User Intent Key in Landing Page Optimization

Note: This article was originally written in 2010 and published on a website I am not longer running. I am reposting it for the historical record and it has some good content. 🙂 

Your Website is like a Where’s Waldo poster

Earlier this year I attended a landing page optimization webinar on user intent that was excellent. The presentation was by Gord Hotchkiss, President of Enquiro, a search engine marketing agency out of British Colombia. Mr. Hotchkiss started out by comparing our websites to a Where’s Waldo poster. Without intent, a purpose such as finding Waldo, users will see the picture as nothing more than a detailed blur. But with intent, the user can match promising areas of the poster and information scent with what they know they are looking for–a man in blue pants and a red-striped sweater.

Focused Intent: A Case Study

Focused inter vs unfocused intentThe Belagio hotel website provides an interesting case study in which an eye tracking comparison was made on people with different user intent. The first group of users had unfocused intent, no specific task was assigned. They were sent to the site and the eye tracking indicated their attention was scattered all over the page.  The second group was given a specific task to register and book a room.  The group with focused user intent, according to the eye tracking, concentrated their attention in the top and side navigation where they were most likely to find links for registering and booking room. This study shows that user intent determines how people use the site.

Web User Intent Guidelines

Mr. Hotchkiss has found through his research that people generally follow these three steps upon arriving at a Web site:

  • Orientation Scan (elapsed time – 1 to 2 seconds).  Web site visitors first quickly decide if they are at the page they expected to be.  Does the site, the titles, the headlines, look and feel align with the user’s intent?
  • Primary Paths (elapsed time – 2 to 10 seconds).  Second, visitors begin examining the navigation and other, what he called, eye candy, or major calls to action. The user now begins to consider options and where those links will likely lead.
  • Choice (elapsed time – less than 30 seconds). Finally, the user will make a selection: either an action on your site, or the back button.  The information scent of the available choices, and how well that aligns with user intent will largely determine the choice. Visitors will, conscientiously or not, ask how rich is the information or experience on the other side of these links.

Intent Clusters

Intent Clusters on Apple's websiteFinally, Mr. Hotchkiss discussed what he called intent clusters using Apple’s website to illustrate the concept. He said that 80% of visitors can generally be found to have one of about 3 major intents in mind when they visit a site. (2018 update: I guess I didn’t make note of what those three major intents are. Perhaps they are informational, navigational, and transactional. Those of the three major intent classifications used to describe users on search engines.) Your site, to be successful, must meet those intentions and intent clusters is a powerful way to communicate to visitors that your site is the right choice for them. An intent cluster generally consists of an image (which communicates much faster than text), surrounded by reinforcing text, and a call to action. You’ll notice the intent cluster for the iPod and for iTunes in the illustration to the right of Apple’s Web site.

Conclusion: Understanding User Intent Is Key in Optimizing Landing Pages

Your home page and other key landing pages will perform better when you understand user intent and design the site to meet those end user desires. Here are some other insightful take aways from Mr. Hotchkiss’s presentation:

    • It is better to make assumptions about user intent based on research and data, than to ignore it and present your website visitors with a Where’s Waldo poster.
    • 70% of people listening to the Webinar indicated that they are too busy with current work load to spend time optimizing landing pages.  A sad trend common inside many organizations, but a real opportunities for those willing to take the time to understand user intent and optimize pages for it.
    • Most sites need a higher number of landing pages that better align with user intent. Other options also include personalizing landing pages based on web analytics data such as geo-location, search engine keyword, etc.

Landing Page Optimization Checklist

Landing Page Optimization ChecklistSome time ago, I created this landing page optimization checklist to make it easier for the people at my company who build landing pages to do them in the most optimal way. The checklist mentions 29 points, primarily to do with conversion optimization but also with search engine optimization topics. Download a PDF of the checklist with the button below or below that you can see the text of the checklist. Enjoy!

Landing Page Optimization Checklist

Landing Page Optimization Checklist:

Step 1: Planning
 Goal or goals of the landing page (LP) have been set by business sponsor
 Keyword research has been conducted to identify terms the audience uses most

Step 2: Content and Copy
 Duplicate content has been checked for. (Do a Google site search “site:yoursite.com ” and if a page on that topic already exists, consider using it instead of creating a new page.)
 Copy has clear and compelling value proposition and is aligned with goals
 Copy is concise and to the point, but detailed enough to help users make their decision
 Copy focuses on benefits to end-user rather than features of the product
 Important keywords are placed in prominent locations (headlines, titles, bolded, front-loaded)
 Links are descriptive of where they take the user (e.g. no “click here” or “read more”)
 Link text users click to come to the page match the LP headline (for our emails and website pages)

Step 3: Layout and Design
 LP has one, primary call to action (CTA) which is easily recognizable and above the fold
 The page is free from clutter, distractions, or undue cognitive load on end-user
 Images are relevant and add value (not just pretty and take up space)
 Brand guidelines have been followed for layout, fonts, graphics, tone, etc.
 Design and tone are consistent across all marketing channels (email, LP, fliers, post cards, etc.)
 All links, especially the primary and secondary CTAs, appear to be clickable
 The page, including copy and layout, are approved by sponsoring department, brand, and legal

Step 4: Technical Considerations when Building LP
 Page title matches H1 headline and is unique on website (Do a Google site search to verify)
 Meta description uses keywords, has compelling call to action, and is less than 160 characters
 CTAs are tracked as success events in your web analytics program
 Images use descriptive alt-text and title
 Image file names are optimized and human readable (screw-driver.jpg rather than 123xyz.jpg)
 Social media meta tags are populated for title, image, and description
 URL uses dashes “-“ rather than underscores “_” to separate words
 URL matches page title (e.g. if title = “Screw Driver” the URL should be “/screw-driver”).
 When the page is taken down, a 301 redirect to a relevant page is put in its place

Optional: Additional Search Engine Optimization
If the page is a short-term promotional page, these SEO elements are not required but still good to do.
 LP is optimized around a single, high-value keyword or phrase (i.e. the target keyword is used in the title, headline, URL, main body copy, and meta description)
 Keyword synonyms are used in the copy to make language more natural and varied
 LP has healthy amount of text (at least 100 words, preferably 500 or more) to give search engines an opportunity to understand what the topic of the page is
 High value keywords on page are linked to other optimized SEO landing pages, if they exist

Landing Page Conversion Optimization

Note: This article was originally written in 2010 and published on a different website I was running at the time.

Today’s post will discuss some of the principles of landing page optimization. Particularly, I’d like to talk about optimizing landing pages for conversion as opposed to optimizing for search engines, though those two disciplines have increasingly merged over the years as discussed in When Search Meets Web Usability. The quotes below are take from Anna Jacobson’s article in the MarketingExperiments Blog called Overcoming friction and anxiety: Suitable optimization suggestions for Men’s Wearhouse.

What is a Landing Page?

If you search the internet, you’ll find a variety of definitions of a landing page from very specific ones (like “a lead capture page”) to very general ones (like “any page a visitor lands on”). I personally prefer the more general definition with the caveat that a landing page is an entry point to your site and has a purpose to convert you, or entice you to take further action on the site. Landing pages are often arrived at in response to clicking an online advertisement, a link from a social media site, an email campaign, a search result, or a pay per click (PPC) campaign. Landing pages enhance the effectiveness of these off-site marketing channels be providing visitors with addition details (sales copy, videos, information, etc.), and provides your company with a better chance to win over those visitors.

Principles of Landing Page Conversion

Below is a formula published by Daniel Burstein of MarketingExperiments about the factors that lead to (or prevent) landing page conversion. A conversion, in this sense, refers to converting browsers into buyers, or in the case of media sites or non-commercial enterprises, getting people to take any key action. The “C” in the formula is for “conversion,” and the rest of the factors are labeled and explained below.

landing page conversion equation

Now don’t be overwhelmed is you are not a mathematician. This is not a formula to be numerically solved. The presentation as a formula and the numbers are there to help you understand how all the pieces fit together and to help you see the weight and importance of different factors. As you can see, if customers (site visitors) are properly Motivated and see the Value of the offer, it will overcome the Friction and Anxiety about taking the action (to buy something or perform another desired outcome). The friction and anxiety must be overcome by value, motivation and incentives communicated clearly on the landing page. If it helps, instead of thinking of it as a math formula, Dave Chaffey of Smart Insights points out that you can think of landing page conversion probabilities as a scale where the positive has to outweigh the negative, as shown in the image below.

landing page conversion scales weight

To help understand the equation, or the scale, whichever model you prefer, below I explain each of the factors in a little more detail.

Motivation

A landing page (including your home page) “must connect to the customer’s demand or need for a product. If they clicked on your ad, something in the ad motivated them to do so. To continue reaching that motivation, the landing page must immediately connect with your natural [or paid] search ad. The best place to do this is with a headline. Without a headline that connects with the channel, the visitor may initially question if they are in right place.”

Value Proposition

“Your value proposition communicates the unique value you have to offer your ideal prospect.” “You will also want to convey your unmatched quality.” Do not “relying on the visitor to do all the work, to search for this essential part of your value proposition.” Make sure the value is clearly communicated, not “buried on your site and you make visitors dig for it.”

Incentive

“An incentive’s function is to stimulate a desired action by your prospect.” With the Men’s Wearhouse, it’s a Buy One Get One Free offer. With you’re a religious website, the incentive might be to learn more about Jesus Christ.

Friction

“In order to identify sources of friction, we need to look for any element that may make it more difficult for a visitor to buy.” “And we cannot just identify sources of friction by looking at the page. We have to analyze how a visitor will experience the page, because friction is psychological, existing in the mind of the visitor.” “When someone lands on the page, they shouldn’t have to think about where to click. It should come naturally and instantly.”

Anxiety

As marketers, there are generally actions you can take on landing pages to help mitigate the anxiety of the end users. “Anxiety is associated with a concern about something, and [for e-commerce sites] is usually located in the payment process.” For Men’s Wearhouse, a money-back guarantee can make the difference in overcoming this anxiety. “When a customer is aware that any purchase is essentially ‘risk free,’ then it makes the final click on the purchase button so much easier.”

 

Menu Link Standards and Checklist

Menu Link Standards and ChecklistIn my work as a digital marketing analyst for Hilti, the subject of the website’s main menu comes up often. My colleagues often want to know how effective the various links in the menu are in driving traffic to the pages they care about. And the requests to put new content in the menus can be numerous at times. A recent request to add some items to the main navigation got me thinking about best practices and standards our company should have regarding the links in the menu. Such a checklist of standards could help us avoid some of the political battles we all face regarding inter-departmental competition for space in the website’s menu.

So I went back and reviewed much of the material I’ve collected over the years regarding menu purposes and principles, as well as my library of resources on information architecture (IA). What I came up with was this following checklist of ten items to consider when adding new links to the main menu of your website.

Download Menu Link Standards and Checklist

The checklist has both brief descriptions of things to check for and more details citations of why those things are important. You’ll notice that all my citations come from the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG). This is because a few years ago I took a course about information architecture for websites as part of my UX certification program from the NNG. During this course, we discussed the main purposes of website menus, the primary one being to help visitors find what they are looking for. On the internet, competitor websites are also just one click away. Therefore, it is important to help visitors find what they are looking for quickly to keep them on the site and engaged with us.

Good menus, says Jakob Nielsen, “improve the navigability of your site [and] by helping users find more, they’ll help you sell more” (see Mega Menus Work Well for Site Navigation). I believe if you and your company strive to follow the guidelines in this document you will achieve just that–users will be able to more easily find your content that they are looking for and your conversions rates will go up.

The following guidelines should help your site, whether your information architecture is the result of research and testing, or if your menu has a less than optimal IA that you inherited and has more influence by company politics than usability best practices. And while I think the checklist is pretty good, that’s not to say it can’t be improved. If you have any suggested edits or additions, please let me know. Thanks.

Here’s the Checklist:

Standard Details Citations
□ Link is truly necessary in menu Too many links in the menu can cause clutter, make things harder to find, and ultimately do more harm than good. Rather than cramming everything into the menu, “Instead, make each top-level menu choice clickable, leading to a regular Web page where you present all dropdown options in plain, fully accessible HTML.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/mega-menus-work-well/

 

□ Link goes to content that is important to end users The menu should reflect content most desired by end-users rather than company internal initiatives. Exceptions may occur but should be rare. “To engage users, website copy must speak to readers and not at them. …Users want to know what the product or service will do for them. …On the web, users are task oriented. They are often looking to answer a question, solve a problem, or find information.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/user-centric-language/

□ Link is at highest logical place in information architecture A flat shallow menu hierarchy is preferable to deep and narrow one. “Content is more discoverable when it’s not buried under multiple intervening layers. All other things being equal, deep hierarchies are more difficult to use.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/flat-vs-deep-hierarchy/

□ Link is placed where users are most likely to look for it Think like an end user hunting for information. Where would they look first, second, and so forth? “Information scent refers to the extent to which users can predict what they will find if they pursue a certain path through a website.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/wrong-information-scent-costs-sales/
□ Link text uses words familiar to our audience Avoid using company-specific jargon. Titles of menu links should be short, descriptive, and intuitive for the average users. “Ideally, jargon and branded terms that aren’t universally understood should be used only within the content pages, where users have context clues to help them understand what the unfamiliar terms mean. Findability is maximized by old, well-known words instead of new, made-up words.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/fixing-bad-intranet-navigation/

□ Link text incorporates high-value SEO keywords. Menu links are among the most crawled by search engines, and their SEO value is high. Do keyword research to find effective terms. “There are many elements to search engine optimization, but SEO guideline #1 is our old friend, ‘speak the user’s language.’ Or, more precisely, when you write, use keywords that match users’ search queries.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/web-writing-use-search-keywords/

□ Link text leads with high-value keywords The highest value keywords should be front-loaded in the menu’s hyperlinked text. “Start subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice. …They’ll read the third word on a line much less often than the first two words.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/f-shaped-pattern-reading-web-content/
□ Link text accurately describes the destination page Users should easily understand what every link leads to and not be disappointed when they get there. “Any broken promise, large or small, chips away at trust and credibility. The words in a link label make a strong suggestion about the page that is being linked to. The destination page should fulfill what the anchor text promises.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/link-promise/
□ Link text and URL is unique on menu Each link in menu should be unique, both in URL destination and the link text should clearly differentiate itself from other options. “Unclear naming is one of the biggest and most important projects to tackle when it comes to [information architecture]. Each navigation category must be descriptive, specific, and mutually exclusive so that users can pick where to navigate without hesitation.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/intranet-information-architecture-ia/

□ Order of links is as meaningful as possible Menu items should only be in alphabetical order if there is no better way to organize. “Consider: Is there another organizing principle that would be more meaningful? …Usually, there’s another way to organize content that is better than alphabetical organization.”

https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ia-questions-navigation-menus/

Writing Headlines for the Web

Note: This article was originally written in December 2010 and published on a different website I was running at the time.

writing headlines for the webWhen writing headlines for the Web, copywriters must take everything they have learned about traditional print headlines, and add to that the need to optimize for search and make them usable for Web audiences.  Striking the proper balance between traditional headline strategies, search optimization, and web usability needs will help improve the likelihood that articles will be found, headlines will be read, and articles will be enjoyed by the reading public.

Traditional Headlines

The headline is the first impression made on a prospective reader, so it better be a good impression to keep them reading. The importance of taking the time and effort to write good headlines cannot be overstated, and some say that nothing distinguishes a professional author from an amateur so quickly as the quality of the headlines.

When writing headlines or titles to articles there is a lot to consider.  Well-written headlines must distill the essence of the story, they should grab the readers get attention and lead the reader into the rest of the story.  Without a headline or title that converts a browser into a reader, the rest of the words in the article may as well not even exist.

Search Optimized Headlines

While authors and journalist have traditionally spent a lot of time crafting the perfect headline, if you are writing for the Web, there is even more to consider. In crafting traditional headlines, you can assume that potential readers have already found the article; they have the newspaper or magazine already in hand.  But on the Web, there is a crucial prior step that relies heavily on the headline content: making sure the article gets found. If the article can’t be found by search engines, and by the target readers query on a search engine, then the article may never be found, much less be read by the target audience.

SEOmoz, a leading search engine marketing consultancy firm, ranks the page title as one of the top elements in search engine ranking factors that will boost your article’s findability.  Therefore, the words in the title of your article will have a greater impact than any other on whether or not that article is found by search engines, and consequently, found by the majority of Web surfers who begin their Internet experience at a search engine.

So what does a search optimized headline look like? It is simply one that uses words that people use: words that people search for and scan for. So be sure to do your keyword research to find out what those words and phrases are. And of course, remember to consider information scent.

Usable Headlines

Frequently, search optimized headlines are naturally usable, but not always. With short attention spans and the competition being just one click away, Web headlines must also follow usability guidelines.  Jakob Nielsen, renown Web usability expert, gives the following guidelines for writing web headlines:

  • Keep headlines short because people don’t read much online.
  • Make headlines rich in information scent, clearly summarizing the article.
  • Front-load headlines with the most important keywords, because users often scan only the beginning of headlines.
  • Make headlines understandable out of context, because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results.
  • Create headlines that are predictable, so users know whether they’ll like the full article before they click it. (People don’t return to sites that promise more than they deliver.)

When Search Meets Web Usability

Note: This article was originally written in August 2010 and published on a different website I was running at the time.

When Search Meets Web Usability is a great little book by Shari Thurow and Nick Musica about how to help users find what they are looking for on your website. One of the first things the authors do is to establish that their view that traditional search engine optimization (SEO) should go beyond optimizing content for search engines, and even beyond optimizing content for search engine users. In the book, they talk about search usability, the combination of SEO and web usability, and how it means optimizing the entire experience of finding what you are looking for on the web, regardless of how you search.when search meets web usability

“On the web, it is easy to see why the word search is associated with search engines only…Billions of searches are performed on Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft Live every month. Millions of websites have a site search engine. Therefore, considering the tremendous use of web and site searches, millions of people associate online searching with search engines.”

“However, people do not use only the commercial web search engines to look for content on the web. People might go to a specific web page after they remember a reference from newspaper, billboard, television show, radio program, or even word of mouth…In addition, people might look for web content by clicking a link from an email, text message, or an online advertisement. They also locate web content by clicking links from one site to another, commonly known as surfing or browsing the web…When searching these other ways, we still “search.”

“On the web, search usability refers to how easily users can locate and discover content on a site via retrieval (searching/querying) and navigation (browsing).” When Search Meets Web Usability, pages 2 –3.

The book goes on to talk about information scent in great detail and many other search usability topics. Here are some of my favorites quotes from the book:

Understanding Audience Needs Up Front: “If searchers’ needs and abilities were not considered when determining the requirements, design, and programming of a website, then the site is likely to require more changes and enhancements. Result? Businesses must allocate more staff and/or more staff time to a website to fix problems that should have been addressed before the site was launched.” p. 14

Large Flash Animations and Videos Can Be Distractions: When users are on transactional searches, “don’t delay, diminish, distract from, or hide the scent of information by initiating an action” (p. 70) such as playing a video or displaying a Flash animation. “Many Flash sites appear to be misleading links in search listings because searchers do not see keywords in the search listing also appearing on the landing page.” p. 80

Searching Does Not End When a SERP Result is Clicked: “Searching does not end after a person clicks a link from a search engine results page (SERP) to a website.” At that point, “they have two choices: They can either stay on your site, or they can abandon it.” p 71-72. Much of that decision rests on the information scent on the landing page.

Place Keywords and Calls to Action Prominently: “Recent studies show that users only read about 20 percent of the words on a web page. Therefore…important keywords and calls to action need to be featured prominently (above the fold) on web pages.” p. 72

Help Visitors Get Oriented: “The presence of easily scanned you are here cues makes users feel your site is trustworthy and credible.” p. 81 “Websites that facilitate scanning and orienting help searchers reach their goals more quickly and efficiently; increasing user confidence, trust, and credibility; and can help sites achieve and maintain top search engine positions.” p. 85

Search Usability Reduces Costs: “The more a call center or customer’s support is resolved online the less need there is to staff a call center or customer service department. That could mean significant savings for a company’s bottom line. Search usability efforts can help control operational expenses by reducing the number of phone calls that customer service receives.” p. 98

Effective Landing Page Designs: “Everything cannot be the most important thing on a web page. Home pages are usually the biggest casualty of the ‘everything is important’ disease…By making everything look equally important, the message you are sending to users is that nothing is important…Additionally, the resulting web page often looks cluttered, which can irritate and confuse site visitors.” p. 110

Write with the Words People Use: Web “copywriters should have access to the results of keyword research to understand what words and phrases users use in  their queries…and scanning, foraging, and browsing on your website. If possible, web copywriters should observe usability tests, talk with focus groups, and have access to other market research noting the words users use to describe products and tasks.” p. 116

Search Usability Impact on your Brand: “The more users are forced to muddle through your website not finding what they are looking for, the more your website communicates a negative brand experience.” p. 117

High Quality of Search Engine Traffic: “Traffic from the commercial web search engines is user initiated, pre-qualified, and task-based. Therefore, [these] users…should be more interested in your content than users who landed on your website by clicking links out of curiosity.” p. 121

Importance of Keyword Research: “Web usability professionals should familiarize themselves with the paid and free keyword research tools.” Through these, “you’ll see the most popular keywords users use to query, keywords usage trends, and variations of keyword phrases users favor.” p. 125

Understand Users Before You Build: “If you don’t take the time to understand your users, you can expect they will abandon your site and go to your competitors’. As a result, a good portion of your website maintenance will go to correcting your lack of user understanding.” p. 126

Focus Groups Are Not Usability Test: “Focus group participants may tell you that they want specific information and functionality on your website, but you really don’t know if that’s true until you usability test…People say one thing, but do another. Therefore, do usability testing if you want to know how users will use your site.” p. 131

Avoiding Unnecessary Features: “Features are only cool if users think they’re cool. Users may find features annoying and distracting. Avoid worshipping the cool. Focus on the useful and relevant.” p. 136

Don’t Start Construction without a Blueprint: “One of the biggest and most common mistakes made when building websites is when graphic designers go straight to [a] graphics program and start designing. This is like a construction company starting to construct a building without a blueprint…Bad information architecture will cripple your [website].” p. 137

Look and Feel are Easy to Change, Information Architecture Is Not: “Look and feel, and the emotions evoked from images, are very important, but those shouldn’t be pursued at the expense of the website information architecture. More thought and discussion is typically put into a photograph that can be easily swapped out than the backbone of the site—the information architecture. This needs to change if search usability is to succeed.” p. 138

Insight by Watching Someone Use Your Site: “Watching a user freely explore your website will open your eyes to stumbling blocks that you may have never considered otherwise.” p. 160

Good Web Sites Require User Feedback: “There are plenty of software applications and tutorials online that will help you technically put together a website. This explains why there are so many mediocre websites. You need to interact with people similar to your users if you want to create a good website.” p. 164

Ignore Users and They’ll Go Away: “You can be apathetic and ignore your users until they go away, or you can be empathetic and help your users, and they will eventually make your site a success.” p. 166

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 seminary.lds.org while the Institute site is located at institute.lds.org. 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 seminary.lds.org sub-domain and Institute stuff is, of course, on the institute.lds.org 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 LDS.org, yet they each have their own unique identity as well. They are children sites in the LDS.org 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 Purposes and Principles

Summary: Understanding the purposes and principles of a website menu helps designers build more effective menus. Main menu navigation that is easy to use, comprehensive, and tell users how to find what they are looking for will generate better conversion rates for you and your visitors.

website menu gap.com analysisCreating a website menu or navigation system is one of the most fundamental and crucial tasks in the website design and development process. The main 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 good website menu will give visitors confidence, improve the usability of the site, and generate higher goal conversions. A poorly constructed navigation can cause confusion and frustration for end users, preventing them, or the website, from reaching their goals.

There are many differing opinions about how to design and build website main menus, and believe me, I have heard many of those theories of the course of my career. Some people prefer mega menus, others like hamburger menus. Some people like organizing by audience roles, others like a task based information architecture. While there is a place for all those practices, what I have found is that a focus on the main purposes of a menu and staying aligned with principles throughout the design and development process is the surest way to end up with a website menu that performs its job well.

The following set of website menu purposes and principles are my personal best practices resulting from 15 years in website design and digital marketing. They should not be construed as an exhaustive list, though they will serve as an excellent starting point to help website stake holders throughout the design and execution of the site menu and navigation. Designing website navigation with these 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 five main purposes to website menus or main navigation:

  • Guide visitors to the content they are looking for. Perhaps this goes without saying, but in my experience, it needs to be stated—the primary purpose of the main menu is to facilitate the navigation of users to the content and features on the website. If the menu doesn’t do that basic function, it’s really not navigation.
  • Help visitors know what’s available. Related to the first principle, menus should communicate, at a very high level, the type of content and features available on the website. Menu labels should be brief, descriptive, and have good information scent so users can scan it quickly and have a reasonably good idea of what is on the other side of each link.
  • Tell visitors where they are. As visitors browse around the site, a quick glance at a well-designed menu 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 cues.
  • Tell visitors how to use the site. A good menu and other site navigation 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 the site by clicking on navigation, or if they deep link into your site by coming from a search engine or another website, the main menu serves as an anchor, or frame of reference. The main menu provides reassurance that no matter how deep they go into the site, they are never lost and can always start over by going back to the home page or other major sections of the website.

If you remember these purposes during the menu design phases, and stick faithfully to them through site development, you are going to end up with a main navigation that helps visitors smoothly navigate your site, get to the content they want, and have a pleasant user experience on your site.

Principles of Usable Website Menu Design

Adhering to the above purposes will narrow the scope the menu design and execution, yet they still give leeway for an almost infinite variety of menus to be implemented. As you move forward designing and building main menus, it also will help to put into practice the additional principles below. As I have analyzed menus and measured website performance, I have found that sites that implement these principles have higher user satisfaction rates and better conversion rates.

  • Provide a consistent global navigation. Inconsistent navigation, one where menu options are there sometimes and sometime they’re not, or other changes in site navigation between pages can confuse and frustrate users. Be consistent with the main navigation 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 sections will help visitors see more of the available information and features on your site.
  • Make site search prominent. A large percentage of users’ first act on a website is to find and use the internal site search feature. I once analyzed a new website design where the site search feature was hidden behind a menu and usage of it got cut in half. Out of sight, out of mind. Giving search-oriented users what they want is a simple formula: a text box and a button either with a magnifying glass or the word “search.” Studies on search design 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). The use of acronyms, which many end-users of a website do not understand, are one of the biggest frustrations I have seen in usability studies I have performed over the years.
  • Have a good information architecture (IA). A good website menu is generally a reflection of good IA, and good IA leads to improved findability and better search engine optimization. How to put together a good IA could fill tomes, but I highly recommend a class on Information Architecture from the Nielsen Norman Group which I took years ago and has proven very helpful or check out my presentation on What is Information Architecture and How Can It Help My Website?
  • 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 driven by business strategies and priorities. 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 page 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 its own (like underlined links and site IDs) and some it has borrowed (like shopping carts, 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 or unusable. Remember Jakob Nielsen’s first law of internet user experience, “Users spend most of their time on other sites.”
  • Separate utilities from the main menu. Utilities are links to important features that aren’t part of the content hierarchy. They are things like help sections, FAQs, contact information, and the shopping cart. The utilities should be easily findable and always available, but they should be less prominent than the major sections of the global navigation.
  • Only site content goes in the site menu. This is a pet peeve of mine and one I have softened on a little over the years. But as a rule of thumb it holds true, the purpose of a site’s main menu is to help visitors find the content within that site, not other sites. Links to other websites are generally not appropriate in a site’s main menu. When linking to other sites, do so within the content section of web pages and not from the menu. The rare exceptions I have found for this is sister websites, like the careers section of a site which may often be hosted on another domain.

I could go on and on with the best practice principles. The information architecture point, particularly, could be dived into much deeper, but these are the highlights for menu design. These purposes and principles of menu design address the biggest concerns and issues you are likely to run into. When you remember these purposes, stay in alignment with them throughout the construction of your website menu, and apply these best practice principles, you are going to end up with a main menu that will help your visitors achieve their goals which will, in turn, make you successful.

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.