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Passing the Ten-second Test

by Rachel McAlpine

Writing for the Web

The frantic haste of information-seekers

You know exactly how you "read" words on a web page when you are hunting for information. You don't read every word: you search, and you grab, and you make snap decisions about whether this is the page you want.

Your eyes dart erratically over the screen, looking at large text, bold text, bullets, link text and photo captions. Everything else is a blur. You may deliberately ignore the logo and the menu. You like short lists and short paragraphs. There's no way you would study a big block of text at this point.

When you at last find the exact page you were looking for, no problem. You behave quite differently. You might read the whole page on your computer screen, or you might print it for reading at leisure. At that point, you won't be skim-reading. Once you have found what you were looking for, you may happily study the whole document.

The pages we prefer, as surfers, are those that signal their message and purpose clearly. Immediately. In the first ten seconds.

Your web site visitors love skim-readable pages

They're not lazy. They're just in a hurry. They don't want to waste time and money reading the wrong web page, when there are millions of other pages to choose from.

It follows that we should try to write text for our own web pages that is easy to skim-read.

We want the main message to jump right off the web page into the brains of our target visitors. Otherwise, many will abandon the page without reading it, and check out another search result.

Example A: impenetrable to skim-readers


BECAUSE THE DOMINANT MODE OF USERS OF THE WORLD WIDE WEB IS INFORMATION SEEKING FOR A PARTICULAR AND PRECISE SET OF FACTS, A SOCIOBEHAVIOURAL MODE DESCRIBED ELSEWHERE BY MEDIACENTRIC AUTHORITIES IN TERMS OF THE SEARCH, FLEE, SEARCH AND SEIZE SYNDROME (see appendix A), and because constraints financial and of time management are experienced by the majority of web users, particularly in those countries (see appendix B) that invoice internet access by volume or by minutes of use, and also because of the effect on both the central and sympathetic nervous systems of the flickering and imprecise nature of font outlines on a screen, whether glass or LCD, and also due to the seductive concept that just out of eyeshot lies the perfect page presenting the desired information in toto and in a highly accessible format, therefore it is recommended and indeed popularly desirable that writers and editors of content and microcontent on the world wide web, intranets and extranets be appraised of this phenomenological hypothesis and trained in the methods of presenting information in a way that the eye can grasp rapidly in such a way that it reaches the cortex rapidly, where it can then be processed efficiently, whereupon the objectives of the writer of the web page will presumably and assumptively be achieved. Click here to download the best article on this topic ever published!!!!!!!!!!!

Example B: an easy-to-read alternative

Skim-readers notice text that stands out

The eye of an information-seeking skim-reader:

  • darts all over the page
  • seizes on headings, bold text and link text
  • tends to run vertically down the left hand side of text
  • prefers small chunks of plain language.

How to make text worth skim-reading

Make sure any text that stands out would stand alone. Edit your first heading: it should clearly identify the subject of the page. Check your other headings. Ideally, they should summarize what follows in the text, and should therefore include keywords. They should be more like headlines than labels.

People skim-reading will seize on link text. This stands out because it is often a different color (typically bright blue and underlined). So make sure any link text gives a strong hint about what information people will find when they click on it.

Tips for making text easy to skim-read

To help people skim-read in comfort, edit your web content so that:

  • headings are meaningful (not just labels like "Background")
  • headings are plentiful and explanatory
  • link text is meaningful
  • text is left-aligned and mostly lower case (not italics or solid capitals)
  • bullet point lists are short and useful lists
  • language is concise and plain, with short sentences and paragraphs the main point is right at the top of the page.

More about writing skim-readable text
85 articles about writing quality web content
Exams and certification for web content writers

Count the crimes of Example A

Example A is about as un-skim-readable as I could make it. (Did anybody actually read it, I wonder?)

Standout text in Example A is meaningless

This is what a typical skim-reader of Example A would absorb:

"INFORMATION, Appendix A, financial, Appendix B, it is recommended, click here." After skim-reading the passage, we are none the wiser about the subject.

Skim-readers can usually read a single link within a paragraph of text quite easily, but notice how uncomfortable it is to read all the link text in Example A. That's largely because they are scattered unpredictably across the lines, and may even be split by a line break. You probably found Example B's left-aligned list of links much easier to read.

Multiple format problems

Block capitals are a problem, damaging both reading speed and comprehension. Italics ditto, especially when used in patches within plain text.

Centered text is uncomfortable to read. Even a centered headline ("INFORMATION") is likely to be overlooked on the Web. Habit tells us to expect headings on the left. Some readers may miss a centered headline entirely, with certain screen configurations.

Obvious language problems

The language is wordy, repetitive, and complex (actually it's nonsense). The paragraph is too long - and yet it is a single sentence. The sentence is far, far, far too long, and the point is buried deep, towards the end. Incongruous hype at the end may also confuse the reader-in-a-hurry.

Spin-off benefits in credibility and search results

Those who write web content are responsible for much more than getting the message across in ten seconds. We also play a large part in ensuring the credibility of a web site, and in getting it positioned high in search results.

Miraculously, when you make a web page easier to skim-read, you are quite likely to increase its credibility, and improve its chance of being ranked high by search engines.

Why? Because the language may well become more concise and more focused. Because when you cut out the waffle, you usually increase keyword density. Because search engines (like humans) are searching for high quality content. Both favor web sites with headings and link-text that actually mean something, and with the key message at the top of the page.

Copyright 2002, Rachel McAlpine, All Rights Reserved

Photo of Rachel

Rachel McAlpine has been learning and teaching about web content writing since 1995. Her book "Web Word Wizardry" gives the big picture, with advice, tips and checklists on every aspect of web writing. Rachel trains corporate and government clients how to be Web Word Wizards, but she is also a poet, playwright, and novelist... and a very fine grandmother.

Web sites:
Quality Web Content
Web Content Writers

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