Who Is the Average Online Reader, and What Do They Want!?

Updated on February 14, 2018
EditorAnna profile image

My day job is to make online writing more satisfying for mobile readers. At night, I write for fun. Editor-me and writer-me play tug-of-war.


How to Catch an Elusive, Skittish, Persnickety Online Reader?

In our current reality, as technology booms exponentially and zooms double-time, when everyone from toddlers to great-grandmas have cellphones on hand, there's one sure thing: Your audience is moving faster than you can.

It's hard to keep up. As an online editor, I see a lot of content that's riddled with conventions left over from print. I get to work with some pretty spectacular people—veteran journalists, master electricians, favorite teachers, fine artists, and Big Thinkers, among others—who have loads of expertise to share. The authors who write for the HubPages network have had years to accumulate encyclopedic knowledge in their fields, but something they might not have thought much about is how to translate that experience into something the average online reader wants to read.

And it's my job to help. I help authors wrangle their lifelong experience into words that satisfy and appeal to the average mobile reader. About 65-75% of HubPages' readers are accessing content via their phones. We all suspect that reading a screen is drastically different from reading a page, but even though every day someone invents a new tool to help, it's hard to catch the mysterious and elusive mobile reader, and even harder to hold their slippery attention.

If you want to try to keep up, read on and we'll cover:

  • What's the difference between the printed and the pixelated word?
  • Who is reading your content?
  • What do mobile readers want?

Humans are informavores. On the Internet, we hunt for facts. [....] We assess a site quickly, looking for an "information scent." We move on if there doesn't seem to be any food around.

— Michael Agger

How Is Reading Online Different From Reading Printed Material?

  1. A print reader might hang in there, but an online reader won't waste any time. According to Tony Haile, 55% of all media page views last less than 15 seconds. Here at HubPages, readers spend a bit longer, with an average 220 seconds per article. Still, that isn't a lot of time.
  2. If online readers don't find what they want right away, they hit the back button. In his article You Won't Finish This Article, Farhad Manjoo explains that, on average, 38% will bounce back to the SERP before engaging on the page.
  3. It takes a big hook to catch an online reader. Because scrolling is so effortful. Argh, more words. If the page doesn't capture their interest right away, they won't even scroll once. According to Josh Schwartz, they spend 80% of their time looking at the top 600 pixels above the "page fold" (a term left over from the old days that refers to the part of the page you can see without unfolding the newspaper). On cellphones, it's around 450 pixels, so you have even less time to catch them. Although users will scroll (or unfold, for old-timers like me), according to Jakob Nielsen, they only spend 20% of their attention below the fold.
  4. Online readers like to skip and skim. 79% of them only scan the page, and they tend to read in an "F" shape pattern (skimming the top, then hugging the left margin, rarely following ideas through to their end). In books, readers expect to see long paragraphs, but eye-tracking studies show that today's online readers might completely ignore a large block of text. They spend almost 70% of their time viewing the left half of the page and only 30% on the right. In fact, on average, online readers will only read about 20% of the text on any given page, according to a 2008 Nielsen study.
  5. They're mobile. On HubPages, about 65-75% of visitors are reading on their cellphones, 20-25% on desktop, and 5-10% via tablet. Back in the good ole days, readers were more like sitting ducks (picture them lounging on cushy sofas with plenty of time). But today, they're reading on the fly, and trying to capture their interest is like trying to hit a moving target. Whether they're commuting, standing in line, juggling grocery bags, or jogging on a treadmill, they're sure to be interrupted.
  6. Mobile readers are multitasking and easily distracted. Possibly because they're out in the world or perhaps because that cell phone screen isn't big enough to compete with the wide open vista they're walking through, it's hard to hold an online reader's interest. Even if you manage to get them focused on the screen, what can you do about those blinking advertisements that beckon and coo from the sidebar and those links that take them somewhere else?
  7. They're visual connoisseurs. Online readers are accustomed to a superb aesthetic experience. They love pictures and use visual cues to determine the professionalism, trustworthiness, and expertise of the article as a whole. They always judge a book by its cover.
  8. They read pixels more slowly than ink. When reading traditional long-form texts like novels on their Kindles or iPads, online readers read screens 20-30% more slowly than paper.

What Do Online Readers Want to Read?

The short answer: Readers want content that answers their search query quickly and completely, in an engaging and direct manner, with appealing visual elements that help them understand.

I took this photo at a museum. How does it affect your judgment of this article?
I took this photo at a museum. How does it affect your judgment of this article? | Source

SEO experts can get so fixated on how Google sees their content that they completely forget to consider the reader's experience. This is like trying to shave someone else's face in a mirror: overly complicated and unnecessarily awkward. Focus on the reader, instead.

How Can You Capture and Hold an Online Reader's Attention?

  • Your title (or headline) is the single most important sentence, so make it matter. Your title defines the subject and sets the tone. Not only is it the first thing readers read, but it's also standing next to all the other titles on SERP, hoping to stand out. Take time to make sure it encapsulates your subject matter as fully as possible in a natural, conversational, catchy, appealing, and informative manner. Writing yet another Top 10 List might not be the best idea. Corey Wainwright has some good pointers here.
  • Write a summary (or meta description) that really sizzles. It's unimportant to readers who don't find you via search, but crucial to those who do. On the SERP, it's like an elevator pitch or a catchphrase or an invitation to engage. You have 156 characters to convince readers to click through!
  • Give them a reason to trust and listen to you right away. Use the first paragraph to quickly establish your expertise, giving enough information to build trust but saving your in-depth personal story for a bit later (but only if there's evidence the reader wants to read it). HubPages' bio, which is the first thing readers see when they arrive to your article, is a great place to convey your qualifications in 140 characters or less.
  • Answer the question already! Since the most-viewed area is the first 450 pixels (the space above the fold on most cellphone screens), make sure you answer the question there, as succinctly and charmingly as possible. Know that your readers will be scanning that section, looking for reasons to continue, and that playing hard-to-get with the answer is not cute, it's just annoying and off-putting.
  • Don't ignore the stuff below the fold. The content lower in the article is often undervalued. That great short answer at the top piques readers' appetites, so don't forget to serve the meal. According to Josh Schwartz, "Pixels at the top of the [desktop] page are in view for the shortest amount of time—about 4 seconds—and the amount of time in view steadily rises as we move downpage to a peak between about 1200 pixels down." On mobile, this peak number is probably more like 900. So put your most in-depth, complicated, rich, time-consuming data around the 900 pixel point.
  • Help readers scan to find what they're looking for. Format your text to help them get their answers asap. Don't try to trick them into staying longer or beat them by hiding the information, like Easter eggs buried in text: Join them and lay all your main points out in the open. Break long blocks of text into smaller sections with accurate and catchy subtitles, organize ideas into numbered or bulleted lists, and use tables to convert your content into something that can be understood in one eyeful. Mobile readers love lists! Braveen Kumar has some great tips.
  • First things first. Always reveal the most important information first, then work your way down to least important so the lower you scroll, the more tangential the ideas might be.
  • It's a nutshell, not a dissertation. Long-winded lectures and epic think pieces will always have their place online, but you're probably not writing that type of epic content. On the HubPages network, average length of our most-trafficked articles is 1,500 words.
  • Cut the flab. Short, powerful sentences are preferable to convoluted verbal gymnastics. Active writing is more engaging than passive voice. Don't waste anyone's time with flabby writing.
  • Give readers ample opportunity to engage. Engagement is when readers feel excited or inspired enough to do something: read more, scroll down, look at, watch, vote, or comment. Add elements like ratings capsules, polls, infographics, images, videos, and provocative discussion questions to invite readers to participate actively on the page.
  • Links are like rabbit holes, so use them wisely. When links take readers away, there's always the chance they won't come back, especially if the link takes them somewhere unsatisfying or spammy. So only use links when necessary to support a claim or expand an important idea. If the reader will be happy to see it, if it adds to your credibility and expands the discussion, then include it: If not, leave it out. This includes product links.
  • Invest in visuals. It takes time, energy, effort, and money to find great visual content, but it's worth it. Make time to take the photos you need. Reach out to artists you admire to ask if you can use their artwork. Find something perfect in the Creative Commons and add engaging text. Make an infographic. Add a video. Find art that is not only visually but intellectually appealing. Do what it takes to catch their attention and lure them downward.
  • Put yourself in your reader's shoes. Instead of only thinking like a writer (or an SEO expert), try to imagine your readers' impressions when they find your page, and make sure every eyeful offers them a little thrill. Offset more detailed sections with something short and sweet. Sprinkle visuals here and there to keep readers scrolling down. Do at least one edit with the reader's perspective in mind.
  • Make sure your article looks good on a cellphone. Even if you prefer desktop, most of your readers don't, so take a moment to see what they're seeing and adjust accordingly, if needed.

Are Lists Dumb? Absolutely Not!

"The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order."

—Umberto Eco

But How Do You Know Who Is Reading Your Article?

You can't know for sure, but you have many ways to get insight into who is reading so that you can tailor your answer to fit the people who are searching for it.

  • Design a poll to find out who's reading.
  • Engage in your own comments section.
  • Use Google Console.
  • On HubPages, in the Author Center, you can check your stats to find out where your readers are coming from: which referrer, country, and search phrase brought them to you.

And How Do You Know If You've Answered All Your Readers' Queries?

There are many marketing tools like MarketMuse you can buy to help you identify gaps in your content, but there are other ways, too.

  1. Read your commenters' questions to find out which questions they're left with, and incorporate those answers into your article.
  2. Use Google Search as a content research tool. Look at the "related searches" and "People also ask" on the SERP for ideas of ways to expand your answer so readers don't have to keep searching.
  3. Compare your article to the top article a search engine delivers to see if there are any gaps in your answer.

What About You?

What brought you here?

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Questions & Answers

    How do YOU do it? Please share your experience and best practices for engaging readers.

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      • EditorAnna profile image

        Joanna 2 weeks ago

        I can't believe it either, KS. But then I realize how often I do that myself—make a snap judgment and press the back button—so I know it must be true.

      • K S Lane profile image

        K S Lane 2 weeks ago from Melbourne, Australia

        I can't believe that 55% of people only stick around on a page for 15 seconds! Interesting that the statistic for Hubpages is higher, but still 220 seconds isn't much! I think I'll take your advice and start giving the reader what they want within the first paragraph or so. Thanks for the tips!

      • EditorAnna profile image

        Joanna 2 weeks ago

        Hi, Lauren! Thanks for reading and glad to help.

      • Lauren Flauding profile image

        Lauren Flauding 2 weeks ago from Sahuarita, AZ

        Interesting stuff to chew on and integrate here, I hadn’t given much thought to online vs. print readers and patterns. Thanks!