This is the sixth article in an eight-part series which describes the role of a digital media strategist in improving the website operations of a company or organization.
Once a user reaches your website, unless what they want is on the first page they visit, they will need to find the page which includes what they are looking for. They can accomplish that either through using the internal search feature of your site or by using your site navigation.
If your user can’t quickly find what they are looking for, they will abandon your website (and most likely will never return). It is therefore very important that both your internal search functionality and your site navigation work as well as possible so that your user can easily find what they are looking for.
Reasons Why Your Internal Search Functionality May Not Work Well
There are several subtle reasons why your internal search functionality may not be serving your visitors well. Your digital media strategist will test your search functionality and determine whether any of the following common problems are sources of frustration for your users:
- Your search area is not prominent. If your search area is too small or if it appears below the fold, you are forcing your visitors to hunt for the search field. For those visitors who typically rely on search features to find the information they want, if they can’t find your search field within the first several seconds after arriving at your website, you risk them leaving your site in frustration. As I have said previously, the internal search area of a website traditionally appears near the upper right hand corner or centered horizontally in the masthead of all pages.
- It’s not clear to your visitor how to activate the search feature on your site. If you don’t have a “Go,” “Search,” or “Find” button next to your search field (the button traditionally appears to the right of the search field), your visitor may not know what to do once they have entered a word or phrase in the search field. Usually, pressing the Enter or Return key on the keyboard will activate the search, but your visitors may not know this.
- Your search functionality simply doesn’t work. If a visitor enters a word or phrase into your search field and clicks on the “Go,” “Search,” or “Find” button, but nothing happens, there is something wrong with your coding. Your digital media strategist will then work with your website development team to ensure that the problem is fixed as soon as possible.
- Your search features returns too many results.This can especially be a problem for ecommerce websites which sell a lot of accessories for certain types of products. For example, if a company sells Toshiba computers, but also sells a number of accessories which are compatible with Toshiba systems (such as monitors, keyboards, mice, etc.) and then mentions that compatibility on each accessory’s product detail page, a problem with search results can occur. If your site’s search functionality indexes every word on every page, then a user who enters “Toshiba computer” in your search field will end up with a set of results which includes Toshiba computers but also monitors, keyboards, mice, etc. (which the user probably is not interested in). If your search functionality returns too many results, especially if many of the results are irrelevant, your user may become paralyzed because of too many choices.
- The titles of pages included in your search results do not clearly reflect the contents of those pages. Typically, each listing on your search results page will include a title (often the actual page title from the page’s code). If those titles do not clearly reflect the content of their corresponding pages, your users will not know which result to choose. And if your users don’t know which result to choose, they may give up and leave your site. Or they may begin clicking on results, but become confused and frustrated when they realize the title in the search results and the actual page contents do not match.
- The page which appears when there are no results does not make any suggestions to the user for other alternatives. Your “no results” page should include links to the main pages on your site, to your bestsellers (if yours is an ecommerce site), to a frequently asked questions page, etc.
Reasons Why Your Site Navigation May Not Work Well
Your basic site navigation may also not be serving your visitors well. Your digital media strategist will examine your website’s navigation to ensure that your site visitors can find what they are looking for.
He will use these criteria to evaluate your navigation:
- Are your navigation options clear and intuitive? Will the average visitor to your site have a good idea of what they will encounter when they click on each of your main navigation options? To the extent your navigation options are unclear, your visitor will become frustrated and/or paralyzed. This will often prevent them from following the path through your site to your desired goal for them (making a purchase, signing up for a newsletter, contacting you regarding your services, etc.).
- Is your navigation prominent? Does it appear “above the fold” at the monitor resolutions your visitors use? If your visitor has to hunt for your main navigation, they may leave your site before they find it. And studies show that most people who leave a site quickly after their first visit never return.
- Does your navigation scheme include too many choices? I know I’ve mentioned it a few times already, but it bears repeating. If you offer your users too many choices, you run the risk of your user becoming paralyzed and not making any choice.
- Is the text contained within your navigation scheme readable?If your users can’t read the text, they won’t know which option to choose. One fatal mistake which some websites make is navigation which is entirely graphical (no text at all). How website owners think the average visitor will be able to decipher the meaning of the various images in such a navigation scheme honestly escapes me.
- Can your navigation options be indexed by search engines? The most common mistake in this regard is to embed the various navigation choices within a Flash file. The problem with this is that search engine spiders (programs which search engines send out to retrieve the pages on millions of websites for subsequent indexing) depend on the links of your navigation to proceed through your website and index each of its pages. But if a search engine’s spider does not index the contents of a Flash file, it won’t discover the links in your Flash navigation file and may not index any pages beyond your home page (if you must use a Flash file for your main navigation, one way to mitigate this problem is to include a set of basic text links in your site’s footer — at least that way, search engine spiders will have links to follow).
- Does your navigation scheme provide users with clues as to where they are on your site? One of the challenges of navigating a website from a user’s perspective is that, unlike a physical brick-and-mortar store, a user typically has little to no idea of where the page which they are on fits in the scheme of the overall content of the site. In a grocery store, if you’re in the cereal aisle, you know that you can find coffee and tea on the next aisle over. There is little sense of such proximity or context when visiting a website. Including “you are here” clues in your navigation serves to mitigate this issue, at least to some extent. To accomplish this, your navigation scheme should highlight (through using a different color, bold text, a pointer, etc.) the user’s current location within your website’s overall content.
- Does your website include breadcrumbs as a secondary navigation scheme? Breadcrumbs are a row of small text links which show the path from the home page to the user’s current location. They typically appear just above the main content of a page. They should begin with “You are here:”, then have a link to your site’s home page, continue with links to the main pages of the levels along the path to the current page, and end with the title of the current page (unlinked). Breadcrumbs provide an alternative to your main navigation and, like “you are here” clues, provide a sense of proximity and context for your users.
The usability of your search and navigation features is vital to the success of your website. Your digital media strategist will ensure that these features of your website are not preventing your users from finding what they are looking for on your website.
In the next installment in this eight-part series, we will discover that a digital media strategist will analyze your call to action, your web forms, and your shopping cart.