This article could have just as easily have been titled “How We Don’t Read on the Web.” More and more research has surfaced showing that the beautifully crafted article, in which you agonized over every word, got skimmed at best.

Jakob Nielsen said it this way, as innate “informavores” or information foragers, humans are “selfish, lazy, and ruthless,” on the Internet. The flip side to this assessment, of course, is that humans are cunning, adaptive and efficient.

In the over-stimulating, spice-bazaar pandemonium of the online world, it makes complete sense that we poach the info we need and then move on. Our shoddy reading is a coping mechanism, saving us from fainting dead away from information overload every time we go online.

The Stats

Here’s what we’ve learned about online reading from Chartbeat, a web analytics company that monitored two billion site visits across the web for a month.  ­

  • 38% of people who land on an article (according to a study specifically on Slate) will not engage with it AT ALL, a phenomenon known as “bouncing.”
  • 55% of visitors will leave the page after 15 seconds.
  • Another 5-10% of visitors leave the page at the “fold,” the first place they have to scroll down to read more. (Note that with the advent of mobile devices this rate is now much lower and less relevant than it used to be).
  • 50-60% of the diehards who have made it this far, leave at about the half-way point of the article.

The New Metrics:

Chartbeat has also pointed out that the ways in which we measure the success of any given article – clicking, sharing and retweeting – is horribly flawed.

The fact is, the correlation between article sharing and scrolling is very weak. In other words, just because someone shares your article doesn’t mean they’ve actually exerted themselves to read it. Conversely, Chartbeat found that the articles that were engaged with most deeply (scrolled top-to-bottom) were not the most shared articles.

Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat talks of the era of the “Click Web” coming to a close. We’re now entering the era of the “Attention Web” in which we are finding better ways to measure what really is happening with content engagement.

What This Means For You

All of these stats come as a blow to both web writers and content managers, for sure (see this hilarious lament from Farhad Manjoo at Slate), but…it is what it is.

Chartbeat and Mary Dyson, a psychologist who studies how we interact with text off line and on, have provided some tips on how to increase the chances that your work, if not exactly read in the old-fashioned, text-on-paper sense, will at least stand a fighting chance online:

  1. News content receives more engagement than “evergreen” articles. Informavores want the freshest leaves. Ply current events.
  2. Make your articles physically easy to read beginning with short paragraphs (one idea per paragraph) and subheadings
  3. Bold keywords
  4. Use single columns at line lengths of 50-60 characters
  5. Choose highly readable fonts like Arial, Courier or Verdana.

Further “Reading”

For more guidance on readability see our Writing for the Web and Writing for Mobile articles.

And take heart, beleaguered writers (if you are still actually reading at this point), there are always people out there who recognize good work…even online.