Right Column Blindness?


When it comes to web design, not all layouts are created equal. From experience, pretty much everyone can tell you that some websites are more visually appealing than others. But even two designs that are equally “appealing” from a visual standpoint might rate very differently when it comes to giving visitors the content and experience they are looking for. For most readers of this blog, the convention for printed materials is left-to-right, top-to-bottom. When you open a newspaper, book, or magazine, your eye is naturally drawn to the top-left. It’s true that this is mainly a matter of convention. After all, it’s how we learned to read. But this has a major subconscious impact on how we interact with the web, as well. Did you know that, on average, nearly 70% of a visitor’s time on a website will be spent looking at the left half of the screen? This means that the average user will spend more than twice as long looking at content that is on the left-hand side of your website than they will looking at content on the right-hand side. In addition, users tend to engage more with content that is higher on a page. According to Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., a web data expert, just over 80% of a user’s time will typically be spent looking at content that is presented “above the fold.” An additional 6% of time is spent looking at the footer of the page, leaving a mere 14% of a user’s time where they are engaged with everything else in between.

Right-hand columns can be particularly problematic on websites. Why? In part, it is because users have been “trained” to see the right-hand column as a place for advertising. Think about Facebook, Google, news services, your favorite lifestyle blogs… The right-hand column almost invariably contains a significant amount of advertising. Here’s the right-hand column from my Facebook feed today. A whopping 80% of the right-hand column is taken up by advertisements. Only 5.3% has information that’s really useful to me - birthdays and events. For a “social” website, it’s almost sad that only 5.2% of that space is actually occupied by things that promote social relationships… but that’s a different topic. And how about these Google search results for chocolate gift baskets? On a pretty average monitor, only one organic search result is partially visible, the rest of the results area is advertising with a very prominent right column that is 100% ads. Here’s a sidebar from the San Francisco Chronicle where ads are mixed in with real content. I wonder what the engagement rates are with those content elements. I suspect they are extremely low.

This pattern is repeated all across the web, so it is no wonder that more and more users are developing “right column blindness.”

So what do we do about it? First of all, we study this and learn about it. At Green Egg Media, we keep up with analysis like this so that we can always be delivering a better product for our clients. This doesn’t mean that we’re running out and designing new websites where we try to put absolutely everything in a 500 x 800 box on the screen. After all, there are so many different screen sizes now and responsive design means that content moves around based on the user’s screen size. Instead, it means that we focus on what the core message of a site should be, and we create a layout that facilitates that core message and call to action. For some projects, we still use right-hand columns. In fact, there’s one on this very blog page. But we don’t put content there that we need users to engage with. If they see something there that they like, great, if not, they haven’t missed out on a major experience with the Green Egg Media brand. Applying this data also means that we can help our clients make more informed content decisions.

We want visitors to our clients’ websites to be amazed with both the quality of the design and the ease with which they can find what they are looking for. By making informed choices about layout and content placement, we maximize the likelihood that users will find what they’re after the first time around. And if we find that users are having trouble, we make adjustments until it’s right.

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