Writing for the web is different than writing for a print audience. Understand this rule above all else, and your copy—whether in blog posts, landing pages, or product pages—will be successful.

Behind this difference is the screen size of your devices and user behavior on the Internet. Compared to print, web copy comes in all shapes and sizes, based on the device your audience is using at any given time. Add to that the sheer information overload in the billions of pages that Google has indexed, and you get a sense of overwhelm. Unlike print, you can’t leisurely flip the page of your favorite book or newspaper and enjoy a sense of completion.

How People Really Read on the Web

When I say how people read on the web, I’m not talking about devices like Kindle or other e-readers. I’m talking about true web reading, which is either a desktop or mobile website or an app. This clarification is vital because e-readers like Kindle don’t have any distractions; they essentially function as books in your hands.

As you’ll soon see, information overload is a critical part of why people read differently on the web.

First of all, the myth that people really read on the web—as in read every last word of text like you’re hopefully reading these words—needs to be addressed. People don’t read on the web. They actually skim the copy instead. The UX experts at the Nielsen Norman Group discovered this earth-shattering reality in their classic study from 1997. Instead of reading, web readers only scan the lines of text.

23 years later in 2020, the Nielsen Norman Group followed up with another study to see if reading behavior on the web was still the same…and it was. While people read differently based on cultural distinctions—ie, western vs. eastern sensibilities—their scanning behavior is still as strong as ever.

That begs the question, why?

In almost three decades of the commercial Internet, numerous changes in devices and technology have occurred. To be sure, online reading patterns have shifted a bit to accommodate the new complexities of information the way that Google search engine results pages (SERPs) and websites bring them to us. However, much is still the same.

It all comes down to overwhelm. Your online readers have to sift through more information than ever right now. They want the shortest way possible to finding the information they’re searching for, with the least amount of friction. Scanning content instead of spending minutes and hours actually reading it is the most efficient solution.

That’s why your content has to be shown to your readers in the way they want to consume it. Formatting is a big part of this solution.

Formatting Techniques

Now that you know that your online readers mostly skim your content, you should present it to them in a frictionless way. The last thing readers who don’t read every word want is content that’s bunched together. Content without the proper formatting is like telling your readers not to read your content from the get go. If this happens, your readers bounce from your website, which is a problem.

Combat this by incorporating reader-friendly formatting into your text. The copy on your site should be easy to scan and skim; it should be easy for readers to quickly pull out the information they’re looking for.

Here are some actionable takeaways to make your content reader-friendly and legible to your online readers:

  • Chunk your content — Chunking content means to space your content into frequent paragraphs throughout your webpage or article. This makes the information less overwhelming to readers, who enjoy small breaks in the flow of your copy.
  • Bullet your content — Bullet points to the rescue! The beauty of bullet points is they distill important information into quick, easy-to-read phrases or short sentences. They also cue your readers’ eyes to focus on them, enabling them to efficiently pick out information they’re looking for.
  • Make your paragraphs shorter — Limit your paragraphs to four or five sentences. Anything more gives the impression of a long piece of text that’s going to repel your readers from reading further.
  • Make your sentences shorter — It helps to make your sentences shorter. This doesn’t necessarily mean to only write in primer language, but it does mean to avoid compound and complex sentences as much as possible.
  • Use images in your content — Images also break up your content by giving your readers’ eyes something different than text to look at. They make great place holders and also increase conversion rates.

What Kind of Language to Use

The words you use to communicate to your online readers has to be straightforward, not complicated. Don’t make it childish, but use simple language that’s crystal clear. People who scan content don’t want to be bothered with jargon or technical language you’d read in a manual. It needs to be accessible.

To achieve this, do the following:

  • Use the active voice — Using the active voice makes your copy more engaging to your readers. The passive voice should be reserved for textbooks and more technical text, but not for online copy.
  • Use casual language — How do you speak with your friends and family? In all likelihood, you don’t speak formally to them. Rather, you speak casually. Use this same kind of voice in your online text for greater readability and legibility.
  • Use action-oriented language — Writing for the web, you probably want your readers to take some form of action after you’ve educated them. This can be in the form of a call to action (CTA) for anything from an email subscription signup to an actual purchase.

Reduce Reading Friction

Now that you understand how people really read on the web, you can create content they want to read. This is super-crucial for a few reasons. First, you want to make things more readable and legible for them. Second, you want to increase the retention of what information you’re sharing with them. Finally, you want them to take the right action.

Presenting information in an easy-to-read way will accomplish all of these goals.


About the guest

Marc Schenker is an SEO and copywriter who runs The Glorious Company, a content marketing agency. The Glorious Company works with technology and marketing companies and SMBs.