Earlier this this year, we commented on the infamous Steve Jobs quote "...the fact is people don't read anymore," arguing that, people do read, they just prefer to do it online. However, in this transition from page to screen, a question has risen: are people really reading online content or just scanning page? Apparently, it's the latter.

The Research on Web Reading

Jakob Nielson, web usability consultant, author, and owner of useit.com, writes on his site about a recent research study by Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer: "Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use."

What Nielsen found by analyzing the data in the study was that although people spend more time on pages with more words and more information, they only spend 4.4 seconds more for each additional 100 words. By calculating reading rates, he concluded that when you add more verbiage to a page, people will only read 18% of it.

Some other interesting findings include:

  • On an average visit, users read half the information only on those pages with 111 words or less.
  • People spend some of their time understanding the page layout and navigation features, as well as looking at the images. People don't read during every single second of a page visit.
  • On average, users will have time to read 28% of the words if they devote all of their time to reading. More realistically, users will read about 20% of the text on the average page

Nielsen has been interested in how users read on the web for a long time and he has determined that the truth is that people don't read very much, often scanning text instead of really reading it. His recent eyetracking studies validate this finding, as well.

Unlike with newspapers, books, magazines and other print media, it's not just images that distract people from fully digesting the web content they're reading. As social media users ourselves, we know how difficult it is to get through a long article when dealing with email notifications, pop-ups of new replies on Twitter, instant messages, not to mention that urge to check for the latest news in our RSS feeds.

Do Some People Have a Natural Info Processing Mechanism?

Given that the world of online readers have turned to scanning text to keep up with the constant flow of information, we wonder if some people are better than others at doing so. Are there people who have a natural ability to scan and process massive amounts of information, yet still be able to find the signal amongst the noise?

It's an interesting question to ponder, especially considering the conversations of late surrounding whether or not it's possible to truly understand, interact, and engage with others when taking in so much information.

For example, in Scoble's blog post where he explained why he was following 20,000 users on Twitter, he had people wondering how he could really keep up. After calculating how fast the tweets came in, Brian Sullivan wrote:

I know there are claims that Robert is a cyborg...so that seems not a plausible explanation. I think then that Robert's claim is somewhat suspect (of course his definition of "follow" may be different from mine -- or my math may be wrong)...Are you really "following" 20,000 on Twitter - at least in any real sense of the word "follow"?

Morgan wondered, "How can this type of information flow be beneficial to anyone?" But it was Elliott Ng, who wished for  "the same massive information processing gene as Robert Scoble."

Although meant perhaps jokingly, the question is valid. How do these people do it?

Our very own Marshall Kirkpatrick hinted at some of his tricks in his "7 Tips for Making the Most of Your RSS Reader post," claiming he doesn't worry about trying to read every item in his reader. Louis Gray, on the other hand, declares he never marks all as read. But everyone really needs to find their own balance when it comes to digesting the information they consume.

Do you read or do you just skim? What's your strategy for keeping up?