3 Simple Ways To Engage Your Readers And Keep Them Reading (er…scanning)

website usability - how to write for the web

You’ve failed.

You’ve already lost their attention.

You can never get them back.

You lose.

They’ve gone to somebody else’s website.

What to do?

I hate to break it to you but this happens every single day. Someone found your website, didn’t find it useful and hit the back button faster than you can say yabba dabba do…..

Website usability is not only the responsibility of your developer, but of you – the entrepreneur.

You Have Less Than 30 Seconds To Capture Your Reader’s Attention

Actually, it’s more like 10 seconds. Don’t believe me, here’s the proof.  So I better get on with it. Read this post and you will know how to write content that is more useful to readers of your website or blog.

Web content that is usable, enjoyable and readable is really a concerted effort between web designers and web writers.

Typography, colors and spacing are important elements that must be considered in the design of web pages to ensure a pleasurable reading experience.

Yes, I say pleasurable. We’re not talking about pleasure as in sipping cocktails in the Caribbean context. But hey that’s always the end goal right? 😉 When you visit a website, the reason you choose to stick around is because you are enjoying the experience – whether you realize this subconsciously or not.

And our goal is to always create an experience for our readers… a pleasurable experience. I’ll get back to this in a moment.

To help create that experience, the web writer must be aware of writing strategies that enable readers to quickly identify, read and process information.

When I was planning to create this blog, it struck me that most people don’t get how to write for the web. And writing for the web goes beyond just words.

But I did decide to use the words web words in the site’s name because I knew that’s what every website owner needs. They need to use words to communicate their product, service, idea, vision. Because without words how do you get your point across right? Yes I know there are video, audio and other platforms, but that’s not my point. You want content, you need copy on your website. Owners crave written content whether it’s web pages, blog articles, ezine articles or ebooks. The trouble is writing for the web isn’t what you think. And I didn’t want to create another boring marketing or copywriting blog. Ho-hum.

So Where Do People Get Writing Web Content Wrong?

At a simplistic level, they get it wrong when they use:

  •  Welcome to my website as their key headline on the homepage. I always have a chuckle when I see this – it’s utterly pointless and such a wasted opportunity to use a keyword-rich headline or a benefit instead
  • Long blocks of text without space or sub-headings – no wonder your bounce rate is extremely high
  • Multiple styles and colors of fonts and text on the same page – seriously you may as well just show your website visitors the door….

Online Readers Are Skimming and Scanning

On the web, users will skim and scan, jumping from page to page on a hunt to find the information they are looking for.

The reader has the potential to get lost. Many people still write the same way online as they do for books, magazines and traditional print media.

Books are written and designed to be read front to back, beginning to end. Printed brochures allow jumping around, but readers don’t get lost: the pages are still in sequential order.

Research has proven that online readers use vastly different sections of the brain than offline readers. Mashable highlighted a study investigating the changes in our reading habits behaviors in the digital age and concluded that we tend to skim webpages to find the information we want.

The thing is, humans are impatient. At least our behavior online is anyway. And that BACK button is never far away.

Three Simple Ways To Increase Visitor Engagement

I chose three because it’s simple and easy to remember. I could overload you with 21 different ways to write for the web but I want you to remember these for now. These three easy techniques will help to create a pleasurable reading experience I mentioned earlier:

  1. Write in plain English
  2. Use bold and bulleted lists
  3. Use headings and sub-headings to break up long paragraphs

1. Write In Plain English…….Please

“Short words are best and the old words when short are best of all,” said Winston Churchill. So, don’t talk about “anti-competitive and unfair market practices, mergers and acquisitions, product liability, natural monopoly regulation and third-party access to facilities of national significance.”

It’s been proven that the more words you have on a webpage, the less time people spend reading it. Another study found that users only spend about 4.4 seconds on a page for every 100 words of content. This suggests that if you keep your copy as concise, there’s a greater chance your website visitors will actually read more of your content.

Many website owners make the mistake to use language that is unnecessarily complicated, usually to show off or to sound corporate and professional.

If you’re a small business owner or entrepreneur, do you really want to sound corporate? I doubt it. You want to use as few words as possible to get your message across. And never say in three words what you can say in two.

Prefer “many” to “a multitude of,” “help” to “assistance” and “find out” to “ascertain”. (Yes you can use two short words instead of one long word).

Plain language is about selecting the words, tone, and style that will be most clearly understood by your readers to achieve your intended outcomes. So don’t believe for a second you would be ‘dumbing’ down your content.

2. Bold Keywords And Use Bulleted Lists

Sounds pretty simplistic right? It is but many people still don’t bother to bold text and use bulleted lists. But if you want to engage with your website visitors on a deeper level, there is a good reason why you should. And again, there is proof to back it up.

Clicktale conducted an eye-tracking study where most of the attention was BELOW the fold and not above the fold. Interesting huh? Website visitors were drawn to the bulleted lists and bold text in this section of the page:

Readers engage with bold and bulleted content because of their distinctive appearance.

When you do, you are being helpful to your reader because it draws their eye to more important keywords and phrases. Your reader is busy so help them out – break paragraphs into bulleted points and highlight important information in bold and italics.

3. Use Headings And Sub-Headings To Break Up Long Paragraphs

(Miss Sassy, really what you’ve been telling me is so easy a fifth grader can do this). 

Yes my reader I know but like I said before, many website owners fail to implement this stuff. So it seems some people need reminding.

Which brings me to my third point. Use headings and sub-headings to break up long articles and paragraphs.

Better still, use one main idea per sentence. Make sure each sentence has one idea only. This will help to keep your paragraphs short too.

But wait there’s more. There’s more data to back this up. Wait for it….

Web content management expert Gerry McGovern concluded that website readers don’t scan a webpage – they scan a particular block or section of it.

That is, rather than look at a webpage as a whole, they tend to break the page up into various sections or blocks –  compartmentalized chunks of information – and then scan within these areas and go directly to items that seem to match what they’re actively looking for.

This is further supported with another eye-tracking study conducted by Nielsen. Readers swipe their eyes from left to right, then continue on down the page in an F-shaped pattern, skipping a lot of text in between.

fshaped pattern heatmap

To accommodate these reading patterns, one strategy is to break up long articles into sections so that readers can easily skim and scan. Headings are indicated with blocks of text so this applies to block reading as well as the F-shaped pattern, because the eye is drawn to the headings as it moves down the page.

To do this, before writing your web page or blog post, organize your thoughts in logical chunks by first outlining what you’ll write.

Failure To Understand Online Reading Patterns

The information I’ve shared with you today is nothing new and original.

Repetition is the mother of skill so perhaps the more we learn to understand the relationship between website usability and content, then more website owners will implement. Because in my experience, it’s clear that many website owners fail to understand online reading patterns.

Did you like this content? Don’t miss a single update…. It’s FREE!


  1. Murray Farrell

    Great to read, The Nielsen info was of particular interest to me.

    So pleased you are back on line after being away. I was waiting for you to get back to me, but can’t remember why at the moment.

  2. Hollie

    This is great! I especially love how all your claims are evidence based. I’ve suggested my Dad take a look at this – as the owner of a small business I think your advice will be really useful.

    • Thanks Hollie. I am sure your dad will find this advice to be really useful. Every small business owner should be aware of how people read content online.

  3. Shae – I LOVE this post!!! My favourite read of the week (and I live and breathe the interwebs)…. I found you via Kris Emery 🙂 Goes without saying that I”m off to buy the ‘Reading in the Brain’ book. Love me some neuroscience!
    I’ve sort of been applying some of your points, but will make a more concious effort to do that from now on. I’m finding myself somewhat obsessed with the ‘F-shape’ patterns… this is like science for bloggers!


Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge