Paper vs Pixels. Does it matter how we read? Part 4.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

How we read

Think of how you read a book. It’s a relentlessly automatic process.

Eyes forward, then…

Left to right, left to right, left to right, turn.

Left to right, left to right, left to right, turn.


Every author knows this of course, and they structure the text linearly to accommodate our reading style.

Writing for the web is different from writing for paper. Take this blog for example. It’s a rare paragraph that has more than a few lines. Many are shorter, in a way that you just wouldn’t find in a book, and especially nonfiction, because it suits people who read online.

And I’m incredibly slack on good web writing… I just plonk it down and hope for reader forgiveness 🙂 .

Writing online and SEO

Swanky websites pay waaaaaaay more attention to SEO than this one. SEO, or search engine optimization, is about constructing your pages and site in a way that optimizes how well the search engines can find it.

It’s such an important part of the web these days it that there are people and companies spruiking their ability to get you on the front page of Google search. In terms of writing, this requires careful attention to things like keywords used in the title and opening paragraphs.

You’re supposed to grab people with a good headline, hook them with the first sentence or so and then reel them in with the rest of your article. You’d never do it like that in a book where you have time to build an argument or a story.

When people open this page, good web writers and most developers know that people won’t read left to right as they do in a book. They’ll skim, swiftly, hunting for key information or words.

Eye tracking devices show that most web readers (you too!), will skim roughly in the shape of a capital ‘F’. Left to right across the top line or two, down the left to the next paragraph or so, across a little, back down the left, and then, scan again if it looked interesting enough, or click off to the next thing.

It’s a self-perpetuating habit now. There is so little time to grab a reader’s attention that the opening must be excellent and the key information must be displayed in places they’ll look for it.

The fold

The more people look for it in those places, with less time to be engaged, the more we’ll write like that. Paragraphs are short, as are most articles. People are less likely to scroll than they used to, preferring to read only what sits on the first page.

By way of illustration, one of the goals of SEO is to get a site to rank highly enough in a search engine such as Google, that it appears in the top few search results, which you can see on your screen without scrolling.

In the vernacular, this is ‘above the fold’ which is an old print term for the material above the first fold in a letter or, more commonly, the top half of the front page of a newspaper. The same principle applies to online text as for search items. What’s above the fold gets skimmed, so we have to cram it with information, in the shape of a capital F, to suit your online approach to information.

Otherwise, erstwhile reader, as we said, you’ll quickly discern there’s nothing here to see, and you’re gone in fewer than four seconds.

Removing the work

To make it better for you as a reader, and thus for the website, handily placed links can guide you to new information, keywords tell you if this is the article for you, and bookmarks help you avoid the need to retain anything.

The whole point of all this SEO black magic is to make it easy for the search engines, and you, to find what you need. Search engines suggest ideas. Predictive options fill in words and sentences for you. Appetizing links hover in view, tempting you to click. Key information falls into your mental lap, and you don’t need to do anything yourself.

You read quickly, skimming. You try to ignore distractions or you dive into the rabbit holes they offer.

And although it’s tiring, although it can be incredibly taxing on your attentional resources, you’re not concentrating very hard.

And this is the double-edged sword. By serving up material for you, making it easy and fast, with so many things to choose from and hyperlinks to click and ads to ignore and, and, and… the web wears you out.

The online brain

The online brain is characterized by much more diffuse activity, across the frontal lobes. It’s working, filtering, sorting, deciding if this bit of information or novelty is right or interesting enough to look at, and then moving on.

The book-reading brain doesn’t look like that at all. It shows concentrated effort, and the brain accessing different mental structures than online reading.

The online brain grabs information in small bits and, as the next bit comes, we jump onto it. Yes, it’s taxing but, and here’s the thing… it uses only working memory. You’ll remember that working memory is what you need to hold information in mind, manipulate it and do something, before it gets replaced by the next thing.

In fact, the web flogs working memory.

The principle at play here is called cognitive load. Working memory is limited. At capacity, it needs to drop something in order to add a new thing. The more complex the things are it’s trying to work with, the fewer things it can hold. Long term memory is unlimited.

Cognitive load means the work we’re expecting our brain to do, given the limited attention it can allow. If the information coming in exceeds our ability to hold and manage it, we’ve exceeded our load.

It’s broken

At that point, learning has broken down, and coping is all we manage.

You find reading on paper easier for more complex material because you’re more able to concentrate and think deeply, control the flow of information from fire hose to garden hose, and control distractions. These are all considerations that the web, with emphasis on speed and ease and serving up what its engineers and developers and algorithms think you need, minimizes.

The web might even strengthen working memory with all this exercise. Truly. We’re getting better at rapid assessment and go/no go decisions on some things. Yet because we’re snacking on information, because the web promotes that kind of behavior, and because our web pages are built for speed and ease, there’s a problem.

We are outsourcing our minds to SEO.


So here’s the take home bit

Yes, really.

Read more next post.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

SEO, Search Engine Optimization

What do you think?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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