Tracking Web Surfer’s Habits

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Here is a fascinating article about how web surfers read content online.  Normally tracking surfer’s habits refers to seeing how people are coming to a website and what they’re doing once they arrive.  Frankly, I think there’s too much emphasis put on traffic and conversions.  The thought being: if I get more traffic, I’ll get more conversions.  This is a passive way at tackling optimization, because you never know if you could have had more conversions or even more traffic if you concentrated on the quality of your content, and not just how that content is accessed by spiders.

There’s a psychological component to how visitors view a website – something that will never be taken into account by a search engine spider.  What this means is you should take the issues raised in this article into account just as much as you follow Google’s latest guidelines.  Here’s what the article lays out:

The F Pattern

One of the major things revealed by the study is that people read in an “F” pattern: meaning that they’ll read the first few lines and then progressively scan the rest of the text towards the bottom of the page.  This can’t be stressed enough: though spiders may pay extra attention to H2 tags or include the first paragraph of content in the search results, a spider will mainly read content identically from top to bottom of the page, i.e. totally unlike an actual person will read the page.

The study shows that the lower right hand corner of a web page is totally ignored: if this doesn’t throw up new red flags of how to optimize a web page, then nothing will.  Basically, a web page needs to be top heavy, with less important info relegated to the bottom right of the page.

This should also stand out:

In the eye-tracking test, only one in six subjects read Web pages linearly, sentence by sentence. The rest jumped around chasing keywords, bullet points, visuals, and color and typeface variations.

The web is like a combination of a newspaper and TV – and if we’re talking about a newspaper, it’s closer to USA Today than The Washington Post.  People come to the web to be entertained and get their information fast.

Even if a person does not  read the bullet points on a blog post, click on a video link, or read the finer points of a graph, all of these things will make the page stand out as potentially more useful and entertaining – i.e. it makes a good first impression even before the person starts to read.  Again, this is not something that can be measured by a search engine spider.  An website optimizer needs to be thinking of entertainment value even for very dry subjects, and making the information easily digestible.

Raised on the Web

What’s worse is that the younger generation is even less likely to read the contents of a website.  If you thought short attention span was bad today, imagine a few years from now when those kids who grew up with the web enter the workforce and become many websites’ core demographic.  Many of the SEM’s working today were raised on books and TV.  Today’s generation is raised on TV and the Internet – two different types of screens with fast-paced information – so it could become even harder to gain surfers’ attention in the future.

Of course, articles like this tend to bemoan the terrible state of education.  There is even talk (which I’ve written about here before) that people find it less necessary to memorize facts because they can just fall back on Googling it online.  Why use your own brain when you can use the limitless brain of cyberspace?  The fact is that people are so quick to “go around the dial” on the internet because there is so much information available.  That’s a good thing, even if it’s inspiring a lack of immediate focus on each and every website.

What this all means is that you have to know your audience: a website needs to be tailored to people who will not take 1% of the time to read the website as you have taken in putting it together.  It’s as important to focus on that as it is the latest SEO tool.  I would recommend keeping tabs on how people’s reading habits are changing online in addition to the major issues that remain the focus of internet marketers.

One bit of good news in this is that online readers do tend to read somewhat like spiders: it’s been shown in this study that people scan a page looking for keyphrases, much like a spider crawls content.  However, the content needs to be easy to scan in an “F” pattern, broken up with graphics and easily-discernible content, so people can know quickly and easily if the page contains the information they need.  To put it simply: the page needs to be optimized for humans, not just spiders.

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