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Write for Scanners, not Readers

The new breed of internet surfers



9:40 am on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

Joe Shmoe working man gets home at 6 pm. He eats dinner, helps the wife clean up, gives some time and attention to the kids, spends a little time on paperwork from the office or chores around the house and next thing he knows it is 9:30 pm.

Joe Shmoe wants to get on the internet and research prostrate cancer. He is 39 and getting close to that age which is the higher risk zone. His grandfather had it and now he is starting to think about it. His concerns are legitimate.

Since he has to get up in the morning at 0530 in order to be at work before 8 a.m., he figures he can spend maybe an hour, hour and half on the net researching prostrate cancer.

He has 60-90 minutes to cut through all the bulls*&t and garbage and phony cure salesman out there to get to the meat of what he wants to know. He has to tolerate pop-ups and slow loading graphic heavy pages. If a pop-up slows him down, hit the x and back button.

He has to SCAN fast, pick and choose what he thinks is the best possible source and go to it. If he doesn't see something promising in 15-30 seconds he is gone. He doesn't want to register for some BS service before he reads the articles and he doesn't want to read pages and pages about a book that promises the heaven and Earth when it comes to prostrate cancer if he only sends 29.95 now.

He's been on the internet 30 minutes and time is ticking. He's got to get up at 0530. Where is the damn information he wants? Where is the "meat" - the best source - the mother load of information on prostrate cancer?

Joe Shmoe, in my opinion, is the average internet user. He doesn't have a lot of time. It is 2003 and he is being pulled in 105 directions a day. The last thing a webmaster should do is tick this guy off. Mr. Shmoe doesn't have time for it.

He wants what he wants and he wants it now.

I don't blame him for his lack of patience because I am a Joe Shmoe. You are probably a Joe Shmoe. IF you are not writing and presenting your web-sites for the busy, stressed out Joe Shmoes - you are failing at your duties.

Books and articles are written for people who have time to read. As a webmaster competing with 500,000 other web pages and Joe Shmoe's valuable time, you need to be writing for the scanner, not the reader.

Joe Shmoe, like me, like you, scans web-sites and pages to find what he wants. If he doesn't see it almost immediately, he is gone and on to the next one.

A scanner only becomes a reader when he thinks he has found what he wants. Until then, he is a scanner and you got 15-30 seconds to convince him to become a reader.

Therefore, the future trend in writing content for the web, no matter where you do it, should be written and presented for "scanners" not readers.

How do you write for scanners? Here are some simple rules I offer. I invite others to throw in their two cents in a follow up to this message.

1. Write an eye-catching title. Think you got good title writing skills? Sorry to burst your bubble but you probably don't. Spend some time on it. Then spend some more time on it. You have to summarize and seduce the scanner to read more in 5 words and 2 seconds. It's not as easy as you might think.

2. Write in 1-3 sentence paragraphs seperated with a complete white space in-between. No one can stand to see longs blocks of print with no division, break up or apparent clarity.

3. I hardly ever write more than 5 paragraphs without a sub-title to divide topics under the main subject. It spurs the reader on to read more and tells them the rest of the article may or may not contain what they need. Sub-titles are like a "pick me up."

4. Use quote boxes. What does a quote box look like?

"A quote box might look like this. I like to put in division lines, center it, add quote marks, and set it to italic"

Quote boxes are another professional eye-catcher that pick the reader up and push him on to read further.

5. Another way to present your content for scanners is to write in bulleted items. They draw attention to themselves and are usually short and sweet.

Some mistakes people who are trying to write for scanners I see include:

1. Overuse of different colors, font sizes and bold type. You don't need to scream at your scanners for geez sakes. Present your content professionally.

This approach also looks like the amateur hour at a high school web-design class.

2. Using titles or sub-titles that promise a lot but don't deliver. I see these a lot on sites that are trying to seduce you into buying a book or software program. If your title makes an announcement of the content - it better be there.

3. Putting WAY, WAY, WAY, WAY too much information on one page. Some sites put everything on one page. Why? Because they want to force you to scan through all their copy instead of picking and choosing what you want under a traditional web-design.

This is a chaos design. Many will claim this approach offers a higher conversion rate. That may be true now but I will bet dollars for donuts it will be over abused quickly. As more people get on the internet and becomed seasoned like you and I, this design/writing approach will be prehistoric by 2004.

Unfortunately, 75-percent of web-sites I see do not write for scanners. Your site might be in the top 10, it might pull in lots of unique visitors, but if they don't stay - nothing else matters. In the year 2003, people do not have time. They do not have time to waste on your site. If you want them to "stick" to your site- write your content and present your content for the new breed of internet surfers-



[edited by: Zapatista at 10:09 am (utc) on Jan. 8, 2003]

creative craig

9:52 am on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Great post, that gives me a few things to think about seeing as I run two pure information sites.



9:57 am on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

Some excellent points there! :)

I also run a couple of pur information sites.

Ive found a good tatic to use is to have an article list with a single paragraph synopsis of each article. If each article list is on a common topic, you tend to end up with a nice keyword rich page as well. :)


creative craig

9:59 am on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

You mean a sitemap, I am trying to make mine as detailed as I can at the moment in only a few (max 2) sentences for each page.



10:07 am on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

No I have a seperate site map.

My articles section is split down in to 6 sub sections and each of these 6 pages list the articles in that section with synopsis, date of publication, authors name and title (link to full article).

Kinda like a detailed sub section map I suppose.



10:18 am on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Joe Shmoe sounds like a busy man - he needs to eat breakfast faster though :).

Seriously though, that's a good post Zapatista that makes many relevant points. I often wonder if some of my pages are a little short but the upside is you get a lot more pages that way, great for showing up in the searches.

I write all my articles with a main heading and then straight after it put 5 to 6 sub-heads in a list that link to the sections down the page. That way potential readers see at a glance if the page has what they want further down.

I also but a 'back to top' link and tiny arrow at the end of each section - it may seem pointless when there is only one paragraph in the section but by re-using the code this is a simple job and provides a better reading experience I think.

Nothing worse than a page with heaps of text and very few links. I like to work in a small graphic or two per article if relevant - screen shots are easy to get and I've had good feedback asking webmasters if its ok to use a screenshot for a link.

Visit Thailand

10:33 am on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

A good post and just to add to it, I want dates on the articles.

I recently had to look into a medical matter and was reading as much as I could, scanning as you say, but one thing that really bothered me was a lack of date on an article.

How am I supposed to know whether it was written yesterday, a year ago or when? Especially with some topics such as IT or medicine a date is imho imperative.

creative craig

11:27 am on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

I have been looking at one of my sites that I run and maybe I think that there is a little to much scrolling on a few of the pages. How much are people willing to scroll and when should the content be split on to another page?



12:43 pm on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Excellent post Zapatista. There is some research from Jakob Nielsen, published on Sun Microsystems' web site, that supports many of your points. Hopefully the mods will allow the url, if not search on Sun dotcom for 'webwriting'.



1:02 pm on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

Excellent post. I think I proved your point as I was in a bit of a hurry when reading it through the first time earlier (I was Joe Shmoe too!) and I noticed things like your quote that stood out to me. It's something I was aware of but you've given some really helpful tips.

With the way people using the net constantly changing perhaps there's a call for a 'Usability' forum on WebmasterWorld?


2:34 pm on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

How much are people willing to scroll and when should the content be split on to another page?

My opinion - one entirely unfounded because I've never done any sort of bizarre survey - is that if it scrolls in an 800x600 fullscreen window, then its too much. I usually like to keep things between 480 and 700 in height. Its fine to scroll a little, because we're used to things being below the fold, as it were.*
I also believe it to be highly important to have navigation like "next page" links at both the top and bottom of the content, and to include a "back to top" link at the bottom, because the browsing masses are lazy beyond comprehension.

* the fold being a print press term, as most news vendors fold the newspapers so that only the masthead and headlines are showing. Similarly, browsers have a fold that resizes, in the form of the status bar.


6:57 pm on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member


May I say that this was an excellent post. I have already implemented a lot of your suggestions and the site looks a helluva lot better. I've been at it for hours and I think I've got terminal eye-strain.
Good luck with all your work..


8:36 pm on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

10+ Year Member

My site is necessarily designed to be read like a book. When I implemented one of Jakob Nielsen's suggestions of bolding important lines in each page to grab the attention of the reader, I found that readers were turned into bold text scanners. So be careful about how you implement scanner techniques.


8:53 pm on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

Not all sites are the same! My site is targetted at an audience that wants in-depth information, and they find it.

One side effect of what I have learned here is that a lot of people (both readers and scanners) find my site through the search engines. If they are scanners they will quickly go elsewhere (no great loss), if they are readers they will stay and enjoy.

It would be nice to be able to target one group or the other, no idea how it can be done.


9:04 pm on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

WebmasterWorld Senior Member 10+ Year Member

I agree with you that perhaps most browsers are scanners, and you give a good list of ways to stop them in their tracks.

However, and perhaps this point depends on what sort of web sites you are writing, with what I do (travel) it is necessary to include at least one really good photograph (suitably maximised in Photoshop for fast loading) to grab attention.

I have to come up with a web page that will stop the user and make them think. "Yes, I would like to go there"....Then pause and dive into the real meat of the site.

As has been said "The Medium is the Message"


9:41 pm on Jan 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

I am glad my post was helpful. One other thing I thought of as a mistake I often see is sites that try to have too many "eye-stoppers" and the effect is they cancel each other out. This alienates the scanner who hits the back button.

One person said it was no big loss to lose a scanner but the trick is to turn him into a reader, not lose him.

Looking back on my post I guess I could have put in some sub-titles. It was 0330 so forgive me for not following my own advice. I had no idea it was going to be that long when I started.


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