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Online Content and Increasing Reader Engagement

More effort is being put into quality web content creation than ever before, but is this really resulting in the increased readership we all hoped? Studies show that not only do content writers need to focus on creating well-researched, readable content, but also on developing strategies for increasing reader engagement. After all, great writing is nothing without the attention of the reader.


New Approach for Increased Engagement


Dan Petrovic recently appeared in a Moz Whiteboard Friday to discuss a new approach to increasing reader engagement with your content that you published. Not only does Dan present sound and compelling reasoning, he is a brilliant SEO strategist and all round awesome bloke.

At the end of the article I will add in some caveats to when and where this can be used and some of my own testing.


Dan’s Whiteboard Friday

One of the first questions that needs to be asked is what percentage of an article the average person will typically read? In a recent study, 500 individuals were asked about their online reading habits. The results: only about 16 percent of people actually read an article in it’s entirety! That’s it! What’s even more surprising is that this number has hardly changed in the last 15 years. When a similar study was conducted in 1997 by Nielsen, the results were shockingly similar. The only thing left to conclude is that, in all this time, content writers still aren’t getting the job done.

It would be easy to accept defeat at this juncture. With all of the improvements and changes made since that first study, why is it that the results are still largely the same? However, try looking at this roadblock as an excellent opportunity instead, an opportunity to analyze how content is currently created and to develop new strategies for improving the reader’s experience and subsequently your readership.



Insights Into Study Results

In order to gather a bit more insight into the study’s results, I queried the participants even further by asking them for reasons as to why they aren’t reading online content. The answers were all pretty similar, including lines like “I just browse through it”, “I typically only read the headlines”, and the like. Essentially, people wanted instant gratification. They wanted answers, and then to move on with their lives as quickly as possible. If the writing was too complex or the page was poorly laid out, odds are they would quickly switch to something else.

With these results, the question becomes clear; how does one develop content that will please both the avid reader and the individual who prefers an easy answer with little effort? This question was certainly not an easy one. After all, writing less, while it may please a small subset of individuals, would leave a large group of people unsatisfied with the lack of depth to the story or article. Not only this, but short blurbs would never allow me to successfully convey the whole story. On the other hand, if I write longer pieces, the effort and storytelling ability will be high, but there will be many people that will be instantly overwhelmed by the content, exit the page, and go elsewhere for a simpler explanation.


The Journalistic Approach

In my journey toward the answer, I inadvertently stumbled upon some information of which I had previously been ignorant, namely a journalistic technique known as the “inverted pyramid”. With this strategy, you essentially provide your readers with the answers right away, then proceeding into the analysis and secondary information where the writer can explain his or her conclusions.

I gave this method some thought, and I realised how effective this technique might be, especially in the era of newspapers and printed media. In these cases, the eye of the reader would go toward the most important, critical items in order to get the answer they wanted. Then, those who were interested in explanations and additional information would continue to read the article while others would move on.

In the age of web content, how can we make these strategies work for us? Today, technology has provided us with the ability to embed and edit, essentially making it unnecessary for our reader to scroll to the bottom of the page to get all of the more in-depth information. So how can we make this deeper information available to the reader in a way that is apparent and convenient?


Content Pyramid


Making a Web Content “To-Do” List

I developed a list of goals that I hoped would help me to deliver more readable, engaging content. My list went as follows:

  • Minimise reader interruption
  • Provide quick, clear answers at the start of the article
  • Allow easy scanning
  • Provide references and citations to increase reliability and trust
  • Include in-depth information and content
  • Enable personalisation and customisation to those areas of the piece in which the reader is currently interested

After I had laid out my “to-do” list, if you will, I pulled out one of my larger articles and scrolled through it, keeping in mind that this is as far as most of my audience will go. After the initial glance, readership drops off substantially, so I wanted to get into the mindset of the reader so that I could determine how to effectively edit my piece to make it more readable.


The Strategy

First, I wanted to eliminate all of the content from my article that was unnecessary and potentially detrimental to the piece as a whole. I used the Hemingway app, an online tool where you can enter your text and receive helpful feedback on how to better edit down your content. After doing so, I was able to winnow down some of the my text, but I was far from done.

Next, I decided to harness the power of hypotext, a method by which an author can provide readers with the content they desire without adding to the bulk of the text. Instead of linking out of the article and disrupting the user’s experience, hypotext allows the reader to view additional information and click on it to learn more, if they so choose. If not, they can continue to read until they do find something into which they would like to delve further.

I found the editing process to be intense, and it took me more than 500 tries to finally get a revised version of my article that I actually liked and thought would work for my readers. My original 5,000 word article was now 400 words, but could be expanded to the original 5,000 if desired through the use of hypotext. What was left was to determine whether all of my time and hard work had paid off.

See The Article:


Testing the Hypothesis

I knew that my original, 5,000 word article took about 29 minutes to get through in it’s entirety. I also knew that that article had attracted many viewers to the page, but that those viewers were only spending an average of six minutes perusing the piece. While this isn’t bad, it certainly wasn’t what I was looking for. My goal was to get people to stay on my page to read as much of the content as possible, instead of bouncing away immediately upon seeing the intimidating wall of text.

Once I uploaded the newer, more compressed version of that article, I waited to see what the results would be. As it turns out, the average time a reader spent on the article effectively doubled, from six to 12 minutes. I couldn’t believe it! The bounce rate also went down dramatically, meaning that I was reaching even more people than I was before!

When performed on a content page, this test yielded great results with engagement going up significantly. On a commercial landing page, we found that the increase in engagement was not as significant, but still present. However, the number of submissions and inquiries to my site went up enormously, with an increase of about 120 percent. By eliminating the unnecessary content and making my articles easier to read and more engaging for the reader, it seemed as though I had effectively found a way to encourage readers to focus on my site’s primary goals: interaction and inquiries.


If you’re less than satisfied with the amount of time your readers spend looking at your text and absorbing its contents, don’t lose hope. Take a careful look at the way you’re currently presenting your information and consider the above data. Are you creating a positive reading experience for your users? Understanding the way you read online content is a great stepping stone to helping you to understand your own readership and to developing even more effective content creation strategies.


Testing Hypotext and Caveats

It’s important to note, that Google does not value hidden text, or hypotext, in the same way as regular content. This is certainly something to consider when developing your content, although this should definitely not result in you dismissing the benefits of the strategy altogether. One way that you can potentially get the same benefits that hypotext provides without worrying about search engine optimisation is to include your full article on your site while providing your readers with an option to read an abridged version of your piece.

Weighing the pros and cons of each method and determining which strategy will best meet your needs is up to you!

The article I utilised hypotext in was my rather mammoth:  Unnatural links penalty and recovery guide, once you see the article, you can see that it made natural sense to use hypotext to compress some sections.

I will say that Dans use of hypotext is so much neater and works in complete harmony, mine …. not so much!


Prior to using hypotext : 80% bounce – 3:41 min
After using hypotext : 62% bounce – 5:17 min


The proof is in the pudding, so they say.