How Web Visitors Read News Sites and What It Means to You

The Stanford Poynter Project has been studying how Web users read and absorb news over four years. In that time, the technology and methodology available to them has improved from simply videotaping Web users while they scroll through pages to actually tracking eyeball movement and correlating it to content on pages. This study is only about news and is based on watching visitors read news of their own choosing, but it’s the first study of its kind and offers the only hard data we have about how Web visitors absorb content on a page. While it doesn’t address many questions of Web merchants, I think it’s irresponsible to ignore the results, when so hinges on user experience.

Summary of Results

In a nutshell the results tell us that to some degree, we’ve been persuaded by designers that site design, layout, and graphics are important to visitors. Yet the results of this study show text reigns supreme to Web news readers. Web site visitors want content, not glitz. Captions or headlines are the first things readers notice. While 64 percent of photographs got noticed, that number pales in comparison to article texts and captions, which were noticed 92 and 82 percent of the time, respectively.

Perhaps more surprisingly, banner ads were noticed 45 percent of the time, for an average of 1.25 seconds each. This is long enough for the reader to absorb the content of a static banner but not an animated banner — makes you scratch your head, doesn’t it? Perhaps the banner is not dead; it just needs to settle down a bit.


The first recommendation is that sites should focus more on captions and briefs. If the first thing read is a caption — often before the entire page has finished loading — that caption has to be compelling enough to engage the reader and focus attention on the page long enough to see more detail about the topic. How often do we rely on a product name as the caption for a product description page rather than offering something more tantalizing? Consider a children’s catalog I came across recently. The caption for an expensive art easel for toddlers read, “This easel will be such a hit, you’ll need another refrigerator.” Clever teasers will hold more readers on your page than “Art Easel.”

The second recommendation is to edit photos and graphics so that they make the point quickly. If you have a print catalog, don’t assume the graphics or photos will translate well to the Web.

The third recommendation relates to banner ads. Try to stick to static banner ads, if possible, and put the energy into making them clever rather than into making them active. If you must have an animated banner, make sure that each of the animations makes a point about the product or site advertised. Don’t assume the reader will see all the animations. At a minimum, include the logo and site or product name in every animation.

My own recommendation, to add to the study’s three, is that you click over to the Poynter site and read the article “Putting the Study to Good Use,” which you can find in the table of contents. With as little hard data as we have about how Web visitors absorb the material on our site and as much money as we spend delivering sites to our visitors, we can’t afford to overlook such relevant information.

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