One 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.