Fold? What's that?
On more than one occasion over the years I have had clients request a website where everything was visible on screen with no need to scroll down. This is the concept of the fold - that magical line at the very bottom of your monitor where there must be nothing beneath. It comes from the "fold" of a newspaper. Really important headline items are placed above the fold, and not so important items are below the fold. While it is important that the area above the fold on a website contains the most important information (such as the navigation menu), there is no need to design your website such that visitors never have to scroll. In fact, it's near impossible to do so.
Where, exactly, is the fold?
That's the problem. Different monitors have different resolutions. That means they are different heights and show a different amount of content "above the fold". Of the current top ten monitor resolutions, the smallest is one-half the height of the tallest, for a full 600 pixel swing. One could argue that all you have to do is design for the lowest common denominator, but then you'd have wasted, unused space for the majority of your visitors. Not to mention that it would look quite silly.
History of the Fold and Usability
Scrolling on web pages was first frowned upon by Jakob Nielsen (the Usability Guru) in 1994 when he found only about 10% of web users would scroll. But that was back when the web was just a baby. By 1997 he found most users would indeed scroll even for a long page, and gave his usability blessing by pronouncing "Scrolling Now Allowed". People had gotten used to scrolling on web pages, and would continue to do in years to come.
ClickTale worked on a study in 2007 comprising more than 80,000 page views. They found that 76% of the time users scrolled down the page. While this certainly isn't 100%, many users recognize whether they are interested in a page before they scroll. If they're not interested, they just click away. AOL followed up with their own study and found similar results.
More recently, CX Partners actually found through eye tracking that having less content above the fold encouraged exploration below the fold. This doesn't mean you purposely skimp on the above the fold area. It means it is better to spread information throughout the height of the page rather than cram it all up top.
Jakob Nielsen's most recent alert on the subject is also based on eye tracking studies. Just last March he found that 80% of a user's attention is spent above the fold, while only 20% is spent below. The area above the fold is still vital, but if warranted, there is no need to fear going below the fold. In fact, Nielsen states, "People will look very far down a page if (a) the layout encourages scanning, and (b) the initially viewable information makes them believe that it will be worth their time to scroll."
Embracing the Fold
The goal is not to force everything above the fold. The important content - what will grab the user's attention and make them want to know more - must be on top, generally above the 600 pixel mark. But allowing additional content to flow down the page is actually easier to navigate than creating multiple pages. Layout design can be presented in such a way as to encourage a user to continue scrolling and find all your wonderful content.