Four types of online reading

Estimated reading time
4 minutes
28th February 2019
Author: Dani Mansfield
Posted in: Psychology

Content creators must understand online reading behaviors to better cater to them

In this day and age, we find ourselves swimming in written content, most of which lives online. At the time of writing, there are 1,956,314,304 websites on the internet and 130 trillion pages indexed on google.

That’s an incomprehensible amount of content and it’s no wonder that a lot of it never reaches its intended audience. Much of it never reaches any audience.

Man looking at advertising in Times Square

Competition for attention

Readers have a finite supply of attention and it’s in huge demand. A whopping 81% of people just skim read online content. The average internet user only reads 20% of a page, according to usability consultant Jakob Nielson.

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”

Simone Weil, French philosopher

This isn’t particularly surprising when you consider how a lot of it is delivered: scrolling text, arduous for the brain to read. Fatigue sets in and attention dissipates. Readers wait for something to jump out.

As far as we can try to change online reading behaviors, our energies are better spent changing how we cater to them. First, we need to understand the intent behind them.

woman on laptop

Online reading behavior

Nir Grinberg, a research fellow at the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science, published a report in 2018 which looks at the ways we read online and categorizes reading types by clusters of behavior. The research dataset comprised of more than 7.7 million page views of 66,821 articles. The articles were sourced from financial, tech, how-to, science, women, sports, and magazine sites.

The study looked at scroll depth and speed, time spent reading and length of interactive engagement, such as mouse clicks and cursor movement.

1. Shallow

Shallow readers are a minority and are those who don’t qualify as a bounce, but only make it a short way through the article before quitting, with very low levels of engagement.

Chances are, the content hasn’t delivered what this reader was expecting when they clicked through or didn’t deliver it fast enough.

2. Scanning

This type of reading involves the reflective scanning of an article. Readers make their way through the entire article, but at speeds of up to 1823 words/minute — well above in-depth or even typical skim-reading rates.

The study found significantly more scanning in sports content compared to other categories, indicating different intent, likely looking up a particular game result.

“The human brain has a strong tendency to lose focus. It is estimated to engage in up to 2,000 daydreams a day and to spend up to half its waking time wandering.”

Alyssa Galeros Keefe, senior director of marketing

3. Idle

Some readers engage with an article and turn idle – with long periods of inactivity. They are characterized by a long dwell time combined with a slow rate of scrolling.

Idle behavior is likely a result of either distraction or multi-tasking while engaged with an article, and is common with ‘how-to’ content, with readers likely following instructions, splitting their attention between the two.

4. Read and read (long)

Grinberg’s read category is split in two. This category of reading behavior sees the whole article covered at a pace between 200-600 words/minute on average, a range that covers skim reading and depth reading.

The read (long) end of the spectrum reflects extended and highly engaged reading, with interaction beyond the body of the article. This is probably the holy grail for thought leadership content creators.

The study showed that extended reading is not achieved by the strength of writing alone, but needs to be coupled with strong interest from readers. Readers of magazine content are twice as likely to engage in longer reads than those of other content categories in the study. Marketers should look to magazine publishers for inspiration on how to achieve this engagement.

Man sitting on edge of building typing on laptop

What to do with this insight?

Explore your analytics to discern which type of reading behavior is happening when readers click through to your content. Tools like Google Tag Manager can help you track things like scroll depth, to better understand how people are navigating the pages of your website.

Think about what your content is trying to achieve, e.g. deliver instructions, build an argument, showcase examples, share facts. Similarly, consider the intent that would bring your readers to that content, and what that means for the time spent and interactivity. The behavior your content garners is most accurately evaluated in the context of what your content is designed to achieve.

With this understanding, you can take steps to optimize your content for that behavior. For example:

  • If you’ve written a blog post explaining how to troubleshoot a network issue, think about how you format and break down the instructions to enable the reader to more efficiently relocate their location in the text as they move between the exercise and your article. Explore bullet pointing, numbering and font size/type, as well as vivid instructions, paired with visuals where possible.
  • If you’re building an argument, cater for skim readers and aid in-depth reading by highlighting key points through subheadings and pull quotes.
  • If you’re reporting on an outcome of some kind, surface the results succinctly, to help scanners.
  • If you’re looking to connect with your audience, consider how to build a magazine-style narrative and experience, for extended reading and interactivity.


Learn more about the reading brain to improve your content:

Click to read The science of reading: How to cater to the reading brain | Turtl