The saying “follow your nose” is about listening to your gut and instinct. The other interpretation, with a hat tip to cartoonish toucans and bloodhounds everywhere, is to literally go toward the direction of something you smell. So what does this have to do with website navigation? Well, a whole lot more than it may initially seem.
What is “Information Scent”?
“Information scent” is the belief that the information you’re consuming on a website is getting you closer to your desired goal. Users follow a trail when they arrive on your site until they ultimately find what they’re looking for. Information scent is strongest when you’re encountering words and images that are related to the information you’re seeking. So it’s a safe bet that people will keep clicking through if you provide them with the cues and content that’s relevant to them.
Strong visual and textual cues on a website can prod visitors along to continue on your site to find what they need. But if the trail goes cold — meaning your website either didn’t provide enough helpful information or didn’t deliver on what visitors expected to see — there’s a good chance they’ll look for another scent to pick up (on another website most likely).
It’s more than a “keep ‘em clicking” mentality, though. Strong information scent should increase user engagement and help build trust and credibility for your organization. So what are some ways to create those helpful signposts for your website visitors? Let’s look at some of those cues to keep visitors on your site.
Start with the Search Engine
The search engine is often the first foray into foraging for information. If people aren’t already familiar with your organization, they’ll (hopefully) find you through a search engine. So if you show up in a relevant search, how can you get them to click on your link and not the hundreds of others listed? Take advantage of the sneak peek that is the meta description. This is a summary of your page content that shows up in search results. You have 160 characters, so be concise and descriptive. Your snippet should also include words that match the headline of the page you are leading visitors to.
Now that they’ve landed on your website, what’s the best way to give them directions around?
Linking to related content is an important part of the road map you’re building for a visitor. Keep these best practices in mind:
- Your link should look like a link. That probably sounds obvious, but make sure your link is easily distinguishable with a contrasting color or an underline. Users should immediately be able to spot a link when quickly scanning a page for what they need.
- Make the actual text in your link longer than one word. Create a stronger information scent that makes it clear what your visitor can expect once they click the link. In related news…
- Avoid “Click Here.” It’s vague and doesn’t provide a helpful signpost for your reader. How strongly do we feel about this one? Well, enough to warrant its own post on how “click here” links can be detrimental to your site. Your links can be leveraged to convey content value when people wonder, “should I click on this?”
Once someone lands on a page, they should know right away if you have what they’re looking for. If we think of information scent as “confidence behind the click,” navigation has a lot to do with that.
Once someone lands on a page, they’ll stop, assess, and make their next move — so show them they’re on the right track. Use page names in your navigation that are easy to understand and straightforward. This helps people understand the variety of information you have to offer and gives them a good idea if they’ll be able to successfully accomplish the task they’ve set out to achieve.
Forget what you’ve heard about the “Three Click Rule” that claims this is the threshold for people to ditch your site if they can’t find what they’re looking for. You can keep people on your site longer if you maintain a strong scent trail to take them closer to what they need. Just be sure there’s a payoff for them at the end.
Make sure your content is useful to them and contains their trigger words. Headings are a great way to make your content easy to scan. Write conversationally and avoid jargon. Make it worth their while and they’ll be more likely to stick around.
The URL and page headings should ideally reflect the page content. Include pictures or visuals to reassure people they’re in the right place. Tease out subpages by providing some context, content and a direct link.
Ways to Take Action
Strong information scent makes it more likely visitors will succeed in their search. Meeting user expectations can translate into user engagement. Remember, information scent is about giving the user confidence on what’s on the other side of that click. Be clear with what you’re offering, but make sure you’re delivering on that offer, by providing information they’re looking for and ultimately compelling them to take an action. Identify and prioritize calls to action on your site so that it’s clear to everyone how they can get involved.
How have you created a strong information scent on your website? Or after reading this do you see an opportunity to strengthen the information scent on your site? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.