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Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Information Scent

To truly understand searcher behavior, web professionals should know how web searchers locate, discover, and follow information scent

SEO and Information Scent image

To truly understand web searcher behavior, search engine optimization professionals should know how searchers locate and follow the scent of information. On a web page, the scent of information consists of textual and graphical cues that:

  1. Facilitate clear navigation (Where can I go?)
  2. Allow for quick orientation (Where am I?)
  3. Communicate arrival (Can I tell that I have arrived? Am I in the right place?)
  4. Communicate potential route selections (How can I get to the destination that has my desired content?)
  5. Communicate content value (Should I click on this link?)

1. Facilitate clear navigation (Where can I go?)

On search engine results pages (SERPs), the main textual cue that communicates, "Where can I go?" is a blue, underlined text link.

For example, in natural (algorithmic) search listings, the primary blue, underlined text link contains the (X)HTML title-tag content. In the news search listings, the primary blue, underlined text link is the story headline. Title-tag content and headings serve multiple purposes:

  • Relevancy (ranking). All of the major search engines use title-tag and heading content to determine page relevancy.

  • Click-through. A hypertext link is the primary call-to-action on SERPs.

  • User confidence. If keywords are present in the hypertext link, they often increase user confidence...that users will arrive at the right place after they click (or tap) on a link.

Searchers believe that if they click on a link that contains their keyword phrase, they will go to a page that contains that keyword-related content.

However, search engines display more than text in their SERPs. Web search engines have been displaying thumbnail photos in search listings that lead to web pages containing graphic images and videos. These thumbnails are also part of the scent of information.

What do web searchers expect to see when they type in the current U.S. president's name, Barack Obama? Do they expect to see a thumbnail photo with Barack Obama in it? Or do they expect to see a picture of the Queen of England? Or a kitty cat dressed in a cowboy outfit?

If the information scent is strong, people click. If the scent of information weakens or disappears, searchers might abandon the website.

Interestingly, many SEO professionals sincerely believe that link development and social media trump all on-the-page factors for optimization. I have never believed this nor do I practice it, because I see how important the scent of information is to users. No link development campaigns will be successful if information scent is not reinforced in SERPs and corresponding landing pages.

If the scent of information is strong, people click. If the scent of information weakens or disappears, searchers usually abandon the website.

2. Allow for quick orientation (Where am I?)

On a website, orientation is a behavior where searchers determine their position with reference to another point, establishing a "sense of place." In other words, searchers quickly establish whose website they are visiting, and what section of the site (if any) they are viewing. If searchers do not believe they have "landed" in the right place, they will leave the website.

Web searchers orient very quickly, sometimes less than 1 second after a page loads.

Landing pages should always validate searchers' scent of information, both textually and graphically. For example, if an online shopper wants to purchase a pink Burberry cashmere scarf, then the product landing page should contain a product photo of a pink Burberry cashmere scarf. The product page's title-tag content should contain those keywords as well as other on-the-page text.

Communicate arrival (Am I in the right place?)

Orientation and arrival are closely related. The cues that help searchers and search engines establish the current location within a website also communicate arrival.

Here are some examples of items that communicate arrival:

  • "On" state in primary and local navigation
  • Primary page heading (usually formatted as an h1)
  • Location-based breadcrumb links

WTF signAdapted from the book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web by Peter Morville and Louis Rosenfeld. Used with permission.


Every page on a website should provide arrival cues.

Note: Users also find it helpful to know whether or not they have already viewed the page.

4. Communicate route selection (How can I get to desired content?)

The commercial web search engines are far from perfect. A link in a search listing might get users to the desired website but not to the desired page within the site.

A page that has been archived might have a different URL (web address). Or a website owner might have combined content from multiple web pages.

Regardless of the scenario, if searchers decide to stay on your site and continue to locate desired content, they should be able to locate a trail (navigation element) that leads to that content.

Searchers look for maintenance of an information scent by perceiving and interpreting:

  • Clickability - Searchers need to know the items on a web page that are clickable and not clickable, tappable and not tappable.

  • Previous visitation - Searchers want to know whether or not they have already viewed specific content on the website.

  • Label - The navigation label should communicate aboutness. In other words, what content does the link lead to?

5. Communicate value (Should I click on this link?)

Why should web searchers click on your organic listing and not others? What have you done to help increase click-throughs? In the title? The snippet? The breadcrumb trail? The URL structure?

Is your HTML title-tag content compelling as well as your snippets and/or meta-tag description?

If you are use search engine advertising, why should web searchers click on your search engine ad? How have you encouraged them to click on your link? Does your ad contain desired keyword content? Is the ad legible or difficult to understand due to keyword stuffing to accommodate all sorts of keyword combinations?

To make web content findable, the scent of information should be clearly established and consistently maintained throughout a website.If you have videos and/or a video channel, do you make a each video pertain to the keyword phrase that your target audience types as query words? Does your target audience expect to see a video? Or does your video contain a bunch of marketing hype just so your site can have search engine visibility on the first page of SERPs?

The scent of information has a lot to do with user expectations. If users want to see a video about a topic, they will probably use the word "video" or "videos" as a keyword, indicating transactional intent. If they do not expect to see a video listing, they might click on the video out of curiosity…or they might not. Usability professionals commonly perform expectancy tests to determine searcher mental models.

To make web content findable, the scent of information should be clearly established and consistently maintained throughout a website. But remember: you should try to understand the scent of information from the users' perspective. Not the SEO perspective or the marketing department's perspective. Not the CEO's or the IT department's (shudder) perspective. Information scent should be clear to users.

Keyword research tools do not give you a full and accurate picture of searcher mental models.

Talk to your site visitors. Objectively observe their behavior. See how the scent of information exists (or does not exist) on your website. The answers might surprise you.

For those of you who are interested in reading detailed information about the scent of information, please read more about Peter Pirolli and information foraging theory.

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