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Proven Web Content Success Factor: Scan-ability

Joel Walsh

I've found that scan-able content written with web publication in mind seriously out-performs content that was written as though for print:
* Greater conversions (sales or leads).
* Fewer visitors leaving the web page as soon as they arrive ("bounces").
* Longer average visits.
* More reprints (of distributed content)

More reprints means greater exposure and links-- especially impressive considering that most reprint article directories only allow plain text, meaning that the formatting features that help to make content scan-able are not available.

User tests have repeatedly demonstrated that a majority of web users scan the page rather than read word-for-word. In such tests, optimizing content for scan-ability has been proven to make web content more successful--at least, for a few measurable criteria, mainly reading speed, comprehension, and retention (recall of what was read).

While humor, style, empathy, persuasiveness, and other classic characteristics of good writing can't be objectively measured, the scientific evidence shows scan-ability is a strong foundation on which to build strong content. (Based on the evidence presented by web usability expert Jakob Nielsen, who wrote guidelines for successful web writing in the mid-late 1990s.) Today, those guidelines are still the basis for most of what's written about web content writing, including this article.

Scan-able Web Content Example

Look at the two versions of the same content, below. Ask yourself: which version would you be more likely to pay attention to if you came across it?

Version one (traditional text mode):
Who scans website text? A large majority of web users prefer scanning for main ideas over reading word-for-word. Nearly all fully literate users scan--and web users disproportionately tend to be fully literate. Even highly literate users who are inclined to read a page word-for-word will scan it first to make sure it will repay their investment of reading time. Less-literate visitors (i.e., those for whom reading is a slow chore) cannot scan content because they simply cannot parse text (i.e., make sense of it) fast enough. Yet I firmly believe that scan-able content will usually be easier to read word-for-word than traditional writing. Scan-able content places important ideas first, so someone reading word-for-word will comprehend more even if he or she doesn't make it all the way to the end of the text. Scan-able content avoids superfluous niceties that would waste a slow reader's time.

Version two (scan-able mode especially for the web):
Who Scans Website Text? A large majority of web users prefer scanning for main ideas over reading word-for-word:

Which was more readable?

Scan-able Web Content Structure:

Sections and Lists: In the above example, the differences between version one and version two, which use the exact same text, are purely structural. There are other features of scan-able content, such as keywords, sentence structure, and word choice, but that's for another article. For now, just look at the powerful improvements in web content you can get simply from structural improvements, which take two basic forms: sections and lists.

Sections.
Any web content longer than 250 words should be divided into sections based on main ideas, with each section having a descriptive heading. Even briefer content can be divided into sections, though most commonly, the simplest way to organize shorter content is with lists. Content over 500 words can put one or two sections each on separate web pages.

Lists.
Multiple facts, ideas, items, or any multiple anything that have any kind of logical relationship among each other should be placed in unordered (bulleted) or ordered (numbered) lists if they have any importance at all. For instance, this list of features of scan-able web content merits a list, while "facts, ideas, items, or any multiples" was less important and so was just written out.

The most exciting part of optimizing content with sections and lists is that you can optimize existing content without changing a word: no pencil-chewing over the right word to use, no consultation with the legal department, no readjustment of keyword densities (though adding headings might shake things up a bit).

To make content as scan-able and successful as possible, you need to go deeper into issues such as logical organization, keywords, sentence structure, and word choice. But slimply re-structuring content into sections and lists will provide a big boost.

About the Author:
Check out Joel Walsh's in-depth guidelines for scan-able web content
title = Business Web Content Writing Success: Scan-Ability
author = Joel Walsh
url = http://www.upmarketcontent.com
dept = Business: accounting, billing, tracking, etc.
audience = General: cross platform anyone

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