry there is no clever concluding sentence to tie this post together.


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