Writing For The Web: Comprehension & Engagement

Dan Petrovic’s recent Whiteboard Friday at Moz got me thinking. The premise of his talk is his own recent finding that only 16% of people he surveyed read all of an article word-for-word, which just happens to be the exact same statistic Jakob Nielsen came up with in 1997.

But is he focussing on “engagement” at the expense of comprehension?

It’s been nearly two decades, and we still haven’t learned how to write for the Web, says Petrovic, before moving on to a discussion of content-writing techniques and an introduction of his “hypotext” expandable text plugin.

With respect to Dan, I have a hard time believing his research is directly comparable to Nielsen’s. Unless he did a faithful repeat of Nielsen’s experiment, arriving at the same percentage is almost certainly just coincidence.

But what really interests me is this: Whether or not we’ve “learned how to write for the web”, web content has undoubtedly changed enormously in 20 years.

When I first used the Internet in 1997, much of it was dense, default-formatted, long-form text. The rest was amateurish and at times nightmarish attempts at pizzazz (the now much ridiculed starfield backgrounds, scrolling banners, etc.), and well-intentioned but ultimately not-very-usable attempts at Proper Design.

While far from perfect, most modern websites are much more usable and content is written with at least a peripheral awareness of the principles of writing for the web.

So assuming Dan’s results really are comparable to Nielsen’s, something’s askew. Web content is definitely fitter for purpose than it was in 1997, and people are more used to reading it. How can the degree of “engagement” be exactly the same?

What people understand is important; how they read isn’t

I’d suggest there’s a more or less fixed proportion of people who won’t read any article word-for-word, regardless of how well adapted it is to online reading habits. What’s important is comprehension.

On other words, accepting that over 90% of people will skim through your content, how do you ensure they understand as much as possible?

That’s exactly what Nielsen’s and others’ guidelines are intended to address. The inverted pyramid, short sentences and paragraphs, signpost headlines, etc.; they’re all about making information effective for people who won’t read it properly.

Engagement isn’t a fixed measure

All this considered, how do we measure the success of content? Bounce rate and time-on-page aren’t great proxies. In some cases, the fact users arrive and leave again quickly could be a sign of success: they came, found what they wanted, and got on with their lives.

For that reason, and as with so many things in SEO, much depends on intent and audience. Product page copy, blog posts, news and legal information all have different audiences, purposes and hoped-for outcomes; we can’t create them all to the same rules, or measure them with the same yardstick.