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Reading On The Web

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How do people read on the web? 
According to Jakob Nielsen, author of Homepage Usability:  50 Websites Deconstructed and holder of 71 patents relating to making the Internet easier to use, “They don’t.”
Yes, you read that correctly.  People don’t read online.  They scan.

Nielsen, together with John Morkes, director of the HumanComputer Interaction Group at Trilogy Software and, like Nielsen, a usability expert, conducted several scientific studies about reading and writing on the web. 

They discovered that people read web pages very differently than printed pages.  The majority (79 percent) skim web pages quickly (stopping only when something interesting catches their eye); only 16 percent read everything word for word. 

This corroborates the tests conducted by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which, using eye-tracking equipment, found that most readers are indeed scanners.

This is very important to those of us who write web copy or sell on the web.  It means that writing successful web copy means writing scannable web copy.

Five Ways to Write Scannable Copy
1. Use bulleted lists to summarize content.
2. Highlight (by using bold or italic fonts or by underlining) selected keywords to help scanners move through your web copy.
3. Write meaningful subheads (as opposed to amusing or clever ones).
4. Present one idea per paragraph.
5. Use the inverted pyramid style of writing; that is, present key points and conclusions first, followed by less important information and background material.

Make your copy more scannable by applying the five suggested techniques.

Bonus idea:  Use boxes to feature interesting anecdotes, stones, testimonials, case histories, and to further break up your web copy into readable, bite-size chunks.

I think about how you read a sales letter that comes in the mail.  It’s three-dimensional, and it exists in a spatial realm, whereas a webpage is two-dimensional–it’s in a flat realm. 

Whether you realize it or not, you write in a manner suitable for the printed page, not the web, because that’s the medium you are accustomed to.  There are big differences.

Imagine you have a multiple-page sales letter in your hands.  You can view an entire page in one glance, you can shuffle through or skim through the pages quickly, you can go straight to the order form or the last page to read the PS. 

That’s why the P.S. is the second-most-read part of a sales letter, because people can get to it in a second. Now look at a webpage–you see only one screen, which is just a fraction of a page, at a time. 

You don’t have the luxury of shuffling through the pages.  The best you can do is use the scroll bar or a mouse click to go from page to page.

Do you see why you can’t simply take offline copywriting principles and apply them to the web?

Is the your copy inviting to read? 
Does it incorporate element that makes it scannable and engaging–or does it have huge blocks of text that discourage you from reading further? 
How many times does something in your copy catch your eye and cause you to read something of interest? 

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