Using Information Scent to Improve Web Usability

Information Foraging DeerOne of my favorite Web usability principles is called information scent. I like because, when properly applied, this principle makes websites tremendously more usable. Information scent has great correlations to search engine optimization and landing page optimization, and it uses the just plain fun and funny analogy of information foraging.

Information Foraging Theory

The theory of information foraging is referred to by Jakob Nielsen as one of the “most important concept to emerge from Human-Computer Interaction research.”  The analogy is a reference to “wild animals gathering food” compared to “how humans collect information online.”  Says Nielsen, “people like to get maximum benefit for minimum effort. That’s what makes information foraging a useful tool for analyzing online media” (Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, June 30, 2003: Information Foraging: Why Google Makes People Leave Your Site Faster).

Information Scent: Predicting a Path’s Success

Using keywords, titles, and hyperlinks with good information scent will help site visitors find what they are looking for. Again, quoting Nielsen,“Information scent refers to the extent to which users can predict what they will find if they pursue a certain path through a website.”  But, he warns, “don’t use made-up words or your own slogans as navigation options, since they don’t have the scent of the sought-after item. Plain language also works best for search engine visibility.”

Just like animals in the forest, people tend to follow a strong information scent until they find what they are looking for. But as soon as the information scent dries up, they back track and start looking elsewhere, often going to a competitors website or heading back to the search engine. This is how Nielsen put it: “Predators following a strong spoor are firmly convinced that they’ll find their prey at the end of the trail, and thus are less likely to be distracted and wander off the path…[and] they’ll keep going as long as they continue to find links that seem to take them closer and closer to their goal.“

But Nielsen also reminds us the information scent along is not enough to satisfy information hungry visitors. If the quest ultimately yields no fruit, visitors will remember this and they’ll avoid those unfruitful hunting ground in the future. Ultimately, as has been said time and time again, content is king. “The two main strategies are to make your content look like a nutritious meal and signal that it’s an easy catch. These strategies must be used in combination: users will leave if the content is good but hard to find, or if it’s easy to find but offers only empty calories….Once their next morsel becomes a bit difficult to find, they can move to richer hunting grounds.”

Remember, “what the site actually delivers is more important, but you’ll never get experienced repeat visitors unless their first encounter is fruitful” (Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox, August 2, 2004: Deceivingly Strong Information Scent Costs Sales).

Recommendations to Improve Information Scent

Here are some best practice recommendations to improve the information scent on your site:

  • Use highly relevant keywords in the navigation menus, headlines, and hyperlinks.
  • Provide real value to end users, so they will want to return to valuable content hunting grounds.
  • Help visitors find what they are looking for quickly and easily with good information architecture and menus.
  • Encourage users to return. Keep content fresh and use social media and email newsletters to bring visitors back to your site.
  • Increase visit frequency by addressing users’ immediate needs.
  • Use intra-site linking liberally (link to other relevant pages within your own site).

All of these tips will help visitors know that your site is fertile hunting grounds for the things they are looking for. And as an added bonus, acting on these tips will also help your search engine optimization (SEO), landing page conversion, and overall site performance.

What Defines a Website?

what defines a websiteWhat is a website? Where does one website end and another begin? These questions about what defines a website are basic and may seem inconsequential to some people, but I have observed that the answer has a major impact on website usability and performance management. I have seen countless times in my career that the inability to define a website leads to organizational confusion, poorly conceived web strategies, en-user frustration, and lack luster performance against business goals.

Consistency Across Four Elements

A website is a group of web pages, content, tools, and features with a consistent experience across the whole of it. What defines a given website is its consistency in four areas: 1) domain (or sub-domain) 2) Site ID or Logo 3) Menu or main navigation and 4) the design, style, look, and feel. These four areas serves as a quadruple redundancy to help users know what site they are on, a foundational element in web usability. Without knowing what site they are on, users get uncomfortable and confused about what they can accomplish and how they can navigate to where they want to go.

This doesn’t mean that sites can’t share design elements and it certainly doesn’t preclude sub-branding. In fact, well designed sites can maintain the integrity of what is a website, per the definition above, while at the same time sharing interaction elements and design styles to communicate familiarity and consistency across a family of websites when that is desired.  And in fact, by adhering to the definitions of a website, families of websites get the best of both worlds: clean boundaries, usable interfaces, and the comfort and assurance that comes from an umbrella brand and style.

An Example of Well-Defined Websites

seminary and institute follow website definitions

These principles of what defines a website are perhaps best illustrated through an example. I am no longer, but at one time I was, the product manager of the two websites: the LDS Seminary website and the LDS Institute website.

  • Domain or sub-domain: The Seminary site is located at while the Institute site is located at These sites are similar in that they are both websites for programs of religious education for young people in the LDS Church. But the programs and assoc
    iated website have two different audiences: Seminary is for high schoolers, roughly aged 14 to 17, while Institute is for young adults aged 18 to 30. All Seminary program and related content and features is located on the sub-domain and Institute stuff is, of course, on the sub-domain.
  • Site ID or Logo: Every site needs a unique site ID or logo. Using the same site ID on two or more different websites is sure to confuse users. Site IDs tell website visitors at a quick glance where they are and how to return to home, or the highest hierarchical page on the site. With the Seminary and Institute sites, each has a unique site ID. Both also share the site ID with the LDS Church logo. This is an efficient and effective way of communicating that both sites are sub-domains of, yet they each have their own unique identity as well. They are children sites in the family.
  • Main menu: The website menu is a road map to the content, tools, and features on the site. Since the content in each website is unique, every website should have a unique menu, structured to help visitors find content quickly and easily. In the case of the Seminary and Institute sites, each has its own distinct menu options.
  • Design, style, look, and feel: The last element of a unique website is the design or styles. The Seminary and Institute sites’ main differentiation is there color: Seminary = Green and Institute = Blue. Besides that, the sites share most styles and interaction elements, and that’s okay. Again, they are sister websites, and that is also communicated through the design.

Website Menu Principles and Purposes

website menu analysisCreating a website menu or navigation system is one of the most fundamental and crucial tasks in the Web development process. The menu and other navigation is a road map people use to find their way around your website, therefore it must be well constructed, easy to use, comprehensive, and intuitive. A poorly constructed navigation can cause confusion and frustration for end users. A good website menu  is generally a reflection of good information architecture and will give visitors confidence in the site.

There are many differing opinions about website navigation issues, and of course every site is different, however, for most sites, there is a common set of purposes and principles that should be followed to help ensure good usability. The following should not be construed as an exhaustive list, simply a starting point to help website stake holders think through site menu and navigation. Designing website navigation with the following principles in mind will help ensure that the site purposes are clearly communicated to the end-user to ultimately facilitate better ease-of-use and higher conversion rates.

Purposes of Website Menus

There are four main purposes to website menus or navigation:

  • Help visitors find what they are looking for. The menu and other navigation elements should let people know what is available on your site.
  • Tell visitors where they are. As visitors browse around the site, a quick glance at a well designed navigation should indicate where they are within the structure, or information architecture, of the site.  This is frequently accomplished with highlighted menu items, tab structures, breadcrumbs, or other visual queues.
  • Tell visitors how to use the site. A good menu should be intuitive for users and should help them know how to use the content and features they want quickly and without the need for additional instructions.
  • Give visitors a reference point. Whether visitors drill down into sub-pages of the site, or if the deep link into your site by coming from a search engine or other website, the menu serves as a beacon, or frame of reference. You want visitors to know how to get “home” and what other related content is available on the site, and if you’re lucky, they’ll want to know how to access it. The navigation should provide such knowledge and orientation.

Principles of Usable Website Menu Design

Here are seven high level principles to follow in creating user friendly menus and navigation:

  • Provide a consistent global navigation. Inconsistent navigation, removing menu options, and other changes in site navigation between pages can confuse and frustrate users.  Be consistent across your site so regardless of what page users are on or how they got to the site there is a clear path to high-level destinations, as well as a way back home. Being able to quickly navigate to all major site sections will help visitors see more of the available information and features.
  • Site search prominence. A large percentage of users’ first act on a website is to find and use the internal site search feature.  Giving search-oriented users what they want is a simple formula: a text box, a button, and the word “search.” Studies show users know what to do from there.
  • Use words people use. Be clear in your labels and do not use company-specific jargon. Titles of menu links should be short, descriptive, and intuitive. Users should easily understand what every link leads to (i.e. information scent).
  • Link to popular content and features. A study should be made of the content and features most used or desired by end-users, and links to those should be placed prominently in the navigation.  These decisions may also be business driven; if there are key sections and features that you want to steer visitors to, then make them prominent in the menus.
  • Breadcrumbs are good, but not enough. Breadcrumbs show users how they got to a section but they do not communicate where visitors are in the overall scheme of the site.  Like a road map, the menu should always make it clear where you are, what other destinations are available, that you can get between points with relative ease, and that you can easily go back to where you came from.
  • Conventions are your friend: Use them. Every publishing medium has conventions, and the Web has plenty of it’s own and some it has borrowed (shopping carts, site IDs, logos, even newspaper-like headlines).  Conventions are useful because they provide a reassuring sense of familiarity and communicate how things work quickly and without additional explanation.  Straying from the use of conventions can render features unfindable for users.  For example, items that can be clicked should look clickable (underlined text or graphics that clearly look like buttons), and the use of different colored links for items that have been clicked helps visitors remember where they have previously been and explore new areas.
  • Separate utilities from the main menu. Utilities are links to important features that aren’t really part of the content hierarchy.  They are things like help sections, FAQs, contact information, and perhaps even the shopping cart.  The utilities should be easily findable, but should be less prominent than the major sections of the global navigation.
  • Only site content goes in the site menu. The purpose of a site’s main menu is to help visitors find the content within that site. Links to other websites are not appropriate in a site’s main menu. When linking to other sites, do so within the content section of the web page and not from the menu.

Site ID: The Indispensable Element of Usable Web Navigation

Site IDs

Site IDs are a part of what defines a website and they are an indispensable part of providing a good user experience to visitors.  A site ID tells website users where they are more quickly and succinctly that any other technical or design element. In the world of the internet, where different websites are just a click away, every site and every page needs to clearly and consistently display the site ID.

What is a Site ID?

The site ID is the logo or word art at the top, usually top left, of a website. The site ID identifies the name of the site and sometimes includes a tagline. The site ID is often the logo of the website or company.

Site IDs help visitors know where they are and provide comfort and orientation and a quick way to navigate back to the top-level home of the site. A well implemented site ID is an important part of web usability best practices. Many websites unknowingly confuse their visitors with poorly implemented or inconsistent site IDs or no site ID at all.

This is what Steve Krug, author of the acclaimed web usability book Don’t Make Me Think, has said:

“The site ID or logo is like the building name for a website. At Sears, I really only need to see the name on my way in… But on the Web…I need to see it on every page.  In the same way that we expect to see the name of a building over the front entrance, we expect to see the site ID at the top of the page – usually in the upper left corner…Why? Because the Site ID represents the whole site, which means it’s the highest thing in the logical hierarchy of the site.” (Krug p. 63)

“And in addition to being where we would expect it to be, the Site ID also needs to look like a Site ID. This means it should have the attributes we would expect to see in a brand logo or the sign outside a store: a distinctive typeface, and a graphic that’s recognizable at any size from a button to a billboard.” (Krug p. 64)

There’s No Place Like Home

Jakob Nielsen, another authority on web usability called placing your website name and logo at the top of every page and making the logo link to the home page, one of his top 10 Good Deeds in Web Design. Site IDs, therefore, not only tell visitors what website they are on, but also how to return to home, or the highest hierarchical page on the site.

Krug also has weighed in on this: “One of the most crucial items in the persistent navigation is a button or link that takes me to the site’s Home page. Having a Home button in sight at all times offers reassurance that no matter how lost I may get, I can always start over, like pressing a Reset button or using a “Get out of Jail free” card. There’s an emerging convention that the Site ID doubles as a button that can take you to the site’s Home page. It’s a useful idea that every site should implement.” (Krug p. 66)

Without a consistent and persistent Site ID, users get lost. They get confused about what site they are on and what can be accomplished. Such users are more likely to abandon those website and web conversion rates drop. Successful websites are those that make their sites user friendly and a well-implemented Site ID is a vitally important part of that.