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Understanding Orienting Search Behaviors For SEO & Usability

How to increase user confidence and trust on your website by accommodating searcher goals and behaviors

Orientation map

When many online marketing and search engine optimization (SEO) professionals hear the phrase "search behaviors," one of the immediate assumptions is the association with a text box and a button labeled "search" or "find." In fact, usability guru Jakob Nielsen determined that this perception of web searching is so common that it is now a firm mental model.

Many search professionals associate searcher behavior with querying behavior only. In reality, web searching is more complex than simply typing keywords into a text-entry field. Website owners and search professionals alike often overlook finding behaviors after a searcher clicks on a link to a website from a search engine results page (SERP). One of those finding behaviors is called orientation or orienting.

Orientation, SERPs and landing pages

What exactly is orientation? On a website, orientation is a behavior whereby users determine their position in a website with reference to another point—establishing a sense of place.

Web pages should provide the user explicit cues to the: (a) context, and (b) organization of the site, because only a small segment of any site is available at one time. To provide the sense of context, a website should provide cues or markers to indicate a sense of place.

Many times, the reference point is a home page or a website's domain name. However, when people click a link from search results page (SERP = search engine results page), they don't always go to a website's home page. They most likely land on a page in the middle of the website, or go a landing page created specifically as a destination from a search engine ad.

Inceptor's Pyramid

Inceptor's Pyramid image

Figure 1: People often do not land on the home page when they first visit a website. They often land on the page in the middle of a site.

For web searchers to feel confident that a page or a site offers the product, service or information they desire, web pages should present clear you-are-here cues.

Web searchers use a wide variety of you-are-here cues to determine a sense of place on a website. These markers are often a mix of graphical and textual cues. You-are-here cues should be:

  • Clear (to end users)
  • Consistent
  • Persistent

As usability pro and author Steve Krug wrote in his groundbreaking book, Don’t Make Me Think, clarity trumps consistency.

Questions to ask

As search usability professionals, we want to understand which textual and graphical cues are important to the target audience. Questions we commonly pose before formatting and designing a web page:

  • Where should you-are-here cues be placed on a web page? To communicate aboutness and to validate users' information scent, we commonly place you-are-here cues at or near the top of a web page. We also might reinforce them further down the page (i.e., below the fold).

  • If a you-are-here cue is a textual marker, how should it be formatted (color, font/typeface, white space)? For example, a heading should look like a heading, function as a heading, and be a heading. A page heading should not be confused with other types of text on a page or a site.

  • If a you-are-here cue is a graphical or multimedia marker, how large or small (in dimension) should it be? Where should these graphical cues be placed? How should they be formatted? A graphic image should make sense to end users. If an image (or icon) might confuse users, adding a label can make it more understandable.

Here are some questions we commonly ask test participants during usability testing to determine their mental models before they click on a link on a SERP:

  • Whose website are you about to view? How did you determine this?
  • Which section of the website, if any, are you about to view? How did you determine this?
  • What content do you believe you will see after clicking on this link?
  • Do you believe that the information you desire will be available after you click on this link? Why or why not?

For example, if web searchers search for a URL or domain name (a navigational search), they often look at the destination page's logo. A logo can be a graphical you-are-here cue to establish ownership of the website. A tagline or a slogan can also be a you-are-here cue that establishes and reinforces site ownership.

Some web search listings often include a URL. A URL which is a textual cue that can indicate both a sense of place and information scent. This orienting process occurs very quickly (often in less than 1 second) and is a normal process when people navigate from web page to web page.

Some ways to communicate you-are-here cues include:

  • Location-based breadcrumb links
  • Active state(s) for site navigation
  • Logo and tagline in the upper left corner of the web page
  • Unique (X)HTML page title
  • Uniquely formatted headings and subheadings
  • Consistent and persistent color coding

Search Engine Visibility

Search Engine Visibility Book Companion Website

When Search Meets Web Usability

When Search Meets Usability Book Companion Site


The benefits of accommodating orienting behavior

Why should website owners accommodate orienting behavior?

  • Increases user confidence
  • Enables and supports efficient task completion
  • Increases recognition and recall

Increases user confidence

Providing consistent, persistent you-are-here cues throughout a website increases user confidence because they communicate that your site is reliable, dependabe, and trustworthy. Reason? Searcher mental models are being reinforced and validated on every page.

Enables and supports efficient task completion

In addition, consistent placement, usage, and formatting of you-are-here cues decrease demands on users' attention and allow them to accomplish their desired goals more efficiently and with fewer errors.

In other words, if searchers spend too much time trying to establish a "sense of place" on landing pages they are spending less time and effort trying to accomplish their desired goals—goals that are important to business owners as well as they lead directly to conversions (add to cart, subscribe, enroll, etc).

Increases recognition and recall

Finally, recognition, recall, and memorability tends to increase when you have provided consistent, persistent you-are-here cues on a website.

  • Recognition: identification of a thing or person from previous encounters or knowledge
  • Recall: to bring back from memory
  • Memorability: the ability to be easily remembered

Here is an example. Suppose that web searchers wish to re-find content on websites. Searchers encode these previously viewed you-are-here cues within their memory along with the information they learn on a web page, making content easier to retrieve at a later time.

Therefore, website owners, interaction designers, and web developers, need to spend more time making the orienting process as quick and easy as possible.

Orientation is a search behavior that no search professional, interaction designer, or website owner should dismiss. Quick-and-easy orientation contributes to a positive brand experience, increases conversions and sales, and makes content easier to find.

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