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.
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?
- In the mid 90s, Jakob Nielsen published a study discouraging the use of scroll on web sites because only 10% of
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
- When 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?
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?
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?
Emily Smith is an information architect and usability consultant for the web and Apple devices. She co-works with other web professionals in Greenville, SC and can be found online at emilysmith.cc.