Digital zombies: Should we kill the “above the fold” myth forever?

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Executive Summary/TLDR

Question: Should important content on a homepage always appear “above the fold”?

Answer: The idea that compelling content, as well as calls to action, need to be “above the fold” on a webpage is a myth. Sort of. In a responsive world, standards for above the fold do not exist. Rather than observing outdated rules, website designers should focus on storytelling and cues. Content, layout, and design can engage the reader and seduce them into scrolling.

As I write this, it’s early 2021. A terrible year is in the rearview mirror. A pandemic still rages, but the American political system seems to be in an early state of recovery. In  2021, nobody recalls or cares that Cardi B threw a shoe at Nicki Minaj. And chunky sneakers are becoming a distant memory. 2020 was the year we shattered history, norms, and decorum. But 2021 seems to be a year with promise.

Some trends, though, won’t die. In this third decade of the 21st century, I’m still hearing the age-old injunction: “Please, as you’re designing our homepage, keep all the important stuff above the fold!” In the midst of global upheaval, clients and collaborators still lean on the comfort of canon.

We’ve tried to slay this internet zombie many times. Now might be a good time to explain why we all should. And shouldn’t. You see where I’m going with this?

Once upon a time… there was a fold.

Like so many rules of the web, the concept of keeping essential content above the fold goes way back. Web designers borrowed it from print journalists. Back in the day, the “fold” referred to the center fold of a newspaper. The idea was that when you see the paper in a newstand, the day’s most important headlines should be on the top half. It was a concept everyone could understand. 

Sounds simple, no?

At the dawn of the internet age, designers digitized this idea of “the fold.” America Online, an influential player that dates back to the 1980s, offered one of the first branded internet portals in the 1990s. Users accessed AOL’s proprietary content through its own software. At first, this software allowed only for situational scrolling. Early content on the internet’s biggest early brand didn’t permit much scrolling. That set precedent. 

Then there’s the resolution issue.

Experiencing your favorite PC game in glorious 4K resolution is a recent phenomena. Instead of the +/-2,000  pixels of 4K, the average desktop computer of the mid-90s had a max height of 800 pixels, which isn’t a lot. And it reinforced a standard for the fold that still persists.

The first visual mainstream web browsers date back to the mid-90s. Around that time, researchers began studying the ways that people used browsers. In a very influential blog post from 1997, Jakob Nielsen examined web-scrolling behavior. He noted that his previous studies (from 1994) found that only 10% of early web users scrolled. But even in 1997, that behavior had begun to change. Concluding his post, Nielsen wrote: 

“Scrolling still reduces usability, but all design involves trade-offs… the argument against scrolling is no longer as strong as it used to be.”

So there you have it. As early as 1997, Nielsen was dismantling the myth of the fold. People were learning to scroll, and they were okay with it.

Then there’s that resolution issue. Again.

The fold was already becoming an outmoded idea by the late 1990s. A decade later, a revolution in website design would further erode the fold’s relevance. 

Responsive design–the practice of designing a unified website experience across all devices–demolishes the idea of the fold. Responsive designers create websites that look good on any device. A high-resolution monitor, or even an average one. A phone (in landscape or portrait orientation), or a tablet. 

A world with lots of devices is a world without a fold. Or too many folds to ever worry about them.

So when does keeping content above the fold make sense?

It makes sense to keep content above the fold in certain circumstances. Two obvious examples come to mind.

  1. Where the point of a page is to tease interest but also to direct people away from the page. Some homepages fall into this category. For instance, if your site speaks to different audiences that you need to segment off, then it makes sense to offer teases like “read more” links to specific audiences. And those teases are best made toward the top of  your content “silo” (i.e., above the fold).
  2. Where attention spans are likely to be very short. A “landing page” is a good example. These are the pages people “land” on after they click a paid advertising (think: Google Ads). In these circumstances, visitors aren’t expecting a deep interaction. It’s best to offer them links to deeper interaction after they’ve completed your call to action (e.g., filling out a form).

Final Thoughts 

David Ogilvy famously silenced critics of longer copywriting in the 1960s. (In case you’re wondering why this is relevant… Long-form copywriting moves readers below the fold.) In an article called “How to create industrial advertising that sells,” Ogilvy addressed the “long form vs short form” controversy. He said:

“Readership research shows that the vast majority of the readers of any advertisement never get beyond the headline. Since so few people read the copy at all why does Ogilvy & Mather recommend long copy so often?” 

His answer is instructive:

“The answer is that those relatively few people who read the copy are prospects for your product or your service.” 

Bingo. That’s the crux of the conundrum. Sure, research might suggest that content that extends beyond the fold might increase your bounce rate for a wide audience, but if the content reaches your prospects, they’ll continue reading it. Even if extends below the fold.


Glossary

above (or below) the fold

  1. printed in the top (or bottom) half of the front page of a broadsheet newspaper and so visible (or not visible) when the paper is folded.

“They’re holding four column inches above the fold.”

2. positioned in the upper (or lower) half of a web page and so visible (or not visible) without scrolling down the page.

“Click-through yield on ads below the fold is lower.”

Source: https://languages.oup.com/google-dictionary-en/


Sources

https://medium.com/rareview/the-above-the-fold-myth
https://www.nngroup.com/articles/scrolling-and-attention/
https://www.hugeinc.com/articles/everybody-scrolls
http://www.uie.com/brainsparks/2006/08/02/utilizing-the-cut-off-look-to-encourage-users-to-scroll/
http://www.useit.com/alertbox/9712a.html
http://blog.clicktale.com/2006/12/23/unfolding-the-fold/

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