Leading web usability consultant Jakob Nielsen has found that Internet users spend a massive 80% of their time engaging with the information that appears above the page fold. Information ‘above the fold’ is that which is immediately visible on a page before a user has scrolled down.
Nielsen observed that while users do scroll down and glance over the content that occurs lower down, they allocate the majority of their attention to the information they are immediately confronted with.
This confirms what we already know about typical user behaviour. People don’t like having to work for information on the Internet – they expect that what they are looking for will stare them right in the face within the first few seconds of arriving on a page, and will move swiftly along if it doesn’t.
A corollary of this is that people prioritise information, albeit subconsciously, according to its position on a page. This means that users assume that content at the top of a page is more important than that at the bottom, and will distribute their attention accordingly.
Scroll down for more
Although some industry players have disputed Nielsen’s high 80% figure, most agree that the findings have interesting implications for design and SEO, and serve to reaffirm key page building principles.
Information should always be presented in easily digestible chunks as users are easily overwhelmed. Key page elements such as internal search boxes, navigational menus or links and calls to action must all be incorporated above the fold. If people are unable to locate the required information they are likely to abandon a page quickly, driving up its bounce rate. Remember also that search engines view pages like users do. This means that a search engine will consider your page more relevant if important links and search phrases appear higher up.
However, Nielsen points out that this research should not spell the death of scrolling. A reasonable number of scrollable pages are preferable to many separate pages, particularly for long written articles, as people would rather scroll than have to click away to a new page.
If you expect a user to scroll down to find relevant information, you should specifically instruct them as such, using eye-catching ‘scroll down for more’ or ‘continues below’ icons.
Criticised though it may be, Nielsen’s research confirms the complex nature of SEO, and how all elements of a website, from copy, to design, to linking, must be integrated into a cohesive strategy for success.