Web pages are not read from left to right

Westerners read from left to right. Yet web pages are not necessarily read from left to right.
There are many theories out there about how web pages are read. Some are true, but only in very specific circumstances. Most are false. Here is a selection of the best known ones.

Popular misconception n°1: web pages are read from left to right

This is the most widespread misconception, because it is the most logical. If the text is written from left to right and the reader is a Westerner, why wouldn’t web pages be read from left to right?

This is false in almost all circumstances.

The only time a user reads from left to right is when reading a text with the intention of reading it in its entirety and understanding its content. This is the case when reading a newspaper article online.

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Text is indeed read from left to right.

Even in this case, though, the eyes don’t follow a strictly linear path. The eyes have a tendency to skip from word to word and make small backward movements. But overall we can say that the eyes follow a general left to right path.

Another example of left-to-right reading can be found on the site of our client, Correctmot.

When we skim and scan a text quickly to find information, however, the left-to-right reading path no longer applies. In this case, the eyes skip randomly from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph to find the information sought. We call this “skim reading”, because the eyes skim over the page.

Les deux premiers paragraphes ne sont pas lus de gauche à droite. Ils sont parcourus rapidement du haut vers le bas.

The first two paragraphs aren’t read from left to right.
They are scanned rapidly from top to bottom.

Likewise, left-to-right reading no longer applies when the page contains multimedia elements. Photos, films, animations and interactive elements change the reading direction. This is the case for most web pages.

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On most sites, the eyes don’t follow a predefined pathway.
A number of factors influence where a user’s eyes travel on a page.

Popular misconception n°2: web pages are read in a triangular shape

Reading in a triangular shape was observed on Google pages. We actually discussed these eye tracking results in a previous newsletter about the Google study.

La totalité des regards cumulés forme un triangle.

The total cumulated eye activity forms a triangle.

The eyes scan through the pages to find interesting information. The organic results at the top are more relevant and logically receive more attention than those at the bottom. Finally, the sum of all gazes forms a triangle on the page. This is the famous “Golden Triangle”.

The triangle is formed by the total number of gazes of several users. But the eye movements of each individual user don’t follow a triangular pattern.

Le regard d'un internaute ne suit jamais un triangle.

Single user eye movements never form a triangle.

What’s more, this result cannot be generalized. As soon as you move away from the predefined and well-known organic results scenario, you don’t see a triangle. For example, merely introducing images on the page is enough to change the scan path.

Dès qu’on met une image, la lecture est perturbée.

As soon as an image is placed on the page, the reader is distracted by it.

Popular misconception n°3: web pages are read in an F-shape

Jacob Nielsen recently presented the concept of F-shaped reading in his newsletter F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content.

This scenario only holds true when a page of text has distinct paragraphs.

The first paragraph is read in full, attentively. The second is read more rapidly. Then the reader’s attention is lost. In the end, the accumulated eye movements on the page form a sort of F shape.

This F pattern is consistent with how we theoretically read a text: we scan the page from top to bottom looking for information and we register information by reading from left to right.

Reading in F

When a text is organized into paragraphs, eye movements can sometimes form an F (source: http://www.gwix.net/).

Just like the first two scenarios, this one is no longer valid once multimedia elements are introduced.

Popular misconceptions n°4, 5, 6, 7, etc.: web pages are read in the shape of a Gamma, Z, C, etc.

These theories are totally false.

They appeared in the 1980′s for billboard design. Then they spread like urban legends.

We know now that they are not based on any real evidence.

Reading in gammaReading in Z

People don’t read in Gamma or Z patterns.


Some rules are valid in specific circumstances:
  • We do read text from left to right
  • When a text is organized into paragraphs, eye movements can form an F
  • On a Google results page, the accumulated eye activity of all users forms a triangle

Otherwise, our way of viewing web pages cannot be reduced to one unique path. The next newsletter will list the factors that determine how a website is viewed.