The Web is primarily a text-driven medium and will remain so despite the rise of video.

"Dominant headlines most often draw the eye first upon entering the page -- especially when they are in the upper left, and most often (but not always) when in the upper right," according to Eyetrack III from Poynter Institute. This study of how people consume news websites found that, "Photographs, contrary to what you might expect (and contrary to findings of 1990 Poynter eyetracking research on print newspapers), aren't typically the entry point to a homepage. Text rules on the PC screen -- both in order viewed and in overall time spent looking at it."

In traditional print media it has long been established that images are more powerful than text in getting attention. But the opposite is the case on the Web. Text dominates. Consider the Google business model. It makes most of its money from advertising. What sort of advertising? AdWords. Text. Google has never sold a graphical ad on google.com.

That is totally contrary to the traditional print and TV ad industry. There, the more color, the more fantastic the image, the bigger the impact. It's the opposite on the Web.

What is interesting about Eyetrack III is how consistent its results are with various other web behavior studies that have been conducted over the years. It's long been known that the first couple of words are vital if you want to keep people reading.

The study found that:

  1. When people look at blurbs (summaries) under headlines on news homepages, they often only look at the left one-third of the blurb. In other words, most people just look at the first couple of words -- and only read on if they are engaged by those words.
  2. People typically scan down a list of headlines, and often don't view entire headlines. If the first words engage them, they seem likely to read on.

On average, a headline has less than a second of a site visitor's attention. For headlines -- especially longer ones -- it would appear that the first couple of words need to be real attention-grabbers if you want to capture eyes.

The study found that average blurb length varies from a low of about 10 words to a high of 25, with most sites coming in at around 17. In 2009, Customer Carewords did a study of over 500 news headlines. We found that 87 percent of headlines analyzed were between 5 and 9 words long, with the most popular headline length being 7 words.

Some people think that I hate images and video. Absolutely not. Anyone who has seen my presentations will know that I use hardly any text. It's all visuals and images. Why? Because after doing thousands of presentations I've found that telling a story based on a series of powerful images is very effective. A list of text-based bullet points bores people to death.

The issue is not whether text is inherently better than images. It's about using the right tool for the right medium. On the Web, text dominates. Will there be exceptions? Of course. But they will be exceptions that prove the rule: text dominates.