F-Shaped Pattern for Reading Web Content Could Enhance SEO Rankings

I’m not exactly sure how I came upon the study done by Jakob Nielsen about how people read web content.  The study claims eyetracking visualizations show that users often read Web pages in an F-shaped pattern: two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe.  This could be helpful information in enhancing SEO rankings for your website or blog.

This dominant reading pattern looks somewhat like an F and has the following three components, according to Nielsen:

  • Users first read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F’s top bar.
  • Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F’s lower bar.
  • Finally, users scan the content’s left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eyetracking heatmap. Other times users move faster, creating a spottier heatmap. This last element forms the F’s stem.

Implications of the F Pattern

Quoting from Nielsen’s Alert Box, the F pattern’s implications for web design are clear and show the importance of following the guidelines for writing for the Web instead of repurposing print content:

  • Users won’t read your text thoroughly in a word-by-word manner. Exhaustive reading is rare, especially when prospective customers are conducting their initial research to compile a shortlist of vendors. Yes, some people will read more, but most won’t.
  • The first two paragraphs must state the most important information. There’s some hope that users will actually read this material, though they’ll probably read more of the first paragraph than the second.
  • Start subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice when scanning down the left side of your content in the final stem of their F-behavior. They’ll read the third word on a line much less often than the first two words.

You can learn more about the F Pattern theory and see actual heatmaps from user eyetracking studies at http://bit.ly/18Zl1I and decide for yourself if you want to follow Nielsen’s advice.

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  1. I’m not sure I grasp the relationship between the linked article and SEO unless somehow SEO can be influenced by reading pattern or length of stay per page. The article definitely presents data that allows us to structure our content in a way that makes it more likely that the viewer might actually absorb it, though.

  2. I’m not sure I see the SEO relationship either. Also, while there is a general pattern, it’s all very dependent upon the page. For example, an image–especially of a human face, will draw the eye to it, regardless of the tendency to read in an F-shaped pattern. Other formatting can also draw the eye so you won’t see that pattern.

    To some extent, the pattern is probably a reflection of the typical layout of most web pages. The tips are good, though, as they most important take-away is that people don’t read. Thanks for the info!

  3. I think I get the SEO point–SEO does no good if people aren’t seeing it. The more they read, the better their chances of spotting the purposed words. This is good information, very enlightening. Those last three points are good. You emphasized your points in your own writing. A concise, informative read.

  4. It’s good to know that the study reinforces the basics of journalism – i.e., front-load your information and conclusions into the first two paragraphs. But this study also could lead some corporate directors or executives to infer that bad news can be buried in the last few paragraphs of, say, an earnings release and still fulfill the requirements of disclosure without necessarily taking any dings on reputation, future earnings or stock price. Not so. It would be incumbent on PR counsel to advise the client that upfront disclosure is still the way to go, because in the long run it will attract less attention. More importantly, it could dissuade regulators and stockholders from looking askance and generating even worse publicity (or even worse blog talk) down the road.