The Fold Exists but Does it Matter?

Digging around the web will unearth a heavy bias against the fold.

“A rule of thumb that kills innovation.”

“Used by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.”

“A concept introduced by someone who is a moron.”

“The fold is bogus.”

“The fold is a myth.”

“The fold is a silly thing that clients like to focus on.”

“There is no fold.”

There is even a web site called thereisnofold.com. This is not an issue that lacks for opinion.

Newspaper

What Is The Fold and What Do WeKnow About It?

The phrase “the fold” comes from broadsheet newspapers. It refers to the top half of the front page, the only piece of content visible without picking up the newspaper. Whatever content is on the fold helps determine the salability of the paper because it’s either interesting or it’s not.

In the 90s, this term was ported over to the web. It refers to any content that can’t be seen in your current browser window without scrolling or manipulation. This means that on most web viewing experiences, no matter the device, the fold exists.

With the plethora of screen sizes and devices now used to get online, screen sizes vary wildly. On top of that, browser chrome size differs and people do not constantly have their windows maximized.

So, yes, the fold exists but in this current climate should we pay any attention to it?

The Research

  • In the mid 90s, Jakob Nielsen published a study discouraging the use of scroll on web sites because only 10% of
    Example of decrease in views as users scroll down page

    Percentage of people who view content decreases the further they scroll down the page

    his test participants scrolled. In ’97, he retracted that previous research, telling us that people had generally learned to scroll although scrolling “still reduces usability.” Then again in 2010 he did a follow-up study that in many ways reiterated the ’97 study, presenting data showing that people spend 80% of their time above their fold. Attention to content dropped dramatically below that.

  • ClickTales has published three blog posts around their ongoing study of the fold. In their study in 2006, they found that 91% of people had a scrollbar, 76% of those scrolled, and 22% scrolled all the way to the page bottom. They also found that whether the page was 2000 or 12,000 pixels long, people tended to scroll to the same relative position on each page they visited (some wouldn’t scroll, some scrolled to 50% mark, etc.).
  • In a 2007 follow up study, ClickTales showed a primacy and recency effect where the top and bottom content was salient but attention dropped off dramatically in between. The top part of pages were 17 times more likely to be seen by all visitors than areas near the bottom.
  • Milissa Tarquini’s article in 2007 called “Blasting the Myth of the Fold” covered her research with AOL and TMZ.com. It revealed that not only were people scrolling to the bottom of a page, but they were interacting with the content there.

Research Regarding Advertising

  • Example adWhen we start talking about advertising in particular, things get more interesting. Chitika analyzed over 22 million impressions and found that ads placed above the fold had a 44% higher click through rate than those placed below.
  • Similarly, Casal Media analyzed 2 billion impressions and found that ads above the fold were seven times more likely to get clicked than their below the fold counterparts. MarketingSherpa commissioned another study that found ads below the fold weren’t seen at all by 75% of visitors. It should be mentioned that these groups sell advertising, but the results are compelling nonetheless.

So Where Is The Controversy Coming From?

Courtesy of AthalFred on Flickr
From what I’ve seen and experienced, the controversy originates with bosses, project managers, or clients who’ve heard about this data and don’t want to make a costly mistake on their site. They latch on to a specific pixel height they’ve heard (600 pixels is a common one) and want to use that as a die hard horizontal rule above which everything important must be placed. This misunderstanding causes strife in the design team and makes for a crammed and dull user experience at the top and a no-man’s land without useful content below.

In their defense, many businesses exist solely online and if they aren’t selling then they can’t stay afloat. They don’t want to ruin their chances to convert visitors. With so much at stake, it’s easy to understand how this issue has turned into a hot button topic.

So where is the balance between keeping stakeholders’ business objectives in mind while developing a great experience?

Solutions

Copy, ads, pictures, and actions at the top of a viewable area are going to remain salient. Since we have no control over how people access our sites and what portion they see, we need to focus on the things we can control.

  • Design smart.
    During usability testing, I commonly see content boxes on home pages which coincide with the bottom of participants’ browser windows. These designs communicate to participants that the site ends where the content box ends, even if there is content below it. 

    Reviewing analytics helps us know what screen sizes are viewing a web site. It can be tricky, though, because even if analytics say most people view a site on a resolution of 1280×800, that doesn’t mean the browsers are maximized to full size. The best designs will keep the most common resolutions in mind while at the same time employ adaptive design techniques that make sure the site provides the best experience no matter what size the window is.

  • Focus on content.
    Content decisions should be driving the design of each page. As people scan the page, they are looking for content that seems relevant. Following this information scent should lead them below the fold if that is where their target content exists. 

    Complicating the matter is that scrollbars are decreasing as an indicator for scrollability. Apple’s new operating system, OS X Lion, will no longer be employing visible scrollbars if you have a trackpad or scrolling mouse (although they’ll keep it as an option). This move toward a more mobile-centered interface is just the beginning of a shift in paradigm. By focusing on a trail of tasty content bits and using obvious design cues, we’ll be able to transition seamlessly new environment.

  • Curate what goes up top.
    We’ve seen that there is extra gravity given to content at the top of the page. With that comes extra responsibility with what you decide to feature there. This takes the hard work of knowing who your personas are, what they are looking for, what your messaging is, what conversions are most important, etc. This will give you a good foundation to make educated decisions and prevent above-the-fold clutter.

What about you?

These thoughts just begin to scratch the surface and your voice would help us all keep thinking critically about it.

Has the fold caused you problems in your job? Does the word itself make you cringe?

Do you think there are other ways we need to be thinking about this issue?

How do you feel like the mobile is changing the way we think about the fold?

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  • http://friendly-machine.com John Hannah

    Great piece. I think one absolutely has to consider ‘the fold’ if you want to create a great user experience that also meets business objectives. 

    As to the last question posed, mobile is quite challenging. I like the ‘mobile first’ approach to design that has been advocated by Wroblewski, Marcotte and others. It helps focus thinking on essential content and strips away some of the fluff content that can sneak onto a page. 

  • http://twitter.com/kholden kholden

    The fold has absolutely no baring on things such as landing page conversion rates, if the page is well designed and engaging.

    I remember reading a great conversion rate experts case study about SEOmoz. Basically the longer the page was, the better it converted. Not that everybody should go and make giant pages hoping for better conversions :)

    Simple landing pages work great for simple products, but the idea of having to have everything above the fold is nonsense.

    • http://blog.avangelistdesign.com Andy Parker

      That I agree with. It is all about content and weighting. It is about those key calls to action and the context they’re in.

  • http://www.jenders.com Dennis Jenders

    In spending more than 10 years specifically designing websites with a lot of content I can say without a doubt that there is a fold. When it comes to the news industry and other sites that need to get messages to the masses, the most important content needs to be above the fold.

    Every point of measurement shows that as people would scroll down we’d lose more and more readership and it would become more and more difficult to differentiate the importance of content.

    Even greatly designed news sites like CNN have a problem of differentiating importance on the second and third scroll of the site.

    There is a fold. Designers and front end developers that deny that don’t understand the user well.

  • http://twitter.com/hugegoudaface Ross Chapman

    Is it not “ClickTale”, singular?

  • Csongor Fabian

    The fold exists, but I think that if the content is valuable enough, users will scroll. So sites providing valuable content (in a tasty way) will produce totally different results on scrolling issues. Apple’s move toward blurring this fold myth, but in my opinion valuable content will be the holy grail (even for advertisements – in these cases targeting users is much more relevant than just above the fold/blow the fold point of view)

  • Fabioscouto

    If the fold exists this blog post is doomed because no one will read it completely. Oh wait… how did I get down here?

  • http://twitter.com/susan_silver Susan Silver

    I think there is a fold, and that having something engaging at the top will get readers to scroll and read the rest. But I also think that that people don’t scroll is a myth. I think this is an issue of design and we fail in alerting users that there is information at the bottom. Here is an example of a site that makes it obvious you should scroll for more info:

    http://beta.strawberryj.am/

    They have arrows pointing the way, as well as using the ground/dirt in their graphic design to show you. I think such visual cues are important and we don’t see them enough. Reading this post today has got me interested in doing something graphically that will bring attention to my footer.

  • http://www.designingdotgov.com Sean Ryan

    You cannot worry about the fold unless you know the exact dimensions that your site will be viewed at every time. There are so many devices with so many resolutions that you cannot point to a single spot on any website design and say “This is the fold. Everything important must be above this line.”

    There is only one thing that is in your control – creating an engaging experience with information that a user wants. If you do that, then the fold will become irrelevant.

  • http://www.grapheion.org Michele Finelli

    I think it’s a matter of website content and audience. To clarify: in some type of websites – like corporate ones – the fold is still a measure to consider as the average user of that website has no time to spend going “down”, so all the relevant info must be “above the fold”. On other site, and when design helps, it is nice to suggest that there is “more to see” below the fold.
    I still consider a rule of thumb to keep all the main action buttons and similar above.
    A good notice: with the advent of more mobile and tablet users, the “fold” is not to consider on those device, so we can define a more better desing experience forgetting of this “there is, there is not” matter.

  • http://www.WhatDidEricSay.com Eric Miltsch

    I was going to comment but I couldn’t find the comments below the fold. 

    Plus, it becomes even more interesting when designing for mobile and tablet browsers. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/chaz.scholton Chaz Scholton

    Mid 90′s people are still getting used to using the web, including their mouse wheel to scroll.  To be honest, the reason why AD’s work above the fold so well.  Is that the page people visited does not capture their attention, they will glance at the AD’s.  If the AD is targeted according to the content, there’s a good chance people are going to click on it.  Who the Hell bothers reading below the fold when you quickly figure out in the first 5-6 sentences the content is of no use/interest to you?  (Dugh).. Like people are going to scroll through a pointless article?  The quality of the article/content is what gets people down below the fold.  Still none the less, if the content and the ads don’t interest somebody.  They are out of there. Yet people are spending all this brain power debating about something so simple? LOL Just cracks me up.  Quality content plays a very important role. 

    • http://kidneydialysis.org.uk Dr John

      “Who the Hell bothers reading below the fold when you quickly figure out in the first 5 – 6 sentences the content is of no use/​interest to you? (Dugh).. ”

      So the content ABOVE the fold makes you look below the fold.

      Therefore the fold exists, even if it’s exact location can’t be defines due to different screen and viewport sizes.

      If I don’t read anything of interest near the top of a page, I am certainly less inclined to go down through ten screen’s worth of data just in case I find something I am interested in.

      It was said earlier that users interact with things at the very bottom of a page – that’s often because there is a menu system down there, so once you get there you might as well use it. But do we all go looking at the very bottom of a page just in case that footer menu has extra links we missed? I don’t, what about you? Only if I can’t see a contact email do I rush to the footer to check for one.

  • michael

    i may never know the whole story because i dont belive in scrolling wait! how did i get here never learned to fold my laundry

  • FelixIus

    Certainly, a fold does exist. However, the action or reaction of the user will depend on the site and it’s content. For me, a newspaper has a great opportunity to use said fold to promote a quick advert, or show the major story or stories of the hour.

    IMHO the fold only becomes critical for those sites that have one chance to make a web surfer stay.

    Heh

  • http://blog.avangelistdesign.com Andy Parker

    From the perspective of web apps, you’d be stunned to hear people talking about where things on the screen appear based on the fold.

    My argument is always that if the primary functions of the page aren’t the first thing you hit, get rid of the cruft.

  • http://twitter.com/jikche Jason Cheung

    I agree with content being key – as is evident by growing number of readers who skip the bottom half of articles (typically news sites) and jump to the bottom of the page where the comments are. 

  • Tom A

    There’s a lot of people commenting here about the wrong kind of content – of course people will scroll to the end of a blog post, because a) the content obviously continues and b) blog posts tend to follow a convention that comments follow content. If, however, you decided to have your blog page with the content followed by, say, a list of related posts and a full-width banner, and then the comments (with no indication higher on the page that the comments exist) – then I’ll bet that less people add comments.

    And considering the fold in terms of blog pages doesn’t help you design functional or transactional pages. I’m working on a wedding list feature of a shop website at the moment, where a page has four important purposes (view a list of products you’ve added to your wedding list, a call to action to find and add more products, email and social sharing of your content, and adding a ‘thankyou’ message for when people buy a gift for you). Those four actions are not all intuitively obvious before you reach the page, so it’s really important that users are alerted in some way to all four of these options when they reach the page. If they don’t know they can do these things, how will they know to scroll the page to discover them? (And while you can argue that discoverability is actually a good thing, I would argue that higher conversion rates are better…)

    “During usability testing, I commonly see content boxes on home pages which coincide with the bottom of participants’ browser windows.”
    I totally concur with this – and in addition I’ve seen a number of examples of people scrolling a long way down a page and then stop scrolling because the design makes it look like there’s nothing else to get to. In particular, a box with a gap underneath even 10-20 pixels high is enough to make some users think there’s nothing else to see.

  • Anonymous

    That is why one-window Flash websites that scroll horizontally are best for any user experience
    ;)

  • http://twitter.com/Tahutis Pete Wright

    Thanks for a nice, balanced piece – as you say, most posts on this subject either fixate on specifics, or try to deny the reality of the fold. The latter type tend to be from art-focused designers who dislike design constraints, or who at least dislike working to such a variable constraint.

    Browser window sizes are variable even when screen sizes are relatively predictable, so we can only ever estimate where the ‘fold’ is for different percentages of our audience. I find browsersize.googlelabs.com a useful, broad guide, but always try to remember that “reality” varies with the specific target audience for a given site.Writers know that headlines, introductions and conclusions are what matter – concentration between these points has to be earned. That’s how humans think, and doesn’t seem likely to change for visual design or new media. People will scroll *if* the design and content encourages them to do so – any study that ignores those factors is little better than guesswork.

  • http://paulgailey.com Paul Gailey

    some of the most enduring and magnetic posts are because of the content under the fold in the comments. The whole premise of the importance of the fold is negated because nearly all sites include scrolling.

    • http://kidneydialysis.org.uk Dr John

      On a blog, perhaps, where you are already engaged by the content you read at the top of the page, where you wish to contribute to the discussion and see the opinions of others (hoping they have the same opinion as you). So then you DO search further down the page, as I’ve just done.

      But if that opening section you first read didn’t say enough to grab you, you’re gone.

      One of my clients had buy now ads for their product 3/4 of the way down the page. I suggested moving the buy now options to the top, as the first thing a visitor would see. Sales improved a fair bit after that. The undefined limit of the fold seemed to matter in that case.

  • Dave

    Great, even-handed discussion of the situation.

    I usually come to the conclusion that the effect of the fold is directly determined by how strong of an indication exists that there is content, and good content, below the fold. If a picture clearly continues below the fold of my browser, then I’ll scroll down, and the fold is much less important.

  • http://www.modred.co.uk Scott

    Interesting.. I guess scrolling took a little more effort back in the day – the website in question must be pretty uninspiring if you can’t be bothered to scroll down a little.

  • http://www.taphilo.com Tom Philo

    Its all about framing. A picture frame exists to control your eyesight to the picture and remove external distractions. A browser window builds the same idea – to focus attention on the content but a great design lets the user know that there is more to see than what is just within the browser frame.

    I think the fold effect will lessen over time due to smart phones which FORCE scrolling and so people do not find it foreign to do as did intial internet users did (mainly due to bad designs of both the pages AND the browser itself. People had to be taught to scroll!)

  • delvidge

    There is a fold. But how important is it?
    Even in newspapers most of the content above the fold is the papers name. Which isn’t gonna attract many more customers. And most papers are displayed without a fold now anyway (tabloids especially).

    Content is King. If people want to see the content on your site (or in your paper) they will look for it.

    As a desiognerdeveloper it’s my job to make finding it as quick and painless for them as possible.

    Visuals and content strucutre can be easily used to show the user than there is more content below the fold.

    Besides. Now mobiles and tablets are more popular than ever all web users are used to scolling down for more.

  • http://www.jmonit.com/ Monit

    Very Nice Article. I believe we need to design sites with flexibility and lay the content differently for different devices. As more and more people are using there cell phones to access site, I don’t think we need to be too concerned about the fold.People are more tech savvy now and they will scroll down if they are going to find want they need there. As a designer I feel our responsibility is to make website more and more intuitive so as to guide the users from one point to another.

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  • http://www.bradcrumbs.com RandomBrad

    I’ve been designing lately to try and keep a more “mobile” experience even on the desktop. What I mean is, if I can create a good user experience with no scroll bars, well defined and placed content, and good usage of modals when necessary, the fold is taken right out of the picture.

    Reducing complexity is a key here. For too long web development has been driven by the need for SEO, which means overloading content. Combine the need with putting everything possible on your home page with a desire to have it above the fold and you’re toast. Search engines, and users, are becoming smarter. A site needs to be a path that any user can take straight to their goal, with each user finding their own path from that home page. Design for your personas and take them to their goal!