Science-Viewing-InternetThe Internet boasts over three billion users, a number that has grown over 8 times since 2000. The net’s growth is not debatable; it will continue to serve as a central hub for business and personal use for many years.

As Internet speeds increase and new Internet-accessing gadgets are continually being released, there is generally one thing that is constant when accessing the web: how we read it. It’s quite obvious we read the web with our eyes, but the science behind where and what we read, and how our minds prioritize certain placements or images, sheds an interesting light on both human psychology and the stunning science behind Internet marketing.

The Age-Old Process of Reading

Reading has been an integral part of society for thousands of years. For the most part, the process of reading is unchanged. So, how exactly do people read, and what words or phrases do they fixate or pause on?

Studies on reading show readers sweep their "eyes over the text and often stop briefly (called fixations), then move forward to new text or go back over the text they’ve already scanned." The study added the chance a reader gets stuck on a specific word varies depending on the length of that word and whether it’s a function (35%) or content word (85%). Function words are articles, prepositions, conjunctions, auxiliary verbs and pronouns, while content words are words that carry a sentence’s content, like verbs and nouns.

Reading in the Digital Age

Most Internet users browse fairly quickly, only giving a web page several seconds before deciding if it’s worth reading any longer. In addition to whether the content is appealing to the reader, the web site’s layout and design has a huge influence on bounce rate, which is the percentage of users who navigate away from a page after viewing just a single page.

The best marketing and SEO experts are highly aware of visual techniques that reduce bounce rates and increase visitor engagement, which for online businesses is key in converting leads to customers.

Jakob Nielsen has been studying how users read the Internet since 1995, using heat maps that detect a user's eye movement. His research is available here. Nielsen’s contributions have been very helpful in uncovering the science behind viewing the Internet, with user tendencies like the ones below helping marketers and SEO experts for years identify the most ideal design strategies.

Web readers spend 80% of their time looking above the fold of a web site, which is the part of the web site visible to users without them scrolling anywhere. Additionally, users spend 69% of their time looking at a web page's left side, which is why you'll often see web sites with their menus to the right and content to the left.

Sub-Headings Like This Are Good

Just as the first study that mentioned eye-sweeping asserted in regard to reading in general, Nielsen’s studies found reading the web is similar. Scanning text is common for most Internet users, especially those with high literacy. Lower-literacy users "plow text" instead of scanning. Keeping these studies in mind, optimal web pages make their text easy to scan and use bolding and sub-headings to break things up, which is ideal for scanning.

These various studies, both the older general reading studies and Nielsen’s recent studies on reading the web, confirm that certain web layouts and designs are more effective at capturing users’ attentions. The reading platform and breadth of content may be different from centuries ago, but humankind’s reading tendencies remain the same — which is something marketers and SEO experts are well aware of.