A few weeks ago, to help a new employee get up to speed, our office had an impromptu round table discussion on the basics of web design. Appropriately enough, most of the discussion was dedicated to designing the most important page of any website: the homepage.

A good site homepage defines the identity, services, and character of a company. And the one thing you can be almost certain that everyone will look at is the top of the homepage. This area—the part of the page that is visible when it initially loads, without having to scroll—is what folks in the web design trade call ‘above the fold’ (a throwback to the top half of newspaper front pages).

This ‘above the fold’ area is where your website has the opportunity to make a great first impression.

This leads many businesses to make a fairly logical choice: “Let’s wow our visitors with some fantastic imagery! Maybe even a great big video right where they can’t miss it! Then below that we can put all the boring text about our business and what we do.”

Here’s the problem: website visitors are fickle, impatient creatures that are instantly bored. They don’t leisurely browse through your website, perusing it to see what it has to offer. Web users are hyperactive—they open a couple dozen tabs and bounce from one to the next, giving each one five or ten seconds of their time before they move on.

It’s actually pretty easy to observe this. Many web developers—including ourselves—use heat maps, which track user behavior in order to get a sense of how users interact with a website. One type of heat map that can really help us understand the patience of visitors is a scroll heat map, which uses color coding to indicate what percentage of visitors scrolled down to a certain part of the site.

Click on this thumbnail to see a full-length scroll heat map of our front page.

The area in bright red is the above the fold content, which 100% of visitors see. The yellow area is seen by about 66 to 75% of our visitors (this area is actually visible above the fold on larger monitors, which suggests that at least a third of visitors don’t scroll down a single millimeter). The light blue area is seen by about half of our visitors, the darker blue area is viewed by 33%, and the icy arctic-looking purple area where the White Walkers roam is seen by, at best, about 16% of visitors. Maybe 5% of people make it to the bottom of the page.

The serious reality check this heat map hits us with is that half of our website’s visitors barely make it beyond the above the fold content.

Half of our visitors only look at the first 20% of the page. Maybe one in five manages to make it to the halfway mark. So much glorious, achingly beautiful content goes unappreciated.

And Google knows this. They spend incredible amounts of time, money, and computing power understanding how web users think and behave. Their data, like ours, shows that users rarely move beyond the homepage—unless they landed on a secondary page through a link or organic search—and can rarely be bothered to scroll very far beyond the fold, if at all. To compensate for this, Google places a huge emphasis on the value of above the fold content. A chunk of descriptive text above the fold is going to carry more weight with Google’s ranking algorithm than text that’s buried way down the page.

This is where many business owners trip themselves up when they slap a big sexy image up at the top of the page—sometimes with a logo or text embedded that can’t be parsed by Google’s crawlers—and relegate descriptive text and CTAs down where a depressingly large chunk of visitors will never see them, let alone engage with them. Not only do a lot of humans not see this content, but the bots penalize your rankings as well, because they can only look at the text on the page to understand what it’s about, and the rankings suffer because they don’t see anything useful above the fold. This in turn means that even fewer people see your site’s content.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have any content below the fold. You need that content to support the above the fold content. The more relevant, high quality content, the better. But it’s there for the bots, not your visitors. As our CMO Josh Rubin noted near the bottom of the homepage of our old sister site, Creative California (before we shut the site down):

Frankly, this content is here because, when we look at the world of search engine optimization, you have to have relevant content related to the main topic of your site or page. It’s just a necessary evil for showing up in search engine results. Our metrics show that less than 5% of people on this site even scroll down to this section.

When it comes to grabbing the attention of visitors—both fleshy and electronic—anything below the fold is relying on the above the fold content to do the heavy lifting.

This is why you have to take advantage of above the fold space with content that engages both people and robots.

Take a look at the above the fold content on our homepage (note: as it looked back in 2017):

Above the fold content example

Yes, there isn’t a lot of above the fold content. But we strategically use that space to accomplish three very important things:

  1. Describe. We include text that makes it very clear what we do (web design and marketing) and the region in which we’re located (Sacramento). This text, buttressed by the content below, makes it very clear to Google what we do and what we should rank for.
  2. Engage. We don’t wait until halfway down the page to hit visitors with a CTA. If we did that, we would lose half of our visitors by the time we made a pitch. Instead, we have the CTA front and center, and also include a ‘call us’ link in the top right.
  3. Build trust. The web industry has a horrendous reputation. Every business has a horror story about a faceless fly-by-night firm that wronged them. That’s why we lead off with a photo of our team sitting in front of Temple Coffee on K Street in Downtown Sacramento. It reaffirms that we’re real, approachable people with an actual office who engage with our customers and one another. In short, we can be held accountable for our promises. We can be trusted. Reputation and trustworthiness are a huge sell in our industry.

While we will always accommodate the wishes and needs of our clients, we always urge our clients to adopt the above principles when it comes to designing their homepages.

For a website to really succeed in engaging its audience, you can’t rely on the patience of that audience. You have to start informing them from the moment they lay eyes on your site, make it as easy as possible for them to reach out to you, and give them a good reason to reach out.

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