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Feature Article
Scrolling vs. Paging

November 1, 2000
By Scott Lewis

A couple of months ago I wrote a very long article on MP3. It’s still very much worth reading, so feel free. That article was the longest I have every written for this web site. Yet I left it all on one page. Should I have broken it up onto multiple pages to reduce the amount of scrolling you would have to do while reading it? That is the topic of this month’s article.

There are a number of reasons to breakup long articles on multiple pages when on the web. For starters, it would more closely mimic print articles. Magazines don’t have the luxury of making a page longer when an article gets longer. They either cut the article’s size down or resort to having you flip pages.

But the web is not a magazine. You mostly read articles on a computer screen. Although you can print articles, they are mostly read while staring at a big glass tube. We are not bound by the same physical limitations as our print cousins here in the online world.

Yet articles are broken up on the web as well. I can see only three valid reasons for this: comfort, load times, and money. Let’s start with comfort. It makes some sense to break up long articles into manageable amounts of information, and to make it easier for people to pick up were they leave off should they not finish an article in one sitting. If you stop reading on page 3 of 5, it is easy enough to return to that page rather than scrolling around to find your "spot."

I have heard that people don’t want to scroll more than 3 or 4 "screens" before they will move onto something else. I don’t buy that. I believe people won’t mind poising their finger over a PgDn key to read something interesting. It is the perception that scrolling is disliked that has lead journalists to write articles based on the assumption that most people will not scroll to the end of an article. This leads to content that must satisfy the reader’s interest in the first few paragraphs, and leaves a lot of smaller details latter in the article.

I think this downgrades an article, and adds to the reason why people won't scroll. Why scroll to the worst part of the article? Someone that writes an article assuming half or more of it won’t be read has no inspiration to write a quality article. A good article should maintain interest for the entire topic; or else the entire article should be re-written in a shorter format. Sometimes less is more.

Now we take on money. How does money affect article length? Through advertising. When you break up a long article into 2, 3 or more pages you have the opportunity to advertise that much more. You can sell advertising on every page of the article. Ads at the top of a page still command the highest revenue, even though they produce the least clicks. (Think about it... why would you want to go to another page immediately after arriving at the page you just got to. Ads near the bottom of a page have a much greater chance of generating clicks, especially if they pertain to the content of the page.)

Regardless of which ads are most likely to be clicked on, you can have more ads if you have more pages. If you really want to see whether people like or dislike scrolling, research should be performed on web sites that don’t have advertising. If the content of these sites is interesting, their readers will read to the end whether that is through scrolling or paging. Revenue never becomes part of usability on sites that don’t accept advertising. The trouble is trying to find a site like mine that doesn't have advertising.

I do not accept advertising on my site. It is mine. So I have no reason to break up pages just because they are long, at least not from a monetary standpoint. That leaves load times. Fast loading pages are better than slow ones. So there is a valid reason to keep download times to a minimum. However, if we are talking about articles, then I don’t see this as a huge problem. Textual content has never been the culprit in the bandwidth wars. A 100K text document (essentially what an HTML page is) isn’t going to cause too much delay on a 28.8 modem. But a page with 20K worth of text and 250K worth of graphics and ads will definitely deter readers with slow connections.

Conclusion

As you can tell, I am firmly on the side of scrolling. Most of the content I read regularly is on long pages. Just look at the columns I link to on my Favorites page. I would much rather poise a finger over a single key while reading than work a mouse to find the place to click for the next page. It is more distracting to the eyes, and requires more hand/eye coordination. For usability it is easier to read single, long pages. If people are not reading the entire article than the content needs to improve. Breaking up an article into pieces won’t cause anyone to read further than they are interested.

What do you think? Did you even get this far? You can read more about this from this CNET Builder article.

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