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The Drive-by Medium

April 1, 2007
Jim Huber

I like to call the Internet the "drive-by medium" because Internet users generally don't like to spend a lot of time at a Web site. They want to zip in, find what they are looking for, and zip out. In other words, people on the Internet are impatient. If they weren't, they wouldn't be on the Internet looking for information. They would be going through microfilm and old books at the library.

There are lots of reasons why people don't like to spend time reading here: general impatience, the feeling of being unproductive, discomfort of reading from a monitor, and so on. Instead of cursing these people and their habits, you have to accept the nature of the medium and work with it.

But I know. Your site and content are different. You've got good information to share. People will crave every word you have to say. Right? Most likely not.

Now that I have shattered your confidence in your lengthy, informative content, let me add one thing. People are willing to read a lot on the Web. But they must be convinced that they have found the information they are looking for. And even then they won't necessarily read something straight through.

So what's my point? Writing content is for suckers? Long pages of text make baby Jesus cry? No one reads anything on the Web, except when they do? Not quite. But you need to understand how people use this medium so you can design your content around them.

People don't read on the Internet - they scan. They will scan through text for key words that will tell them whether or not the page has the info they are seeking. If it does, then they will read more in depth. But it's not unlikely that even then, they will still skip around. While scanning, they will give preference to headings, bullet points, emphasized text (unless it's all emphasized), links, captions, and so on. In other words, short sentences that suggest what the rest of the content around them says.

Adding some of those structural elements will also help you organize your information. While you're at it, try to cut your content down by half. There's an odd temptation to add filler text, such as meaningless pleasantries saying "Hi, welcome to our site. We're the best at caring about you blah blah blah."

When you take out the fluff and organize your content, you not only make it easier to read, you also give readers more confidence in your content, increasing their likelihood of reading more. If you ask them to sift through lengthy paragraphs filled with empty words, you are asking them to find a needle in a haystack. There are too many other sites on the Web to choose from, and the competitor who has the needle without the haystack wins.

Users are not going to change their ways for you. You have to change for them. Clearly organized, tightly written content is just the tip of the iceberg. There are other practices to help accommodate users' patience. Rather than test your patience, I'll quickly close this and save those for another day.