How do People Read Online Content?


Alice Wilkinson, Digital and Content

How do People Read Online Content?

It’s a very good question.

When it comes to consuming content online, we are spoilt for choice.

Every two days we create as much data as was produced between 2013 and the beginning of civilisation.

How do we sift through all this? 

What makes us choose one piece of content over another and why?

And how can the answers be utilised to optimise content?

First, let’s put the question “how do people read online?” into context.

What and when are people reading online?

We’ll divide online readers into three generational groups:

  1. Millennials - people born between 1980-1995
  2. Generation X – people born between 1961-1980
  3. Baby Boomers – people born between 1945–1960

According to a study of over 1200 people conducted by marketing services software companies, BuzzStream and Fractl, people mostly consume content between 8pm and midnight. This is true of all three generational groups.

All generational groups stated that blog articles were their favourite form of online content and all agreed that white papers were their most disliked.

The most popular subject matter across generational groups was, by far, Entertainment. But it is worth noting that:

  • Technology is most popular with Millennials
  • Healthy Living is most popular with Generation X
  • World News is most popular with Baby Boomers, by a very long way
  • Personal Finance is more popular with Generation X than with the other groups

The majority of people use their laptop to consume content.

Of the people who use their smartphone as their primary vehicle for viewing content, 52% are Millennials, which equates to one quarter of all Millennial internet-users.

Now that we know which and when people are viewing online content, we need to know how to get those evening laptop-readers to view our content.

How do people read online?

The short answer is quickly and not very thoroughly.

When we read online, we skim, scanning for something that grabs our interest. And we don’t allow much time for this:

  • 55% of page views get less than 15 seconds of attention but page views are often considered the most important metric – clicking a link and reading the content are very different things.
  • The average person will read fewer than 62 words on a web page.
  • There is no relationship between the number of times a piece of content is shared and the amount of attention it is given - we often share without reading at all.
  • We don’t read left to right when online - we scan in an F shape.

The F shape

When we read online, our eyes move over the page in an F-shaped pattern. See the F pattern here.

In just a few seconds, we will move across a page extremely quickly and rather than reading left to right, the dominant reading pattern is in the shape of an F.

It has the following three constituents:

  1. Users read the headline first, or the top of the page, in a horizontal movement.
  2. Users then read a little below the headline, in a horizontal movement.
  3. Finally, they scan the content's left side in a vertical movement. We spend 69% of our time viewing the left half of a page and only 30% viewing the right.

What does it all mean?

There is no point in writing blog articles for clients or anyone else if no one reads them.

We must differentiate between online and offline content because it is consumed in very different ways. To begin with, we don’t read online articles word by word.

An online article should not look like something that would appear in print media - what looks appealing in print becomes a negative attribute on a screen.

There’s only a few seconds to grab the user’s attention, so:

  • Be explicit. Outline your topic at the beginning of the article. Readers are not prepared to “read on to find out”.
  • Headlines should be short and clear. State the subject – don’t try to be clever. If you need to, use a longer subheading to explain a little more about what you’re discussing. 
  • Begin paragraphs, subheadings, and bullet points with words that will grab attention – think of the F shape and vertical scanning. Remember that 2-3 letter words are skipped over almost 75% of the time, while 8 letter words are almost always fixated upon. So consider using longer words at the beginning of paragraphs, etc.

Furthermore, remember that blog articles are generally the more popular form of content. Try to publish them in the evening, when most people are online.

Modify content for its most likely readership, baring in mind the subject matter. For articles about personal finance, talk in the language of Generation X. For tech subjects, talk to Millennials.


Ultimately, we must generate content that corresponds to how people read online. We cannot make readers behave differently, even if our blog article is the most interesting, insightful blog article ever written. If it’s not optimised for online reading, no one will read it.