When bold text is done badly it can just frustrate the user and, from a business perspective, lose their interest before you've had a chance to get your message across. Eye-tracking studies have proved scanning for bold text is ingrained into online behaviour. Users know that if your web page is difficult to scan they can find 10 more pages out there that require less brain power to 'read' – and they won't hesitate to go in search of them instead. After the headline and standfirst, users tend to scan for bold when faced with the prospect of reading a long article online, to choose whether or not to spend precious time there. In practice, this means that your reader should be able to scan only the bold text on a page to get a clear idea of what's going on. This means you should choose self-contained, meaningful phrases to emphasise. With this test in mind we came across a particularly bad use of bold text on the BBC, a site that's normally very good at online presentation. In this instance users are unlikely to be any the wiser as to what the article is trying to say when they scan these phrases:

  • Plastic bags really
  • Using electric hand
  • At a mere
  • New Zealand apples
  • Watching TV turns
  • A typical book
  • Drinking a fine
  • Getting cremated is
  • A year off
  • Keeping your old

What would work better is highlighting each 'environmental nasty', not the first 3 words of each paragraph. The user could then choose whether they're interested in that topic and read on. Even better than that would be to emphasise a short, self-contained phrase that gives the reader a useful bit of information to take away, even if they choose not to read anything else on the page. The first example of bold in this article is the closest this web page gets to getting it right, but it should have stopped at 'Plastic bags'.

The second point should at least have 'electric hand driers' highlighted. Personally, I'd bold 'electric hand driers beat reusable towels'. This line stands alone, tells the user something useful and they don't need to read the rest of the paragraph to understand it – but they can choose to if they want to know more. I'd reword the third paragraph slightly and highlight 'milk doubles the footprint of a cup of tea'. Again, this phrase can stand alone and the reader doesn't have to read the rest of the paragraph to feel like they've learnt something. Incidentally, the headline fails the online user too.

'A bad reputation'tells the reader nothing about the article that follows, meaning the user is forced to read further to gain an understanding of the article - or they might just give up and search elsewhere for the information they're looking for, of course.