08/28/2013 06:44 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2013

Why the F in Online Business Is So Important for Keeping Visitors Engaged

Science is a wonderful thing: highly qualified individuals research every subject you can possibly imagine. Among those individuals is a man called Jakob Nielsen and among those subjects is how we read online content. Nielsen, who has been researching since 1995, sums things up very simply: "How users read on the web: they don't." So what do his findings have to do with the letter F and how do they help your online business?

Research going as far back as the 1800s (with printed pages, of course) shows that most readers scan your content, skimming across it until their eyes hit something that catches their attention -- a keyword, a picture or a heading, for example. They pause at their stopping point and read for a moment, then continue scanning until they fix on another item or come back to the one they originally saw. They tend to skip small words and stop on longer ones.

Nielsen's research, available at the Nielsen Norman Group's website, goes further than these accepted facts. By watching eye movement, he constructed "heat maps" of where readers look when they land on a website. His findings are incredibly important for your online business.

Virtually every visitor to your site follows a similar reading pattern. They begin in the top left corner and skim quickly across the page to the right. They repeat this process a little further down the page, then they go back to the top left and skim vertically down the left side.

Two horizontal swipes and a vertical line on the left: that's the letter F.

For people involved in online business, this is critical information because it shows you exactly where your best, most important content should be to grab the reader's attention.

Nielsen also found that around 80 percent of a reader's time is spent on the content "above the fold" -- that is, the content visible on the first screen without any need to scroll -- and around 60 percent of that time is spent on the left half of the screen.

Putting those two findings together produces some vital design information. Firstly, your most important content absolutely must be in the top left of the page and flush against the left margin. This content must grab your reader's attention immediately: opening with vague babble that leads in to the good stuff simply loses your reader's attention as soon as they start reading. Hit them hard with something they can't ignore and, if possible, put it on a shaded or colored background so that it screams for their attention.

Secondly, your sub-headings should be clear and easy to read. Using pretty fonts is very nice but it won't stop your readers' eyes from skipping on down the screen or clicking away from your site. Keep the text clear, bold and surrounded by white space so that it stands out, especially when they're doing their initial F-shaped sweep of your content.

Thirdly, your readers are more likely to scroll down if you grab their attention above the fold. Use short paragraphs that are easy to read and which emphasize the F-shaped layout. Get to the point, write clearly and stay focused on the article's main subject -- digression kills interest unless it's very short (or very funny).

There are, of course, many other ways to make your site more attractive to readers but using the letter F and knowing where people look is the first essential step in keeping visitors on your site for long enough to make an impact.