What I learned from eye tracking
The folks at etre were kind enough to do some eye tracking analysis of Squidoo. You can see the entire tape, unedited (but at slightly lower youtube resolution) here:
This is fascinating stuff. The blue dot shows you where the user is focusing her eyesite... it doesn't measure peripheral vision, which is crucial. It reminds me of watching some bugs approaching food--or perhaps it's a trap... The path is very jumpy, impatient, experimenting hither and yon.
You can see that some of the participants are slower, more linear readers, while others are jumping like mad, taking it all in.
I think websurfing is a hunting activity. The eye is looking for anamolies, for things that don't belong. (That might be why the word anomaly, spelled wrong in the previous sentence, got your focus). Once our peripheral vision confirms that something is familiar, we can ignore it and just worry about the new stuff. Squidoo is stuffed with new stuff (nearly all our visitors are first-time visitors) and so, for example, there's almost no focus on our Google AdWords. That's because they're familiar.
One of the takeaways is that bad web design might actually be a good thing! Slightly bad design isn't familiar. It's off. It demands attention. (Very bad design demands the 'back' button, of course). One of the reasons that experienced power tool users--like table saws--can still lose a finger is that they don't pay attention... it's too easy to turn the thing on and just use it.
The biggest lesson wasn't news to me, but it might be to your boss: your prospects are not rational and organized and linear. You can't count on them sitting still and hearing your story from beginning to end. They won't.
The answer is not to try to change human nature. It's to embrace the hunting skills that people are bringing online (and to their daily offline media consumption) and to make your media match their needs.