Is offering up long blocks of academic web page content an inherently bad idea, ignoring ad revenue, bandwidth and clickthroughs?
August 2, 2008 8:44 PM   Subscribe

Do longer articles on the web really have to be split up into small, bite-size pieces as most sites seem to prefer doing? Putting ad revenue and click-through considerations aside, I need to know if there are any dangers associated with keeping a ~5k to ~15k word article on one page is an inherently bad idea.

Most magazine, newspaper and academic websites that I've seen tend to split longer articles up into smaller bites with page number navigation at the bottom of each page, ostensibly because (1) smaller web pages reduce page load times; (2) split content results in more clickthroughs and better ad revenue and (3) readers feel like the content is "more digestible" (#3 is actually just my own extrapolation).

Is having ~8k to ~15k word articles on a single page considered bad design? The content is actually pretty accessible on its own merits, in my opinion, and I'm not even an expert in the field in question (spans psychology, sociology, culture, religion). Generally speaking it's very readable, shouldn't necessarily scare users away based on the content itself and will be completely free. And free PDF versions will also always be available.

So putting aside bandwidth and ad-related considerations, is it really a bad idea to keep the entire article on a single webpage or am I going to lose readers this way?

My instinct is to judge this using usability studies and the lowest common denominator, which I haven't yet really managed to get my hands on yet.

Before you ask, I can't share a URL but am willing to answer any necessary questions in order to clarify what I'm working with.
posted by christopherious to Computers & Internet (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I for one *way* prefer to have an entire article on one page. I always thought that multiple pages were either for A) really really really really really (really) long articles or books or B) maximizing ad space.

So unless you have a compelling reason otherwise, put it all on one page.
posted by the dief at 8:54 PM on August 2, 2008

are you expecting your readers to get all the way through it in one sitting? Lots of folks will bookmark partway through a long read.
posted by jenkinsEar at 8:57 PM on August 2, 2008

You will lose readers if you force them to swallow the whole article in one bite, but you will gain thankful readers if you give them the option to swallow the whole article in one bite.

The page by page method of reading has hundreds of years and zillions of impressions worth of inertia. It isn't worth ignoring something that literally everyone who reads knows exactly how to use. Lots of people feel a bit lost facing a giant page of text. Make the non-standard interface optional and everyone wins.
posted by dirtdirt at 8:59 PM on August 2, 2008

I prefer to have it all on one page as well.

This may be tangential, but one way to make content more digestible is to put it in a narrower column so that it's easier on the eyes. It'll make the page even longer, but it's much nicer to read (and less intimidating, in my opinion) than a block of text that stretches across the entire browser window. Comapre Daring Fireball with a print version of a Times article.
posted by danb at 9:00 PM on August 2, 2008

readers feel like the content is "more digestible"

A long unbroken block of text can look pretty daunting to a lot of people. There's nothing wrong with putting a long article on page, but do make sure it's visually broken up into chunks so it appears easier to read.
posted by orange swan at 9:02 PM on August 2, 2008

Best course of action, give readers a choice. Provide a set of links at the top and bottom showing Sections 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc... and a link for View Full Article. I always appreciate this.
posted by Octoparrot at 9:08 PM on August 2, 2008

I agree that readers should be given a choice. If an article is split into numbered pages, then a link to view the full article should also be provided, or even one to print the article (which would essentially fulfill the same purpose). Speaking from personal experience, there have been several times when I have come across new blogs that seemed interesting from a content standpoint, but after seeing that the editors hadn't provided a way to view the articles in their entirety, I closed my browser window and never went back to the site again. I just didn't see why I should have to read two short paragraphs at a time and then click to move on to the next page. Having a multi-page image gallery is one thing, but it really can interrupt the flow of reading if readers are forced to act too often to keep moving forward through an article.
posted by sabira at 9:21 PM on August 2, 2008

Best answer: Splitting the content up or "chunking" it will help the readers digest large amounts of text. Here's a basic explanation, but if you want an in-depth, statistical analysis, check out some of the info at Specifically look at their eyetracking studies, as they just (last year) completed a research session that heavily studied web content. No matter what you decide to do, you will find some interesting and useful information from their studies. *Good news: the full report is on sale at the moment.

Personally, I prefer single long pages, but it's important to put the info in a format that will best benefit your users. Plus, you can always provide a link to the full article. Consider holding focus groups or conducting surveys (even small ones) with typical readers of your site to better gauge how your site's visitors will use the information.
posted by PixelatorOfTime at 9:25 PM on August 2, 2008

Speaking from personal experience, there have been several times when I have come across new blogs that seemed interesting from a content standpoint, but after seeing that the editors hadn't provided a way to view the articles in their entirety, I closed my browser window and never went back to the site again. I just didn't see why I should have to read two short paragraphs at a time and then click to move on to the next page.

Agreed. The internet is not a book. if i can't "ctrl F" to find the part I want, you've taken away one of the, if not the biggest benefit of reading text with a computer. And if i wanted to read with multiple pages, I'd print, which is annoying beyond belief with one of those multi-page articles.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:40 PM on August 2, 2008

If you decide to put it all on one page, you need to pay particular attention to your CSS. The line spacing on MeFi, to use a handy example, is not optimised for long reading stretches, which becomes obvious when you're reading one of those 100+ comment posts. (A little more line spacing would be nice. A little more contrast wouldn't hurt, either.)
posted by DarlingBri at 10:04 PM on August 2, 2008

I much prefer everything to be on a single page. I nth the option to have a single page version.
posted by Nattie at 10:17 PM on August 2, 2008

Best answer: You know I always thought the "chunking" approach was a legacy of the first days of database-backed websites, where people used databases that had hard limits on the length of text columns. Extra ad impressions was an added bonus. Now that we all know how to use BLOBs there's no technical reason to do it.

From a usability POV I can't think of any reason not to go with all one page, with the provisos that:
- you need the text to have a readable line length. Eg the NYT "print" view is painful, because the lines span the whole browser.
- clear paragraph breaks are essential.
- crucial nav should be duplicated at the bottom, or maybe use floating CSS divs to keep it constantly available.
- it's nice to have a "top" link at the bottom.
- in a blog post or other format with comments at the bottom, there should be anchors in the page so people can link directly to the comments. Likewise, a "top" link where the comments start and end can be nice.

I know you said "put aside bandwidth" but you should know that text compresses extremely well; unless you are putting novella-length items on one page it just shouldn't be a significant issue.

You will lose readers if you force them to swallow the whole article in one bite

That's a bold and interesting claim. I'm not saying this is wrong, but it surprises me. Is there any research supporting that?

To the questioner again: is it possible for you to trial different versions on your own site, preferably randomly served to different users, and see what works better? It could be that the answer is highly dependent on the makeup of your userbase, so that'd be the best way to get an answer you can be confident in.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:21 PM on August 2, 2008

Best answer: First thing I do when I come onto a page that has multiple pages is to find the 'Print' button, which (usually) lays the entire article out onto one page.

It is really annoying (to me) to have to pause while another page loads, not to mention that I can't go back up to follow the thread of the writers work.

And if it was being done for the readers, it would be broken down into logical sections, but it almost never is -- it's always just a continuation, never at a pause in the thread of the piece.

If you want to tell your readers that you've finished with one section, put in a line and a few lines of spaces and start off with a sub-title telling us what your next section is about.

It has to be a very captivating article to keep me from just blowing them off if it's broken down into page breaks, I have to really want the information, and even then I'm quite annoyed with the designer, sucking down every dime of ad views at the expense of reader enjoyment and cohesion. And I then avoid going to that site again if at all possible.

My $00.02
posted by dancestoblue at 10:22 PM on August 2, 2008

This is very much a generational issue. People over 35(-ish) prefer one long page, people under 25 prefer a summary (probably won't read the whole thing). People in-between may page through subsequent material if the first page is interesting, but are daunted by the prospect of a l..o..n..g read. This is generalizing an awful lot from some very complex research, but basically it is down to the genres that people grew up with and attention span.
So it depends on your intended audience.
posted by Susurration at 10:54 PM on August 2, 2008

If you do go with the single long page approach (this would be my preference, but as long as there's not too many separate pages, I'm not all that bothered) then make sure you have internal anchors for each section. There's nothing more annoying than wanting to cite something from a website and having to link to a big article instead of just the relevant section.
posted by xchmp at 11:18 PM on August 2, 2008

I'm er, under 25 and I prefer one page, at least in part because seeing how long the web page is scroll-bar-wise tells me how long the article is. With pagination, I can reach the end of an article that appears short and find that I have seven more pages to read. That can be good or bad, bad usually when I'm not in the mood for a long article but am interested in following through on the article's ideas. I can, on the other hand, find myself lost on a loong page of uninterrupted text if I try to scroll back to reference something earlier in the article. Really, I think the best way to do it is not to hide your pagination at the bottom of your chunks (give people some clue as to what they're getting in to) and ideally, provide both formatting options upfront.
posted by MadamM at 11:46 PM on August 2, 2008

Best answer: I have been brooding about this some more, and went back to the usability texts.

I think it really depends on what you are presenting.

If the material can be broken down into discrete chunks of information, then a multipage approach is sound - I skim the links and summaries, then I pick just the chunks I want. For example, a lot of instructional text would fall into this approach nicely. This respects the web reader's tendency to skim and the inherent pain of text on a screen and lets me avoid reading I don't want to do.

If we are talking about an actual narrative, or an extended argument, then one page is ok, and maybe even preferable - it's an article, or a story, and I want to read the whole thing in a sitting. This especially is true for things that are so dense that I need to backtrack to what I read earlier. It's much easier to scroll up than to go back and look for the specific page that has the bit I wanted.

If you are going to break into multiple pages, there are lots of things that make life a little easier - links to numbered pages as well as prev and next, providing the title text for previous and next pages, or even having a little hyperlinked table of contents at the bottom of the page as well as or instead of the top.

As I said above, I don't think you can beat actual testing with your intended material and your target audience.

Food for thought on long vs short pages.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:49 PM on August 2, 2008

One major reason some sites do this (apart from increasing the ad views) is that it gives them an idea of whether people are actually reading the whole article, or just loading the first page, reading the first few paragraphs then going and finding something more interesting. It must be an invaluable source of data about what kinds of articles people actually want to read.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 11:53 PM on August 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

Example nav at the bottom of long paginated content:

1 2 3 4 5 6


1: The introduction
2: The next section
3: Where we are now
4: That boring bit I'm not reading because I've had enough of this shit

I HATE HATE HATE bare "previous" and "next". I also hate "1" on its own which gives me no clue what I'm about to embark on.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:53 PM on August 2, 2008

Best answer: Breaking your articles into pages makes a huge difference on how much information you get about your readers from the your server log. If you have many pages, you can distinguish between readers who looked at the title and moved on from those who read to the end. If you are losing a lot of potential readers, your hook is not working, and you need to rewrite.

I vaguely remember reading that this was the reason why the New York Time separates every article in at least two parts.

Aza Raskin argues that you can get all the advantages of broken-up layout in a single pages layout if you use javascript to load the article incrementally as the user scrolls down. His talk is available here:
posted by gmarceau at 1:12 AM on August 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Personally I'm very much in favour of the one page approach. Putting aside issues of user tracking, clickthroughs rates, bandwidth (which isn't an issue with text) etc. I think this is currently the most usable approach, especially if you know that your audience isn't intimidated by long text. My rationale is that you have to balance the initial user reaction to a long page, against their reaction to excess clicking. The impact of long pages is diminishing (average monitor resolution is constantly rising, users are used to long pages via blogs etc, users are intuitively using scroll wheels on their mice), while the effort of multiple clicks remains the same.

Or to put it another way- the best user interface is the one that is the least intrusive in the user experience. Every time you ask a user to click to advance a page, you're breaking up the flow of their experience. Whereas user can scroll down a long page in one continuous flow, especially if they're using a scroll wheel, the arrow keys, etc.

Of course, the best thing to do would be to provide some functionality to swap between a chunked, paginated version, and a single page version, and let the user choose whichever method they're most comfortable with. Alternatively, you can provide a long page with anchor links that create an index at the top of the page (although this isn't ideal for navigation purposes, because jumping up and down long pages tends to confuse users).

One last thing to bear in mind, is that of course that the major consideration when it comes to how easy it is to digest text online isn't really the page format, it's the formating of the text itself - e.g. a reasonable font size, narrow columns, scannable sub-headings, clearly divided paragraphs etc.
posted by iivix at 4:43 AM on August 3, 2008

Sites with page breaks INTENDED to elicit page views turn me off and I quickly leave them.

Pages with super interesting articles that are multipage, I look for a "print" button and read the item uninterrrupted by the need for click/delay.

Pages with moderately interesting long articles that stretch over 10 pages (even the NYT), I often leave before finishing the article.

I don't think it's generational. I think it's the specific content that makes the difference, at least with me. I have no data to support this, of course.
posted by FauxScot at 6:57 AM on August 3, 2008

I prefer one long page, but I am a pretty fast reader and just leave a tab open to where I was versus bookmarking page 4 of something.

If you decide to break the article up, don't make it too short on each page, that is annoying. Also definitely have a print function, so that people like me can just know to click that print function and see it all on one page (one page buttons are far less recognizable).
posted by shownomercy at 7:41 AM on August 3, 2008

It's all about page views and clicks for the ads.
posted by gjc at 11:10 AM on August 3, 2008

I hope you go with giving your reader the option of one long page. But whichever way you go, I think it's also important to wisely choose the line length and line spacing. The reader needs all available help to wade through academic prose. (Closely spaced, wall-to-wall text is not only really hard to read, it's so 1995.)
posted by exphysicist345 at 12:09 PM on August 3, 2008

In the end, it should come down to how will it best serve your readers. You really need to figure out what kind of people will be looking at the articles before you can make this decision.

For instance, while most of the above commenters seem to prefer long pages, I would venture to guess that most MeFi users are somewhat above average in technical savviness and are more comfortable reaading online. Imagine a grandma or some other typical web user coming upon a 10,000 word article. They would probably be overwhelmed. Here's an example 10,000 word page. I'm not claiming it's designed well, but it is around the amount you say you'll be dealing with. If you're presenting to interweb nerds or people who are passionate about the subject, it might be okay, but if you are targeting grandmas, good luck.

If it is unusable to your readers, long or chunked, and discourages them from partaking, it won't matter how it's divided.
posted by PixelatorOfTime at 1:14 PM on August 3, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the great answers, everyone.

After reading your responses, skimming the studies and watching the Raskin video, I came to the conclusion that including both long and chunked on a single web page might be the best solution, but only assuming it doesn't look busy and complicated. The very light-weight and unobtrusive jQuery LocalScroll plugin may serve me well in this effort.

In fact, I won't even call attention to the options at all until the users scroll their browser a bit and happen to see the start of the long version of the piece below the chunked/LocalScroll version.

So there would be two instances of the article on the page. Readers can either click the next/previous arrows at the bottom of the chunked pages to do a horizontal scroll of the article, or they can scroll their browser down to the long version. I may also add comma-separated numerical paging navigation to the sidebar, so they can jump around.

I wish I had an example to post here but at least it's looking pretty doable. The only outstanding concern is the performance of a larger page, since the total amount of text will pretty much be doubled.
posted by christopherious at 7:14 PM on August 4, 2008

Response by poster: Bah, I've changed my mind. Two instances looks like bad design and probably hurts SEO in a big way, even if the second instance is only visible to users curious enough to scroll down further.
posted by christopherious at 10:16 AM on August 5, 2008

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