There is a lot of focus on most Web design sites on how wide you should make your pages. And width is important. But have you thought about how long your pages are? Conventional wisdom says that you should not make any page longer than one screenful of text, because readers hate to scroll down. In fact, there's even a term for content that is outside of that first screen, it's called below the fold. And most designers believe that content that is below that fold might as well not exist for most readers.
But in a study done by the UIE, they found that "most users readily scrolled through pages, usually without comment." And on sites where the designers made a conscious effort to keep their pages from scrolling, the UIE testers couldn't determine if the readers even noticed, "not one commented about not having to scroll on [the test] site." They also found that if the reader knew that the information they were looking for was on the website, longer pages made it easier for them to find that information.
Scrolling Isn't the Only Thing that Hides Information
The most common argument against writing long pages is that it causes the information to be hidden "below the fold" and readers may never even see it. But putting that information on another page altogether hides it even more effectively. In my own tests, I have found that multi-page articles see a drop off of around 50% for every page after the first one. In other words, if 100 people hit the first page of an article, 50 make it to the second page, 25 to the third, and 10 to the fourth, and so on. And in fact, the drop off is much more severe after the second page (something like 85% of the original readers never make it to the third page of an article).
When a page is long, there is a visual cue for the reader in the form of the scroll bar on the right side of their browser. Most Web browsers change the length of the internal scroll bar to indicate how long the document is and how much more is left to scroll. While most readers won't consciously see that, it provides information to let them know that there's more on the page than they immediately see. But when you create short pages and links to subsequent pages, there is no visual information to tell them how long the article is. In fact, expecting your readers to click links is asking them to take a leap of faith that you're really going to provide more information on that next page that they will value. When it's all on one page, they can scan the entire page, and find the parts that are of interest.
But Some Things Block Scrolling
If you have a long Web page that you want people to scroll through, you need to make sure you avoid scroll blockers. These are visual elements of your Web page that imply that the page content is over. These include elements like:
- horizontal lines
- lines of text links
- short, wide graphics (especially ones that are around 468x60 - a standard ad unit size)
- navigation icons or social media links
Basically, anything that acts as a horizontal line across the entire width of the content area can act as a scroll block. Including images or multimedia. And in most cases, even if you tell your reader that there's more content below, they will have already hit the back button and gone on to other pages.
So How Long Should a Web Page Be?
Ultimately, it depends upon your audience. Children don't have as long of attention spans as adults, and some topics work better in longer segments. But a good rule of thumb is:
No article should exceed 2 printed pages of double-spaced, 12 point text.
And that would be a long Web page. But if the content merited it, putting it all on one page would be preferable to forcing your readers to click through to subsequent pages.