Stop Perpetuating the Myth — People Do Read Online

Stop Perpetuating the Myth -- People Do Read OnlineThis post might sound like an opinionated rant, so I apologize up front for that. But sometimes I write stuff because I get annoyed at how quick people are to jump on bandwagons and follow trends, and it often comes out sounding a little harsh. Even I’ve been guilty of following trends at times, as I’m sure we all have. But sometimes we have to be a little more honest about the realities of our industry.

This myth about the lack of reading online has, from what I can tell, spread to virtually all corners of the internet market, and I think it has gone too far.

First let’s clear up a few things: I’m not denying the research that has been done in this area, and I’m not saying that we should ignore those findings. Instead we should recognize the importance of gaining loyalty in readership, and work towards creating content that users will look forward to reading. Let me explain what I mean.

The Myth Affects Document Structure and Visuals

I’ve seen article after article on freelance writing blogs constantly promote the concept of “writing for the web”: Use bulleted lists. Use images. Use lots of headings and subheadings. Use bold for key phrases.

In my opinion, this has the opposite effect. The fact is, we want people to read our content. If we dumb down our stuff by intentionally creating extra headings and bulleted lists and throw in extra pointless imagery (more on that below), then we’re telling our readers: “You don’t have to read this! Just scan it!” So instead of writing, we’re doodling with words. Or maybe we’re stepping up the concept of shorthand to something that looks more attractive, and seems more fun for our “dumb” audience that just wants to look at pictures and a few headings. The New York Times doesn’t write in shorthand, and neither should we.

The Myth Affects Length of Content

In addition to the visual enhancements that are forced into our writing (often for no good reason), we’re also shortening paragraphs, shortening the content within headings, and shortening the content overall.

Certainly we don’t want to be redundant, repeating the same points more than is necessary, but we also shouldn’t simplify for the sake of simplifying. Some topics require extra explanations and specific wording that can become somewhat lengthy. This is good, because it helps our readers stay focused, and forces us to make sure we cover the topic thoroughly without cheapening the content.

The Myth Promotes Overuse of Generic Stock Assets

It’s common to see all sorts of eye-catching stock imagery attached to blog posts and articles. Usually posts that contain these kinds of images are articles that discuss principles of design and internet marketing.

Stock imagery has its place in design blogging, but the myth that “users scan, they don’t read” has caused many blog posts to look like carbon copies of each other, and is probably one of the primary reasons that “list posts” became so popular. Since we’re convinced that our users are not going to read the whole article, we instead resort to cheapening our message using stock assets. Paul Boag had a similar complaint about stock images, but in the context of working on client projects.

Many bloggers are guilty of it, and so am I to some extent, but more and more lately I’ve been trying to lean towards avoiding too much “fluff”, and only including what is necessary in my articles and blog posts. I hope I’ve done a good job in that regard, but I’m certainly still working on it.

Myth Busting

Thanks to the social networking explosion, the potential size of our audience online is immeasurable, so it is natural that a large portion of that audience will not read our content. But that doesn’t mean that we should alter our content to suit that part of our audience. What we should do is create strong, quality content that attracts people that read, people who are loyal, and who aren’t just scanning our articles and tutorials for something they find eye-pleasing. Many sites, blogs, and communities have seemingly ignored the “users don’t read” trend, and they’ve reaped huge benefits.

Chris Coyier of CSS-Tricks does not succumb to any of these questionable writing methods, and he runs what many consider to be one of the most successful and loyally-followed web design blogs in the world. The fact that people take the time to carefully read and examine Coyier’s stuff (i.e. they don’t just “scan”) is evident by the consistent amount of quality comments he gets on his site.

Jeffrey Zeldman’s granddaddy of web design blogs, A List Apart (ALA), likewise does not resort to cheap images and extra headings to increase scannability of its articles. If you visit ALA, you’re there to read. Period. Has it worked? ALA gets millions of page views every month. And many of those are from very loyal readers that will read each article carefully, and provide a well-thought-out response in a very gracious and appreciative manner. The only images you’ll see on an ALA post are those that are absolutely necessary, along with a unique illustration by Kevin Cornell.

Finally, one of the biggest web design communities, SitePoint, posts informative, focused, and practical tutorials covering a wide variety of topics related to design, development and marketing, and they rarely resort to cheap methods to encourage “scanning”. (It should be noted that I would not compare SitePoint with ALA; SitePoint does write in a more brief and user-friendly manner, but in my opinion, it’s not to encourage “scanning”.)

Gain Loyal Readers, Not Loyal Scanners

Those three examples prove that in the design blogging industry (or in any blogging and online news community) we don’t need to perpetuate the myth that users don’t read and thus resort to cheapening our content. We should instead encourage each other to improve the quality of our content and try to build loyal readers — not loyal scanners.

What do you think? Should the myth be perpetuated? Is it a myth? Should we still consider this trend when preparing online content? Or should we instead focus on high-quality writing like I’ve described here?

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34 Responses

  1. Sean:

    I think that you are both right and wrong – it honestly depends on what type of content you are applying this to. You seem to be speaking about blog posts and articles, in which case the points you make are dead on, and the myth is just that.

    Where I work, we post a lot of technical information, and we do it primarily in PDF format. We believe that no one wants to read a technical document – or a case study, white paper, or any thing else of this sort – online. The pages we do create support the document, and encourage a user to download these things. And those pages are written to be scanned.

    Which leads me to the other example of content that must be short and sweet, and is probably the genesis for the myth: online shopping. If I am shopping, I don’t want dive in to several paragraphs of market-speak to pull out what I want. Just give me a list of the features, short and sweet.

    In the end, it all comes down to what you are selling. Blogs and news sites sells content, so it wouldn’t make sense to deprive the customers of what they are there to get. But for other sites, headers and bullets are exactly the sort of thing needed to drive people to what they want.

  2. I also think it depends on the blog and the popularity of the content. A lot of design blogs are written for design professionals who read the blogs to learn and keep up to date. Casual surfers who come across your blog when searching for a quick fact, just want to scan the content.

  3. Alan:

    What about CNN, BBC, or Inc magazine or other non-webdesign related websites?

  4. nick:

    I read almost exclusively online or via computer these days. CTRL-F for the win if you need to pull out some specific knowledge, or when you are reading long-form, highlight an unknown term and a few clicks later you know what the author is talking about. Can’t do that with a book.

    Just as there are magazines that have very little content aside from bullet lists and large images, so too will there be sites that cater to that crowd. Are they your audience? That’s the real question, not whether or not people read online.

    I do skim articles that are information light and opinion heavy, especially if I have no ideas as to the credibility of the author on the subject. Alternately, there are things like economics blogs that I mostly read for an aggregation of headlines and charts and don’t delve too in depth in the content as it’s mostly outside my sphere of interest – I just want to be aware if the shit’s about to hit the fan so I can stay nimble.

  5. Scott:

    Wrong. People scan — just like I scanned this.

    AP Web style articles prove that people have short attention spans: one line = one paragraph. And if you looked at CNN’s method of displaying news, just in case you weren’t interested in reading the article, they provide bullet points at the top.

    Go back through some usability studies.

    • Todd:

      While your assessment is true, short attention span has been conditioned over decades until it has become a natural human characteristic.

    • Len:

      Your statement is too general and does not take context into account. I scan web-pages and read articles (if they are good).

    • I tend to agree… I scanned this article as well. I first read most of the headlines then picked out I thought might be interesting… start reading it and stopped half way when I clicked through to a link about stock photos… I then came back to this page, scanned for another few seconds and went down the to the comments to see peoples reaction. This is what I usually do on every site I go to. I rarely if ever read a few article and I almost always skip over the introduction unless I scan and have no clue what the article is about (which at that point sometimes I’ll even leave the page).

      So regardless of if I’m a web designer – I scanned this article, I didn’t read it. You might argue I tend to surf the web at a fast pace because I’m on a computer 8 hours a day and maybe you’re right I’m not sure. But I’d say its a mixed bag of scanning to see if an article is worth spending the time to read.

  6. It depends on the site’s (and post’s) audience and purpose. For more research oriented sites or sites with a lot of detailed information focusing on the text tends to work best. On the other hand if I am looking at the site for an iPhone app often I am largely interested in screencaps or a brief bullet list its features. Photoshop tutorials often benefit from a lot of pictures.

  7. Carol X.:

    I agree with you that we should not underestimate our readers. Problem is, apart from independent blogs, the development of content for websites revolves around one thing: money.

    Most portals, news sites and digital magazines can only exist if there are enough clicks and visitors, numbers good enough to sell ads. These number do not analyse quality, its a purely mechanic way to understand the comercial potential of websites. If this idea changes, I believe

  8. Carol X.:

    (continuing last post, missclick)
    If this concept of how audience should be measured changes, I believe we could go back to delivering actual reading material rather than a collection of bulleted lists and topics for scanners

  9. tl;dr

    Just kidding. I scanned it. Then got interested enough to actually read it.

    I think it’s one of those issues where it’s important to avoid being dogmatic. Don’t write content assuming people will *only* read every word from beginning to end. But we can probably go too far in the other direction as well and “doodle with words” as you put it. I totally agree that list posts are useless and should die in a fire.

    As an in house “web guy” at a community college there are resources and guidelines I collect for myself, and there are those I collect to more easily communicate with my stakeholders. I doubt freelancers are radically different, but I think it’s important to establish my personal context.

    If I’m in a meeting with career academics who have spent the past 30 years teaching people how to write for more traditional media and I need to get them trained for a CMS, then I appreciate having some simple, succinct guidelines (or justifications behind guidelines) that I can fall back on. Just like a stand up comic, it’s helpful to have some one-liners.

    “People don’t read online, they scan.” That’s a great example. Even if on a deeper level I understand it’s not quite that simple. The fact that I can cite specific research to back up that claim is also helpful in an academic setting (even if its from a source that web geeks consider a little suspect, such as Nielsen).

    However, it’s not uncommon that one of these people will be a language geek or communication theory geek or have some other passion that will lead them to approach me later to discuss things in greater detail, possibly even to call me out on my own BS. In those situations I can go into more detail and fess up to the underlying complexities. But I have to consider my audience. I can explain that the risk of pushing people to “doodle with words” by oversimplifying things is less than the risk of having every page produced through the CMS read like a 5 paragraph essay from an English 101 class.

    But again, consider the context. I go to ALA to brush up on the new stuff in our industry and I’m willing to invest a lot of time and cognitive effort into that. People come to the majority of my pages with specific questions they want to be answered quickly.

    What can I major in?
    How do I register?
    Where do my classes meet?
    How do I pay my bill?

    I think that puts the majority of the content I manage firmly at the scan end of the spectrum. But I can make that judgement call because I’m aware such a spectrum exists rather than blindly following dogma.

    And it’s vitally important for the web design community to have people like you to call us out on dogma. :)

  10. I agree with you concerning qualitative, exhaustive content that is not “dumbed down” for the areas you mention. Yet you fail to mention that all the examples you give are “niche” websites. In a close circle of web professionals of course lengthy, specialized content will get read and appreciated. There is no strong need there to write for the web in an extreme manner.

    This is much different when you are writing for a broader audience of “common” people. To them, you are just another website that they probably ended up at via Google. If the content you present is not to the point and scannable they will leave. Maybe you don’t care because you are not for that audience anyway, but many other websites do care and they need the visitors to survive. For the very same reason we see sensationalist news titles that lure people into reading an article that does not really match the title. For the very same reason we see dumbed down sensationalist content being the most popular on sites like Digg, whilst much more qualitative content that gets submitted remains hidden forever.

    It is not a thing to like but it is reality. If you can afford and manage to build up a small circle of followers and do not care for people passing by, you’re lucky. If you are in the business of attracting as much visitors as possible to survive, writing for the web is essential. It is based on scientific research that I trust, but I am open to people proving me wrong.

  11. People scan to find the content they’re looking for then read on from there. If the content happens to be the full article then that’s what they read on from.

    Also, it should be noted that bolding text, using lists, using headings, is only one part of scalability. Text with too little spacing is hard to scan because the information is so tightly packed. Tech with too much spacing is easier to scan but really hard to read.

    The trick is to find the happy medium. People scan and read in the same mechanical fashion: They look for recognizable shapes. When you read, you look at the next one. When you scan, your eye jumps around. By making your text both readable and scannable with good spacing you facilitate both these needs.

    A List Apart has great typography so you can scan all you want.

    Another means of facilitating scanning (which is also part of good writing anyway) is to put key topics in the first line of a paragraph. Introduce a paragraph’s concept so people can see that and know to stop to read.

    All these things are found in the examples you gave, just as they’re found in newspapers, magazines and so forth. Making text scannable is really an in-depth proces and has just as much to do with typography and written style as semantic structure.

  12. Todd:

    What’s this article about? It’s too long. I didn’t read it.

    • Cool. I believe its work how campaing for should recognize the importance of gaining loyalty in readership, but is not myth. Peoples have attention selective. 10% read good articles.

  13. I just scanned this article, and I have my doubts. I’ve been scanning websites since before I knew it was called scanning. I can’t imagine reading long articles like this, I’ve got no time for that.

    Also, it’s funny how you tell about the extra headers, then proceed to put them in yourself. There’s more reasons to use those headers though. Google loves headers as they point out what the content is really about. That means that if you improve the quality of your content, you might lose a couple of readers to the competitors that focus on getting in Google and scanners.

    • Headings should display the main points of the article, all of which should support the title (theme) of the article.

      In many cases online, people forget what headings are for, and so they only include them for the purpose of making things easier to take in (which is fine), but then they overlook more important issues, as I discussed in the article.

  14. It’s strange that people view the web’s content as so fleeting and transient, as if none of it actually matters, as if things printed are more reliable and worth reading. But the truth is that the print media is catching on as well. Take, for instance, last month’s Wired (the one with Will Ferrel guest-editing). The cover story was no more than a “bulleted list” of things with short descriptions. Easy to scan.

    Compare that with Wired cover stories from months ago, and you’ll see that most of them are actual articles, not lists. If last month’s issue had been published a year ago, you would see Caterina Fake from Hunch on the cover.

    I think that we SHOULD be reading, and not scanning. The art of blogging is dying, being replaced by the art of making-money-with-lists-of-things-on-a-website. But it’s not a myth that people scan. It’s an unfortunate reality. Maybe if websites and magazines resisted this trend more, people would read.

  15. Orillian:

    I definitely agree that dumbing down content for the scanners is a bad idea.

    When dealing with online content we need to maintain detailed content but provide it in a scanner friendly way.

    Having large flashy headings and bullet points might seem redundant and unneeded if we already have the details down but finding the balance to pull in more than the hardcore readers is always the way to go. Trying to write blogs like English 101 essays as mentioned above is a bad way to go. We need to evolve our formatting of the information not dumb down content.

    O.

  16. While content should not be completely dumbed down into bullet lists, you do need to break up content for the web. It’s hard to keep people’s attention on the web if you have one large block of text without images or headings. Just imagine this post without all the subheadings – it would seem a lot more daunting for web readers and less enjoyable. You need to break things down for the web – people read books but scan websites.

  17. New Zealand:

    This might be your pet peeve, but mine is people who think that writing clear, easy to read text for the web must somehow involve “dumbing down” your website and only appealing to the masses.

    This post just makes me think that you are ignorant of how to write really good text for the web, or anywhere for that matter.

  18. Since when was research = myth?

    Your call for gaining readership loyalty is valid, but your argument has been put into a context that’s simply ungrounded.

    Quoting your article:
    “The fact that people take the time to carefully read and examine Coyier’s stuff (i.e. they don’t just “scan”) is evident by the consistent amount of quality comments he gets on his site.”

    “And many of those are from very loyal readers that will read each article carefully, and provide a well-thought-out response in a very gracious and appreciative manner. The only images you’ll see on an ALA post are those that are absolutely necessary, along with a unique illustration by Kevin Cornell.”

    ^ Where is your proof? Have you surveyed those readers to confirm your assumptions? Just because writers commit themselves to quality content, doesn’t mean that readers soak up every punctuation mark.

    • Brian, the “proof” is in the fact that the readers engage with the content, as I described. Check out any of the fluffy list-based sites and you’ll see that the reader engagement is minimal — despite the fact that the content is “more readable” due to brevity and overuse of images.

  19. John:

    Depends on the content. Most of the time I scan. If it’s a news article I may read word for word. But almost anything but the news I scan looking for bullet points or short summaries. I don’t have time.

  20. Hinano:

    I read the first paragraph, lost interest when I read ‘rant’ and ‘not disputing research’, scanned the section titles, then scrolled down here to post this comment.

  21. velocity:

    tl;dr

    .

  22. Shortly I think the web allows levels of reading:

    First a bulleted read with image cuts, then further reading. Personally, I read the web contents, but there are for all tastes.

  23. Tom Something:

    This seems to apply to blog posts and news articles, but not so much to company/product websites.

    Even if we’re talking about blog posts, if the information isn’t organized to accommodate skimmers at all, I find it presumptuous. That is, when the first sentence of a paragraph doesn’t summarize the central idea, or very long articles lack sub-headings, I feel like the author is saying, “all of this is so interesting the even if you’re just looking for one piece of information somewhere near the end of the article, you’re going to want to read the whole thing. Though, to be fair, this is just as important in writing for print.

    I do worry that the tone of this article may be condescending to “scanners”. Often we use a search engine to find an answer to a question. The search engine leads us to a web article, but we’re not sure the answer is really there. So if it’s a very long article, the last thing we want to do is be immersed in some sort of literary adventure. We just want to find an answer and move on.

  24. Michelle Noonan:

    I agree with much of what Doug S said to start.

    I don’t think it’s a myth, because it’s not just web. People scan print articles, too. And as the article gets longer more people drop off. That’s why journalists are taught to use the inverted pyramid. It’s not to say no one reads, it’s to say you want to be mindful that not everyone reads every word so a well-crafted article gets your point across to a wider audience.

    Making an article easy to scan, shouldn’t mean dumbing it down. The mark of a good writer is one who uses scanable elements to enhance a reading experience.

    As to stock art, it has a place, but all too often it’s a stretch. In an ideal world, the art would be unique and enhance each article, because good visuals do help you grasp the main concept.

  25. You are on the right track and I believe the statement of people reading on the internet has gotten too generic. The problem in your post is all the sites you reference are for industry professionals. Of course professionals looking for guidance or tips are going to read.

    You post would be more grounded if you could provide an example from a fashion, hobby, or e-commerce blog. Most people perpetuating this theory of reading on the internet (including myself) are posting in one of these categories and the truth is people don’t read in these areas.

    In these areas the content has to be much more eye catching and scannable because the items being promoted are supposed to be eye catching and because we will want to make a sale as quick as possible.

    Good post, I had fun reading it.

  26. If the content is good people (I) will read it, regardless of length.

  27. I think sometimes it is because of the structure of a text, why people only scan it. I think it also depends on how much people are interested in the topic of an article. I think the chance that somebody reads each word of a text is bigger, when he’s very interested in the topic of an article. If the reader finds it only “nice to know” what is written in an article, I think the chance that he will only scan the text is much bigger.

  28. The Internet doesn’t just have a particular (or particular type) of audience. The right content for a website is content geared toward its primary audience.

    By laying out the content appropriately and with correct use of sub headings this content can also be attractive so a secondary audience. I’m not saying that there needs to be a plethora of crappy images and headings throughout an article, only what is necessary.

    Having said that, list posts are just for lazy people.

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