If you want people to read your content, it makes sense that you should understand how they read in the first place.
We already know that people looking for information online skim rather than read word for word. From SERPs to each blog post and landing page they end up on, your audience is only looking for the answer to their question.
I wanted to know if there was a reason for this behavior. Knowing more about how we read seems like a good idea to learn how we should write in order to guarantee success for us and our clients.
Based on what I learned, I’ve picked out three natural barriers to readability on the web. I then paired each of these points of friction with some of the best practices we use to make content more readable.
How Do People Read?
Reading is not fluid.
The way we read is different from the way we were taught.
When you were small, your parents or a teacher might have told you to point your finger at the words and follow it across the page. Word by word, line by line, children are encouraged to follow their fingers. Maybe you think that’s how your eyes move while reading – smooth and steady down the line, one word at a time.
In an excerpt from her 2011 book 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, Dr. Susan Weinschenk explains what happens when you look at words.
While reading, your eyes make a series of jumps with short stops in between. The jumps are known as saccades. The stops are called fixations.
These movements happen so fast that they’re imperceptible. During a saccade, you actually can’t see anything. It’s only during the fixations that you see the letters in front of you.
Each saccade moves your eyes between 7 and 9 characters, but you pick up more letters in your peripheral vision. That means you see about 15 letters at one time. Your eyes also look back every so often to re-read words and letters, adding to your understanding of the sentence as you go.
So reading isn’t a fluid motion. It’s a process that takes place within fractions of a second. Your eyes don’t follow the line, they jump along it like the guide on old sing-along videos. The way you comprehend text is also gradual, and anything that interrupts your concentration will impede your comprehension.
Use words your audience knows.
While reading, each jump of our eyes builds on our understanding of what we’re reading. By using words that are familiar to the reader, you can help them understand what they’re reading faster.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use big words. Extra syllables aren’t a problem if you have a reasonable expectation that your reader has seen the word before. If you have any doubt, either define the word quickly or use a different word.
You should avoid elevated diction, flowery language, and obscure turns of phrase. Anything that could make someone tilt their head and go “Huh?” — or worse, roll their eyes — should be edited out of your content.
Be careful not to use words that are familiar in a bad way. You don’t want to slip into using tired promotional language that will slow readers down and make them skeptical.
Reading text on a screen is harder than reading print.
While reading print, our eyes don’t have to do any extra work to stay focused. But as a web content writer, the chances of the content you write making it to somebody in print are low. Before you so much as choose a font or layout, let alone the actual substance of your content, the digital medium is making your text harder to read.
The images displayed on the screen of your computer, tablet, or phone aren’t stable. They’re being refreshed at a constant rate, emitting light in the process. In the short term, that instability places a hurdle between users and your content.
In the long term, other hurdles start to line up, such as the angle at which someone looks at a screen, the distance they view the screen from, and known or unknown vision impairments the user might suffer from. Compounded, these factors can lead to what the American Optometric Association calls computer vision syndrome.
So, on top of your eyes jumping around as part of the process of reading, the words you’re trying to read aren’t even stable. Your eyes have to work harder, which means it’s harder to concentrate.
This is tricky. You can’t stop someone in the middle of reading your content and say “Do your eyes need a rest?” That would interfere with the goal of your content, whether you’re trying to stimulate intent or make a conversion.
The best solution is to rein in your word count. Get to your point as fast as possible, and don’t give your reader a chance to get distracted.
You can also experiment with varied content. High-quality graphics can communicate your message in a way that’s easier for users to process, and relevant videos can capture a viewer’s attention without requiring as much focus as text-based content.
Longform content has its place, and SEOs will tell you it performs better, but it’s important to keep your goals in mind. I’m planning to go in depth on long vs. short content in a future post.
Reading online makes it harder to read. Period.
Literacy is a learned skill – it’s not in our DNA. As with any skill, the way you practice contributes to your technique.
In a 2014 article, The Washington Post reported that researchers are growing concerned that the way we read on the internet is having an impact on how we read altogether.
Think about how people read online. Think about how we’ve said they consume your content. They skim and scan, hunting only for the details they need. A user can land on a page, jump from paragraph to paragraph, scroll up and down, and bounce between images, links, and videos. Then they hit the back button, and they’re off, searching for the next page that will fail to capture their attention.
Academics refer to this as non-linear reading, and they’ve done studies showing it interferes with our ability to perform linear reading. We’ve trained ourselves to hunt down specific information, and that can backfire once we get our hands on something we want to read to completion.
If you read the Post’s article in full, you might come away thinking this is some kind of literacy crisis, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. I’m concerned with what we talk about when we talk about readability.
When we say readers prefer shorter sentences, it’s also because extended reading online makes it harder for them to read longer sentences. Readers are more receptive to simple syntax because they struggle to parse more complex structure.
Simplify your organization.
After the first point, I talked about using the right words. The key to supporting non-linear readers is to use the right structure.
If someone is jumping around the page trying to find what they’re looking for, you need to make it obvious where they should look. There are some basic techniques you can use to achieve this. I’ve touched on some of these before, but they’re worth reviewing:
- Use clear subheadings.
- Include bold text and hyperlinks.
- Offer one idea per paragraph.
- Lead with the most important information.
- Create bulleted lists when they serve the content well.
Making sure your site is organized and easy to navigate will also keep your readers from bouncing. The easier your pages flow together, the more likely you are to convert.
As content writers focused on marketing ourselves and our clients, we have to identify these natural friction points if we want to overcome them. SEOs know all about the path someone takes getting to our content. We ought to understand the path they take getting through it.
If you’re looking for more advice on how readability can help you convert, check out my previous post on the subject. If you’re more interested in SEO content writing practices, I’ve also put together two lists, here and here, of the Google ranking factors every content writer should know.