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  • Writer's pictureThe Orange Bear

How People Actually "Read" on the Web: Decoding User Behavior

Updated: Nov 5, 2023

A bear reading at a computer in the NY public library

You've just posted a top-notch article online, and you're waiting for it to go viral. But brace yourself for a startling fact: most people might not even truly read it.

The Evolution of Digital Reading

In a groundbreaking article by Jakob Nielsen, he explores a paradigm shift in online content consumption. The primary takeaway? They don't traditionally read. Instead, users predominantly skim through content.

The web's interactive nature has significantly transformed reading habits. Eye-tracking studies from ConversionXL and Nielsen both found that online readers go through content word-for-word only 16% of the time.

But if they aren't engrossed in reading, what engages them?

The Era of Search-Dominated Reading

Users typically approach the web with intent. A study by Xerox PARC showcases that:

  • 71% are 'collectors', gathering pivotal data fragments.

  • 25% are 'finders', having a clear data target.

  • Merely 2% 'explore' or surf aimlessly.

  • Another 2% revisit sites for fresh updates, like news monitoring.

The bulk of web navigation is centered around search. This behavior persists even among mobile users. For instance, Statista reveals that the primary mobile activity is entertainment, followed closely by seeking specific information. A separate Pew research indicates that nearly 49% of mobile users rely on their devices for geolocation data.

The Brief Nature of Web Interaction

Web engagement, surprisingly, is ephemeral:

  • The median engagement on a webpage is under a minute, with numerous interactions as brief as 10 seconds, as per Chartbeat.

  • 55% of users spend less than 15 seconds on a site, a statistic revealed by Time.

  • During this concise engagement, users' gazes hop across the page approximately 72 times, a phenomenon discussed in-depth by Pernice, Whitenton, and Nielsen.

Depth vs. Breadth of Content Consumption

While users might scan an entire page, they absorb only a sliver. Nielsen Norman Group's analysis underscores that readers consume a mere 20% of webpage words. As content expands, reading doesn't scale equivalently, a trend that becomes evident when delving into Nielsen's extended findings.

The Power of Microcontent

But which content sections captivate users? The succinct answer lies in microcontent. As per a Conversion XL study:

  • 97% glance at headlines.

  • 98% peruse subheadings or decks beneath primary titles.

  • Over 90% assess captions.

In addition, users frequently inspect subheads, links, bullet points, and bolded text. Capturing this behavior, Contently suggests designing content that strategically places these elements.

Location Relevance: Key Content Zones

Understanding where users predominantly focus can drastically influence web design. The Nielsen Norman Group found that 57% of user attention is concentrated 'above the fold'. The first two screens command 74% of their attention.

Still Here?

The landscape of digital reading has morphed from traditional print. While novels might still engage readers deeply, web pages are predominantly skimmed. By recognizing these patterns, content creators and designers can tailor their outputs, ensuring key messages resonate amid the vast digital realm.

Note for web designers: Given this insight, prioritizing scannable content and design becomes pivotal in catering to contemporary web users.


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