“Above the Fold”: Does It Matter on the Web?

The fold. It could be called the most important line in the world. If not, it’s at least the most hotly debated. In this article, we’ll answer three important questions:

  1. What is “the fold”, and why is it called that?

  2. How did “the fold” go from print to Web?

  3. Does the phrase “above the fold” really apply to Web marketing anymore?

The Fold: What Is It?

When you think about folded reading material, what comes to mind? The newspaper, of course. One of the long-standing rules of thumb in print journalism is that your most important content should be instantly visible to the consumer. Whether it was a major headline, call to action, or important advertisement, that content had to be seen - and seen immediately. So what better place to put that content than on the top half of the front page of the newspaper? That way, when the paper was folded in half, the lead content was the first thing everyone saw. In other words, it fell above the fold.

How Did The Fold Go From Print to Web?

In the late 1990s, designing for the Web without considering the fold was not an option. Screen resolutions and sizes varied little, and laptop production had only become standardized with the release of Windows 95 in 1995. As a result, most Web sites operated within the same display parameters, making “the fold” a rather concrete location. 

This is not the case anymore. From desktops to laptops, tablets to phones and other mobile devices, users have many different ways to view online content. Screen sizes and resolutions are incredibly varied, and the amount of a website that is instantly visible to one user may be different from the next. As a result, the clearly-marked area once known as “above the fold” is much harder to define. It’s enough to make even the most ardent followers of design ask the question...

Does The Fold Matter Anymore?

Yes, being “above the fold” still matters - just not for the same reasons it once did. Content marketing is king in today’s Web marketplace. Whereas obeying the law of “staying above the fold” was once about design and functionality, it is now a cardinal rule of content development and creation.

Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D. (often called “the smartest person on the Web”), states that Web users still spend 80% of their time reading “above the fold”, but also notes that long articles are best presented on a single page.* How can both of these statements be true? Why are long articles that require scrolling okay if users spend a majority of their time “above the fold”? Today’s user is thirsty for strong content, and doesn’t mind scrolling to consume it. However, the information that appears “above the fold” must imply to the user what will be found "below the fold".

A smart website places key information and calls to action in easy-to-view areas “above the fold”. These include core branding elements, primary site navigation, and fresh, enticing content that drives audience engagement. Sure, it’s okay to place content throughout your website - but if you don’t build value right away, what will make users want to find it?

Nielsen also tells us that most users decide whether or not a web site provides them value within a mere 10 seconds.* Yes, Web users are sophisticated, educated, and thirsty enough for content that they don't mind scrolling to discover information they need. But in order to get them there, providing engaging content with clear calls to action immediately upon arrival is crucial. So, while it's no longer true that all your content has to sit "above the fold"... your most important content still probably should.

We know this is a controversial topic among Web marketers, designers and developers. We’d love to hear your opinion - what do you think?

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