Writing For Comprehension & Engagement

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

That’s interesting, but is Dan missing the point?

Have we still not learned how to write for the web?

It’s been nearly two decades, and we still haven’t learned how to write for the Web, says Petrovic, before moving on to discuss content-writing techniques and and introduce his expandable text plugin. But is he focussing on “engagement” at the expense of comprehension?

With respect to Dan, I have a hard time believing his research is directly comparable to Jakob Nielsen’s. Unless he faithfully reproduced Nielsen’s experimental method (this isn’t made clear, and feels unlikely), arriving at the same percentage is likely 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.

20 years in web content

When I first used the Internet in 1997, much of it was dense, long-form text in Times New Roman. The rest was amateurish attempts at pizzazz (star-field backgrounds, terrible gifs, scrolling banners, etc.), and well-intentioned but ultimately not-very-usable attempts at “proper” design.

Now, while still far from perfect, most modern websites are much more usable. Lots of written content, even on privately run blogs, is created with at least a peripheral awareness of the principles of writing for the web.

So assuming Dan’s results are sound, something’s askew. Web content is undoubtedly more usable than it was in 1997, and people are more used to reading it. So how can “engagement” still be so poor?

Reading vs. understanding

I’d guess there is a fairly constant proportion of people who don’t read articles word-for-word, regardless of how well it is adapted to online reading habits. Why? Well, a lot of reading on the web is transactional: we’re looking to get information, nothing more.

And that’s fine. What’s important is comprehension. In other words, accepting that over 90% of people will skim read your content, how do you ensure they understand what you want them to understand?

That’s exactly what Nielsen’s (and others’) guidelines are meant 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.

In this sense, Dan has missed the point.

All engagements are not equal

All this considered, how do we measure engagement? Old favourites bounce rate and time-on-page, for instance, aren’t always great proxies. For much “transactional” content, we might expect visitors to arrive and leave again relatively quickly.

For that reason, and as with so many things in SEO, much depends on intent and audience. Product page copy, blog posts, news articles… they all have different audiences and intended outcomes.

What’s important is this: what action do you expect in response to your content, and how will you measure it?