Following the Scent: An Essential Part of What Makes a Good Website

July 17, 2013 / by Kathryn Redman

toilet resized 600Have you ever been to a website and once you moved from one place to another, you forgot where you were in the first place?  We’ve all done it, right? Clicked on a link that led you from one place to another in search of the information you were looking for, but when you get there you are confused. What you thought you would find was not there, and what was there appeared, from your perspective, to be basically unrelated to what you were hoping for.

In website design as we continue to ask what makes a good website, I want to talk today about the “scent” of your website, that comes from the search engines, from landing pages, and once someone actually lands on your site.  There is a visual design scent and there is an information scent.

In visual design we are asking does the website have the same look and feel as the landing page, or enough visual cues that when someone goes from a landing page to an offer on your site, it is clear that they are in the right place? In the information area, scent is a term we use to describe what leads people on the hunt through your website.  Can they confidently predict what they are going to find if they choose a certain path through your site?

Today I want to focus just on the scent of information.

If you have a strong information scent, that means that the words, links, visual cues etc. that you use on your site resonate with your visitor. As they follow a path through your site, the information scent is consistent and each choice (click) on that path leads them to a deeper understanding of the information that they are seeking.

So what makes a good website when it comes to information scent?

Well, I know we hammer it a lot in our blogs, but doing research on the types of keyword phrases that your potential or current customers are typing into the search engines is a great place to start. If you create your website content to answer specific questions or provide information that people are looking for, then when they find your website, this information is their starting place.

One example of rules that get broken is the reality of how we sometimes change our language without meaning to. Think of the way we change language for the word “bathroom.” Restroom, Toilet, Loo, John, Potty, Men’s Room, Powder Room, Lavatory, Wash Room, Bano, etc. Let’s say we’re using our phone to look up the bathroom locations at an amusement park. If the link on the website says “restrooms,” but the page it takes you to uses the word “rest areas” and the signs at the park say “toilets” then they have a bad scent and we get confused. If we move the language on people they can get lost.

Way back in 2001, an article in The Economist titled Scents and Sensibility was published in the science and technology section of the print magazine and said the following:

“IF WEBSITES are built without bricks or mortar, why does navigating around them so often feel like bashing your head against a wall? Yet frequently it does, and as Jakob Nielsen, one of the gurus of the World Wide Web, points out: “On the Internet, ease of use comes first and transfer of money comes second. Revenues on the web are determined almost completely by usability.” It is hardly surprising, therefore, that groups of researchers around the world are trying to devise scientific methods that can make the web easier to use.

One such group is based at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre in California, and is led by Ed Chi and Stuart Card. Dr Chi and Dr Card take their inspiration from the science of ecology. Dr Card, a cognitive psychologist, reckons that a user “forages” through a website in search of a piece of information in a manner similar to that employed by an animal foraging through a forest in search of food. Watch the user's foraging behavior (his “clickpath”) closely enough, and you can work out what “scent” he is chasing, and thus what kind of information he is after. For example, if a user begins by looking at an article on romantic dinners and winds up trying to purchase espresso ice-cream, he (or, in this case, perhaps she) is more likely to follow up by clicking to an article selling perfume or candles than to an article offering pencils or glue.”

Dr. Chi created a program called “Bloodhound” that was designed to help predict the path a user would take to get from one place to another. I’m not sure if that specific program is around anymore, but Dr. Chi is now a Research Scientist at Google specializing in this area of information retrieval on the web so his work continues. 

A recent blog post from one of my staff called “A Crazy Good Online Software to Increase Website Conversion” referenced a software called Crazy Egg that allows you to actually see what your website visitors are doing when they come to your site. Where are you losing them? What’s working? CrazyEgg has features like a hotmap that shows where people are focusing on your website, a scrollmap so you can see if you are losing folks because your pages are too long and other really cool features.

But you can read about that separately. I mention it because as you evaluate what makes a good website and the scent of your website, you can use tools like CrazyEgg to help you see what is working, where people are tracking, and where they are not so you can clean things up.

Take a tour (or better yet have a friend do it for you) through your site and see if the trail you lead your users down has a strong scent that pulls your users from one place to the next with the information they are expecting to find. If you see areas where the connection from one place to the next doesn’t seem to quite make sense, adjust the content or rework the links so that the path is clearer.

A website with good information scent is rich with content that pulls users towards it. Each click, or link, gives off the scent of the trail that your users can follow. Every time they click to the next link or page, they gain confidence in the direction of the information. Having a clear scent to follow is an essential component to what makes a good website.



Topics: Lead Generation, Website Development

Subscribe for Weekly FREE Business Strategies and Resources

New call-to-action
Resiliency Quiz

Latest Posts