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F-words and the web content writer

I've been wondering whether or not to write this blog.

Why? Because I'm about to give away the biggest secret to successful web writing. Once you know this, you'll be able to transform your website content into compelling, easily-readable stuff that keeps your visitor on the page... and you won't need me any more.

Shucks. Anyway, here goes... Most website copy is read in an F-shape.

What's the F-shape?

Back in 2006, the Danish author and researcher Jakob Nielsen carried out an eye-tracking study on web users. He got 232 people to read thousands of websites to find out exactly how they scanned the pages. This is what he found…

Squint a bit. Focus on the red areas, and you’ll see that web content is scanned in the shape of an F.  Click on a website, any website, and try it for yourself.

The F's top bar

If your visitor reads absolutely nothing else, they'll read the first sentence of the first paragraph. This forms the top bar of the F. It gets more attention than any other part of the content, so it's where you put your most valuable, attractive and wow-factor words.

If your visitor reads beyond the first sentence, you're doing pretty well. Because they're itching like a bear in spring to move on... to the first sentence of the second paragraph.

The F's lower bar and left-hand horizontal

According to Neilsen's study, the second paragraph gets less attention than the first. It forms the shorter, lower bar of the F.

Once your visitor has given your second paragraph the barest of glances, they systematically scan down the left hand side of the page looking for...

  • Bullet points
  • They'll read about 5 of them before losing interest
  • Benefits

Actually, I'll say that last one again. Benefits. The magic "What's in it for me?" question. The fact is, your website visitor is scanning down the side of the page looking for a good reason to leave. If you give them a clear benefit that's easy to find, they're more likely to stay.

 The implications

In short, web readers have the attention span of a gnat. A busy, impatient gnat. If you’re writing your own web copy, bear in mind that your visitor will instinctively feel more comfortable with F-shaped content. Your bounce rate will go down, your conversion rate will go up.

Regardless of your kick-ass copy, your visitor won’t read it thoroughly. Yes I know, it’s heart breaking. But there’s nothing you can do about it - so this is what you need to do:

  • Prioritise. Put your most important information in the first two paragraphs, preferably the first sentence of each one.
  • Get to the point. Keep it short. Sentences should have fewer than 20 words, paragraphs need 4 or 5 lines at most.
  • Get rich and live forever. Use sub-headings and bullet points with attention-grabbing and information-carrying words that readers will notice when scanning down the left hand side of the page.

There. I’ve given away the secret of successful web copy. Actually, there's a bit more to it than the F-shape. If you want to find out more about writing for the web, or you'd like me to do it for you, contact me here.

Helen Beckingham is an SEO copywriter at Keyword Copywriting. Expert scribbler on websites, blogs and e-books, rather good bassoonist, terrible singer. Contact helen@keywordcopywriting.co.uk or click here