Monday, December 15, 2008

How do users 'read' your website?

Recent research referenced by Jakob Neilsen, shows that web users read on average only 20% of the copy on an 'average' web page: "Scanning text is an extremely common behavior for higher-literacy users", Nielsen states.

This poses incredible challenges to web designers and content providers, as well as search engine optimisers. Why is this?
  • Firstly, Google, et al, like copy - a common rule of thumb is about 200 words on a page.
  • Secondly, you need an economy of style if you wish to convey the essential message in a way that 'scanners' can take in and assimilate.
  • Thirdly, you need to organise your copy and page layout in a way that is visually appealing and 'signposts' the essential information.
So, there's a degree of tension between writing for Google and writing for your readers. Too much information and your users are likely to skip over the important information as they 'scan' the page. A common mistake made by content providers, especially in the public sector, is to publish verbatim reports and the like on their website - great 'Google food' but not particularly usable for the average 'scanner'.

Too little copy and Google will have difficulty in properly determining your page's relevance. This is a mistake often made by traditional graphic design agencies, whose approach is to use graphical assests to 'tell the story' - a picture speaks a thousand words, etc. However, too much use of imagery to convey meaning is lost on Google, and is not very accessible.

One methodology is to use heading tags (h1, h2, etc) to 'break down' the content, providing meaningful signposts for the 'scanners' and Google, followed by short paragraphs. Start the page with a keyword rich summary, so the 'scanners' don't need to read more to get the essence of the story. The BBC website is an excellent examplar for this form of best practice.

Another useful practice is to provide your content providers with a 'content template', so that each page follows a consistent pattern. This means that your site has a consistent information pattern that ensures that users have a consistent experience, so that 'scanners' get the information they require quickly and reliably. It also means that you have some degree of control over the quality and search engine performance of the copy written by your content providers.

In the meantime, take another look at your existing website - can you 'scan' it and still get the same message over that you want?