September 3, 2014

Website best practice: Get to the point

In 2010 a group of researchers at Microsoft published a paper on web browsing behaviours that put hard data behind something that we all suspected.

From arriving at your website you have, at most, ten seconds to get the reader’s attention.

It’s an easily quotable and bold statement that’s been heralded as gospel by many since then. But let’s just take a step back and see exactly what Chao Lui and co. found in their landmark study.

Analysis of dwell time

The team focused on analysing dwell time, which, in the context of web browsing, is the time a visitor spends viewing a website before leaving.

What they found was that typical website behaviour is as follows: a visitor arrives at your site, scans it for useful content and then either leaves pretty much immediately, or stays to read the content before leaving. When plotted the data (time spent on site) shows a steep negative slope developing into a long tail – a distribution characteristic of high infant failure. The  steep negative slope corresponds to those who leave the site early, without finding anything of interest, and the long tail are those who’ve stayed long enough to actually read something. The cross over, where the steep negative slope meets the long tail is at the 10 second mark. And it’s this that gives rise to the claim above. At 10 seconds people stop looking for relevant content, and leave.

That makes sense. And really, you don’t need to have a problem with this. If a visitor arrives at your site, likes what she sees and settles down with a coffee to spend time reading your content, all well and good. If a visitor is looking for LED lighting and accidentally comes across your site that’s selling industrial marking LED lasers, they leave in four seconds. Still all well and good – they were not a prospect anyway.

But as writers of web content, for us the implication of this study is as follows:

Even if your visitor is in the right place and wants your product, if they haven’t found what they were looking for within 10 seconds they’ll leave anyway.

Statistics suggest that  a website visitor is not going to trawl through badly organised web pages and cluttered content on the off chance that what they want is here somewhere. And the time you have is short – 10 seconds at most.

Don’t beat around the bush

When designing your own website, both in terms of layout and content, this statistic should be top of your mind. The layout and design needs to be uncluttered with simple navigation systems and intuitive hierarchy. Text needs to be large enough to read with plenty of white space to be easy on the eye of the reader. But, most importantly, on the page at which your visitors arrive from elsewhere, what you write should give them a clear message on what the site is all about. They need to know straight away if they are in the right, or wrong, place. You should write headlines that are informative. When you write the main text you need to get to the point quickly. The reader should be able to get the gist of the page by reading only the headlines and first sentence of each paragraph – that needs to tell them enough so that if they are in the right place they’ll go back and read your content more carefully.

For more in depth information on how to make your website user friendly and to retain the visitors you want, take a look at the Nielson Norman group website – they constantly undertake studies of web browsing behaviour and the results are often very interesting.