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Why Aren’t People Reading Your Online Content


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Written by Sophie Johnson @bigeyedear

Why aren’t people reading your online content? You might be surprised by the answers.

A few months back I was doing my usual early morning round-up of the latest news stories on Twitter when I spotted a headline I couldn’t resist. I clicked on the link to the article immediately, but unfortunately, as I attempted to scroll down the page, there was a constant image and piece of copy that followed me down the left hand side of the article. I don’t even remember what the piece of copy said or who or what the image was of. What does stick in my mind, however, is simply how irritating and distracting it was. After a few seconds I had abandoned what – from the headline – had promised to be a very interesting article indeed, and one that I would very likely have shared with my Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn contacts if only I could have read it in peace!

Such was my annoyance that I was inspired to create a quick survey. It was a very simple one, asking ‘When you are reading online content, what things do you find distracting or off-putting?’  This was a free response question, where the respondent could simply vent their spleen in a text box with no prompts.

I felt that if I got enough respondents for a robust sample (ie a minimum of 100) it would be a useful piece of research to present to anyone publishing online content – be it news items, thought leader articles or blog entries – to help them make the user experience as positive as possible and keep readers coming back for more.

With printed journals and magazines steadily declining as more and more of us get our news via online channels, this topic is inevitably going to become more and more important as online publishers vie for loyal readership.

So what did my respondents have to say?

I grouped the responses into themes to see which ones cropped up the most often. So read on for the countdown of the top 15 annoyances when reading online content!

15: ‘Targeted’ ads

Social media was cited as an example where ads target the perceived preoccupations of the user’s age and gender, ‘especially those relating to the assumed female neurosis about weight, wrinkles, etc.’ These were described as extremely insulting and playing to stereotypes.

14: Things that follow you down the page

This being what inspired me to create the survey in the first place, I was relieved to find that I was not alone!

13: Content moving / changing shape as the page loads due to images / ads

Respondents described this as when pages with pictures take a long time to load and the content continually moves to adjust for the pictures or if the web page changes shape because of a banner ad.

12: Ads within the content

Ads embedded within the content disrupt the reader’s intake of the article they are reading and cause unnecessary irritation.

11: Typos and bad grammar

I have to agree with this one: if an article is full of spelling mistakes or poorly constructed sentences, I don’t feel like I want to retweet it or endorse it in any other way because I don’t want to be associated with it, no matter how interesting or useful the content might have been!

10: Hidden close buttons

Stealthy pop-ups that are not straightforward to close (ie because the X is deliberately hard to locate) are common online annoyances.

9: Ads that you click on without realising

Whether they’re placed close to something else that you try and click on and you inadvertently open them up, or they start playing simply when you ‘mouse’ over them, ads that are too easy to start up are high in the content annoyances chart.

8: Music / sound

Music that plays automatically and can’t easily be muted and pop up ads with sound make it hard to use the internet discreetly.

7: Speed of page loading

Let’s face it we’re all pushed for time these days, so when pages with pictures take an age to load and the content continually moves to adjust for the pictures, we often give up and move on to another website.

6: Pop-ups / ads that cover the text you’re trying to read

Speaks for itself, but worth bearing in mind that these are deemed to be ‘extra annoying on touch screen devices’!

5: Autoplaying content

Described by one respondent simply as ‘infuriating’, these are those videos that appear out of nowhere, sit on top of the text you want to read, and seem impossible to close. Another respondent commented: ‘I particularly LOATHE sites where video or audio are automatically enabled and blast music or ads at you.’

4: Just adverts

I think it’s safe to say that unless the user pays for content, advertising is going to feature on the majority of websites. But as we can see from the other responses in this list, there are ways to include promotional material that needn’t drive the reader insane!

3: Quite simply: Pop-ups

Need we say more?

2: Page format

This is quite a rich vein of annoyances and we have several good examples of do’s and don’ts when designing a web page:


  • dark backgrounds and coloured text
  • quirky print, garish colours
  • copy/background in colours which make reading hard
  • small font
  • too much text
  • lots of copy across the screens which isn’t in columns
  • bad line spacing
  • inconsistencies in font size and type
  • text extending beyond screen
  • huge blocks of text. A lot of content on a page isn’t bad but if it is a huge block of continuous copy it is hard to read on screen. Split it into paragraphs
  • ‘busy’ pages
  • repetition

Be sure to include:

  • paragraphs and subheadings so that the reader can get to their content as quickly as possible and not have to read a massive bulk of text to extract the information they need
  • an option to make the font bigger

And finally, the No.1 most annoying thing about reading online content is…

Flashing and moving content

The responses describing flashing and moving content were the most numerous and extremely consistent. Here are some direct quotes I’ve picked out to underline just how annoying this is!

‘Flashing/moving ads – they drive me MAD!’

‘Anything that moves of its own accord and anything that blocks my view.’

‘Things that flash especially if bright.’

‘Repeatedly blinking advertisements that flash faces and smiles or jump upand down and move just at the edge of my vision. I find my eyes are distracted by the movement and pulled away from the text.’

So there you are: now you know what to do and what not to do. It’s time to either polish your halo if you can put your hand on your heart and say that you commit none of these sins and knew all of this anyway or go away and mend your ways! If you don’t, and you don’t get a big, loyal readership, don’t say I didn’t tell you so.

And finally, thanks to all of the kind people who took the time to answer my little survey. I hope you enjoyed venting your spleen, and that the future of online content is clear, uncluttered, inviting, informative and engaging.

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