You Want an “F” on Your Home Page

How do browsers read Web sites? They don’t. They scan them. Your home page is where a visitor will quickly decide to read on… or move on.

Technologies like infrared cameras and eye-tracking software are able to monitor the eye movements of viewers as they scan websites and help us learn more about how to design the most effective pages.

When scanning an ad the old rule of thumb in the world of print was that readers view a page in a Z-shaped pattern. Left to right across and then down to the left and then finally off to the right. Good, credible publications and ads are organized visually in this way vs. non-credible publications that have multiple headlines competing for your eye’s attention.

The scanning pattern in the digital world is different, being more of an F-shaped pattern, says Nikki Bisel, Principal of Seafoam Media, here in St. Louis. Viewers sweep their eyes across the page in a pattern that’s roughly shaped like an F, starting in the upper left corner. They take two horizontal swipes across the page, then swipe vertically down the left. These three heat maps of web users’ eye movements capture this dominant reading pattern.

The home page reading patterns are so important, because according to the Nielsen ratings on scrolling and attention, Web users spend 80% of their time looking at information above the page fold (meaning, the part of the webpage that’s visible when users first land there). Although users do scroll, they allocate only 20% of their attention below the fold. When on that “above the fold” page, users spend 69% of their time looking at the left half of the webpage and 30% viewing the right half–consistent with the F-shaped scanning pattern.

Looking at the F pattern even more closely, researchers have analyzed data to determine how long viewers focus on specific sections of a page, such as the menu, logo and main image, before they moved on to other sections. According to researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology it takes just 2.6 seconds from the time a page loads for a person’s eyes to focus on a specific element on it. Viewers gave the most attention to the following:

  • Logo (6.48 seconds)
  • Main navigation menu (6.44 seconds)
  • Search box (6 seconds)
  • Social media icons (5.95 seconds)
  • Main image (5.94 seconds)
  • Written content (5.59 seconds)
  • Bottom of the website (5.25 seconds)
Your site should be built for scanners, not readers. A Nielsen study revealed that Web users take the time to read little more than 20% of the words on a web page during an average visit. Scanning text is an extremely common behavior for higher-literacy users, while lower-literacy users “plow text” rather than scan it. Both styles need simple, straight-forward content.
A good content writer will know how to make the most of your site and a great one will also make an emotional connection between your product or service and the target. A well-written site should:
  • Put the most important content first, in the opening sentences and paragraphs. Don’t start with that nice, smooth blah-blah intro. Follow the old rule of thumb from the newspaper publishing world to order content by importance.
  • Get to the point. Immediately.
  • Users are much more likely to scroll past the fold if the first content they see captures their attention or matches their need.
  • Don’t center text (since readers strongly prefer the left side of the page and won’t even see text that’s centered).
  • Keep headers (and links) flush to the left margin, so that visitors can readily see them, especially during their downward swipe of the page (the stem of the “F” pattern).
  • Make webpage text easy for users to scan with bolded headings and subheadings that make sense and include keywords of the content.
  • Use bulleted lists when you can to break up content.
  • Be credible information from an objective source. Visitors want to know that the information offered is accurate and objective. They ignore any page that sounds or looks like an ad.  Exaggerations, boasts, and market-ese hype also turn visitors off—and cause them to leave. As Nielsen says, “Web users are busy; they want to get the straight facts.”
  • Keep navigation simple. Limit your top-level navigation menu to five clearly labeled tabs with related pages organized under those.
  • Size matters. Five to 10 pages is sufficient for the majority of situations. Too many pages become too complicated for the visitor to figure out in a short amount of time.
  • As the Missouri S&T study found, users spend time looking at both social media icons and the bottom of the website. Including your social links in the header and footer of your site will serve as both an attention grabber and a way to keep in touch.
  • Don’t write only for SEO, but do consider it in your content. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but that picture won’t be picked up by search engines. Be sure to include keywords labeling the image and also in your text.
  • Your site must be responsive, meaning it translates from a horizontal format (desktop) to a vertical (mobile and pads) seamlessly.

An effective home page, and subsequent site, requires a team with multiple skill sets:  relevant and concise content writing, SEO writing, good graphic design and coded to all work well. It’s tough to find all of those talents in one digital resource, but they are out there. It is worth the investment to find a top-notch team and pay the “getting it done right” price vs. not. Your Web site will be seen by all of your prospects and customers. You only have a few seconds to make the right impression. It’s mandatory for every business today.