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”300 little words”
dispelling a web myth

By Daniel Will-Harris

9-29-97 - Maybe it’s because the web is so new, but sometimes the whole field seems opaquely shrouded in the mists of myths. I don’t mean exciting ancient myths with stop-animation monsters, I mean new, stupid myths that cause people to do dumb things because they’ve heard it’s a rule and they don’t want to do something “wrong.”

Here’s one of the worst myths:
Keep your pages short! Reader’s don’t like to scroll!

That’s just plain idiotic. While there is something to be said for designing home pages to fit within a single screen (though it’s not necessary), content shouldn’t be written around page design. “Form follows function,” remember?

Yet this myth keeps spreading, helped along by a lot of people writing about the web, repeating these myths only because they heard someone else say them. They’re also propagated by some major name-brand web-publications that cling to this these inane notions as if they had sprung, fully clothed, from the head of Marc Andreesen.

One large web site I write for doesn’t want more than 300 words on a page (400 words, tops). That might not be so bad if they let you write more than a page, but in most cases they don’t. You have 300-400 words and that’s it. Not enough space? Cut out information. Less information? That’s doing readers a disservice.

Lets apply some logic and see why this myth is just that, a myth, not a fact.

People have to scroll in virtually all their programs, so why would they suddenly find it repugnant or impossible when viewing the web? The fact is, if someone finds your content interesting, they will scroll. If not, they will probably link away, just as they would turn the page in a magazine if the current page didn’t hold their interest.

But if someone is interested in your information, they don’t want to be cut short because some misinformed designer is afraid their “idiot” readers are incapable of scrolling. Why create artificial constraints on your information?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t be concise (and certainly more concise than I am). You should put your most important information at the top of your page--that way people can read a little bit, see if they’re interested and if they are they’ll continue. You shouldn’t ramble on, just for rambling’s sake. But you also shouldn’t give the reader fewer details, just because you don’t think you have the space or they have the attention span.

Should you break up long articles into multiple short pages? Not unless you’re selling ads. Breaking up longer articles into shorter pages can lead to confusion. Unless your links are very clear for movement to the next and previous page, people may miss something. A surprising number of people like to print web pages. They don’t want to have to print 15 short pages that really would have fit on three printed pages. If you still feel compelled to give your readers countless shorty-pages, provide a link to a “printer version” of the page--a single page containing the entire article. If you’re considerate to your readers, they will appreciate it and visit you again.

One of the dirty little secrets of the web publishing business is that short pages aren’t really for the reader, they’re for the publisher. Sites with ads often charge by the “impression,” the number of people who see their ad. The more pages you force the reader to see just to finish an article, the more ads you show them, the more money you make. That’s fine, as long as you know that this is the logic behind it. But don’t confuse the issue and claim short pages are somehow magically easier to comprehend. They aren’t.

Short pages not only force you to see more pages, they help keep you from scrolling down the page, where you can no longer see the ad at the top. Didn’t think of that, did you? It’s devious, but it’s acceptable, as long as you realize that short-pages themselves are not inherently better.

Some sites, such as this one, are avoiding this “short-sheeting” problem by placing ads in frames that stay on-screen, even as you scroll. Some even use Java applets to display a new ad every few seconds, so you can see 10 ads while viewing a single page. This is actually a good solution to the problem of showing more ads, while preserving the length, detail, and continuity of the content.

One of the great values of the web is its depth. If someone wants a sales pitch, they can get that in a magazine or on TV. If someone wants more detailed information, they can and should be able to get that on the web.

The web isn’t like print--we don’t have to worry about page count or the cost of paper and shipping. Yes, the amount of information you transfer can add up, but what is the point of giving out half-length, half-baked information? The web gives you the luxury to go into detail. Give your readers the choice of reading it all (or not). If you cut it down just to make it short, you give them neither the choice nor the information.

Someone once asked Abraham Lincoln how long a man’s legs should be. His answer, “Long enough to reach the ground.” The answer about how long a page should be is similar--it should be long enough to include all your information.




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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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Copyright Daniel Will-Harris, 2001, All Rights Reserved