Unique research using tracking equipment that records the eye movements of people surfing the web has found that online news readers are far more interested in text than graphics and pictures.

The study shows that screen text plays a much more important role than graphics as entry points for online news.

Using data recorded from 67 online news readers based in two US cities, the researchers at Stanford University and the Poynter Institute have shown that the widely held view that graphics in news pages have pulling power may be a myth.

The results contrast with previous Poynter work carried out 10 years ago which showed that magazine and newspaper readers were drawn first to pictures and graphics and then moving to the largest headline on the page.

Poynter researcher Andrew DeVigal said many journalists are surprised by the new research which shows images appear to be less important in an online context. 'Personally it is my view that people do see the images and are scanning them via their peripheral vision, and based on content and interest, then decide to fixate.'

The study also found that, contrary to popular belief, news readers do look at banner adverts. 'We found that banner ads do catch online readers' attention,' said Poynter. 'For the 45 per cent of banner ads looked at all our subjects' eyes fixated on them for an average one second. That is long enough to perceive the ad.'

The surfers in the study were wearing small, lightweight, head-mounted cameras that fired low-level infrared beams into their eyes at the rate of 60 per second. The eye movements recorded were matched with specific content on the websites being viewed. The study monitored a total of 608,063 eye 'fixations' and 24,530 mouse clicks. Overall, data from 40 hours of news surfing was recorded.

Graphics other than banners were viewed 22% of the time while almost two thirds of all photographs were viewed. 'Whether text in and of itself really attracts eyes before artwork is difficult to conclude since, often, the text comes up before the graphics,' Poynter said. 'Nonetheless, the provider's first chance to engage the reader is through text. Furthermore, the Stanford-Poynter eye tracking study does show a pattern in which text is sought out and either skimmed or read.'

On data relating to surfing sessions generally, the researchers found that local news was most in demand. Forty-five per cent of those in the study went first to local news sites; 28% went to a national site and 8% went to a speciality site. Only 9% went to a portal.

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