94% of site visitors don’t read more than a fraction of a post’s main body text. It’s a startling statistic, but if you administrate a blog or a website, you’ll probably find it quite believable. By a calculation I’ve averaged across several blogs of different types, I anticipate that only 6% of visitors will properly read this post. And what’s more, within WordPress – the social blogging platform I’m using to publish – it’s likely that NONE of the people who click the Like or Follow buttons in relation to this post will even have visited the page, let alone read anything on it.
It’s for long been suspected that on social platforms, people overwhelmingly abuse the engagement and feedback tools, and I dealt with that issue in 2012’s WordPress Likes Spammers. But in this post I want to explore the phenomenon of surfers using the search engines, clicking on results, and then NOT reading the pages they land on.
I’ve been monitoring several sites to establish a likely figure for the percentage of Web visitors who properly read what they find. I’ve used Google Analytics to time page visits and explore other traits of visitor behaviour, and that has corroborated my notion that visitors are much more likely just to look at pictures and highlighted soundbytes than read the body text. But the starting point for the survey came from just one post.
The post in question gets a lot of traffic from Google for a particular search term. I don’t want to lose any of that traffic to other writers, so I’m going to be coy about the exact details, but the search term is not the main subject of the post. The search term relates to something which is mentioned and linked to in the post.
So when visitors drop onto that page, I’m seeing what they’ve searched for, and I’m noticing that they’re invariably after the information I’ve linked to just a short way into the main text. Fine, then. They’re landing on the page, then they’re reading a little way down, then they’re clicking the link, and then they’re getting what they came for…
Except they’re not. Because only about 6 in every 100 click that link. Remember, I know what the visitors want. Google tells me. They want what the link will give them. The link is clearly worded with pretty much the exact phrase the visitors are Googling, and it’s blatantly obvious that it’s a link, because it observes the classic hyperlink protocol, with blue colouring and underlined text. And yet over 90% of visitors are not clicking that link. The only possible conclusion I can reach is that they’re not reading that short distance into the body text – which basically means they’re not really reading anything beyond the first line or two – if that.
I wasn’t greatly surprised by these results. We’re now in a world governed by imagery and instant soundbytes. If you want to connect with the masses, post a picture or a single sentence in massive text. If you can’t do that, kiss goodbye to the majority of the Internet’s attention. I’d suspected this was the case ever since news sites began writing entire articles in single-sentence paragraphs. But I did want to be sure that I wasn’t just observing a distorted, one-off, freak situation on a page of my own.
So on a very different site I used Google Analytics to measure individual page visit times. That site has a low bounce rate of about 20%, so I know that when visitors do come in from the search engines, they generally explore further. I expected that this second site might contradict the results I got with the first, but actually it didn’t.
What I found was that most of the navigation clicks to new posts were clicks on image thumbnails rather than text, and tellingly, the average page visit time was only just over a minute. It sounds from that as if visitors are at least reading some of the text. Afterall, you can read a header paragraph in a minute – perhaps even skim over the conclusion too. But on closer investigation I discovered that the average page visit time was being heavily distorted by a minority of visitors who were reading the whole posts, and spending 10, 15 minutes – perhaps half an hour on long articles – digesting ALL the information. The implications of that, of course, were that the remainder of page visit times were much shorter than a minute – somewhere in the region of 10 to 15 seconds.
Visitors were jumping from post to post, but they STILL, in the majority of cases, weren’t reading anything. They were simply looking at the pictures. That was my theory, anyway.
To test this theory further, I came up with the idea of inserting images into text only posts. But these new images would not be pictures – they’d be text. Individual soundbytes from the article, made into large-print quotes, and distributed over the course of the post. What I wanted to find out, is whether transforming important text into image form would prompt more visitors to actually read. If so, the average page visit times for those text only posts would go up.
And they did. Not just marginally either. Page visit averages of 1 minute were rising to somewhere in the region of 3 minutes. Clearly, the majority of visitors still weren’t reading the main body text, but they were, I concluded, ‘reading the images’. Isolating important soundbytes and making them into pictures actually tripled the page visit times!
I tried other measuring techniques with a couple of other sites, but I always arrived at the conclusion that over 90% of visitors were not reading a significant proportion of the actual body text.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR WRITERS?
So, should we all dump the idea of writing in long form and jump on the instant-digest, zero-attention-span bandwagon? Well, I think that would be a mistake. Firstly, even though the vast majority of visitors will probably not read the bulk of what you write, there’s still potentially a substantial number of visitors who will. Even if only 60 in every thousand visitors read your articles in full, you could be having a huge influence over the course of a year, or five years, or ten.
And secondly, the problem with short-form content is that it doesn’t attract many referrals from the search engines. An image won’t show up at all unless it’s surrounded by some text which can link it with people’s queries. And the chances of catching a wide array of search terms with a single soundbyte are next to nil. So even if we’re only writing long form articles for Google, it’s worth the effort, and that’s probably going to be more and more true as time progresses. As more people decide that only short form content matters, long form writers will have less and less competition on the search engines, and my success in pulling in traffic with long form in overwhelmingly short form genres shows that that will translate into real results.
True, it’s soul-destroying to discover that 94% (or thereabouts) of your visitors do not read the material you’ve spent such a long time writing, but if you don’t write all that text, the likelihood of you getting those search referrals in the first place drastically diminishes – which is a lot worse.
If you try the ‘soundbyte images’ idea, you may still be able to connect with a lot of the more transient visitors. And photography is a great way to signpost an article if you want to draw in some of the ‘undecideds’ – the people who will read long form if their appetite is whetted sufficiently. I’m not a fan of single-sentence paragraphs, mainly because I find it painful and rather insulting to read something which looks like it’s been created for very young children. But the news sites’ widespread adoption of the tactic suggests it works for them.
Indeed, you may have your own ideas on how to make certain aspects of your posts more instantly digestible, whilst still maintaining the long form compatibility with a wide array of search terms. We are dealing with a huge tide of disengagement from anything that takes longer than a few seconds to look at and digest – and that’s not going to change. But don’t drop the long form. If you can write competently, you are still God’s gift to the Internet, and in my opinion, this is no time to start cutting back on body text.