Keep People On Your Site With A Strong Information Scent

A few weeks ago while listening to the CopyBlogger podcast I was reminded of information scent (it came up in passing about 12 minutes in). It’s a subject that doesn’t always get covered in design circles. However it’s an important concept and one we should be thinking about at every stage of the design process.

Destillation of information

What is Information Scent?

Information scent is a part of information foraging theory (PDF). It refers to the extent that users can predict what they will find pursuing a certain path through a website or other source of information.

People following a path through your site are constantly asking themselves 2 questions.

  • what can I expect to gain following this path?
  • what is the likely cost to reach my destination?

Through textual and visual cues a visitor on a site can make a determination whether or not that site has what they’re looking for and can lead them to a desired outcome.

When people talk of information scent they’re talking about providing clear signs along the path the visitor is taking that gives them confidence they’ll end up where they want to be.

There’s a fallacy that people will click no more than 3 times to find what they want before leaving a site. The truth is people will continue to click deeper into a site and move forward along their path as long as they feel like they’re getting closer to their destination.

Each click represents a small investment on the part of the visitor and they’d rather not waste their investment as long as they feel there’s a payoff at the end.

The scent must continue to grow stronger as the visitor clicks deeper and the path must appear easy enough to be worth the predicted effort of continuing toward the desired outcome.

Downey unstoppables in-wash scent booster

How Can You Design Scent in Your Website?

Based on the above questions people ask we have 2 main ways to improve scent.

  • enhance visitor expectations of what they’ll gain
  • reduce expectations of the cost of gaining it

We can do both through the textual and visual cues we leave in a design.

Enhancing Expectations of Gain

The most important thing is to provide clear signs along the trail. You want to have clearly defined navigation and navigational labels that indicate what users will find on the other end of the link.

Words like products or services are fairly common in menus, but how good are they at creating scent? They’re too generic to enhance our expectations that we’ll find the product or service we want.

Jared Spool wrote an interesting article for Web Standards Sherpa not too long ago suggesting these probably aren’t the words customers came to a site looking for and how the general products label weakens the scent trail.

The task at hand defines the scent trail the visitor is following and our words should ideally match that task.

Another common problem is the use of industry jargon. You need to speak the language your customers and clients use and not the language you use. The Eisenberg brothers call this waiting for your cat to bark.

Try to discover what words your customers actually use to describe your products and services. Pay attention to the words they use when they email you or ask questions in support forums. Listen to them in their words and use those same words when talking to them.

Awhile ago I posted some principles of information architecture and mentioned the principle of exemplars, where a category link provides some additional description to give context to the link. I’ll borrow an example from that post

  • Forms (W-4, equipment request, expense report)
  • Policies (vacation, work from home, parental leave)

A link with the single word forms or policies doesn’t create a strong scent since it could lead to so many different things. By showing examples of what would be in the section however a much stronger expectation of gain is created.

A similar idea is that when linking in content you should choose more than a single word as the anchor text for the link. Some research points to 7–12 words as ideal, though I suspect this is more guideline than fact.

If you think good design is expensive, you should look at the cost of bad design

Reducing Expectations of Cost

The other side to clear navigation is reducing the expectation of cost. Navigation and category labels should be mutually exclusive and avoid confusion about which to choose. You want it to make it as easy as possible to find your content.

Walmart has main a navigational link to Home, Furniture & Outdoor and another to Auto & Home Improvement. Which would you click if you’re looking for a lamp?

My first instinct was that lamps would be in the former, but they turn out to be in the latter.

Realistically most people likely know or at least assume that Walmart carries lamps. The expectation of gain is probably high, but the two categories above increase the expected effort to find them.

On the plus side Walmart makes it clear in the flyout menus where to find lamps. The effort to find the link for lighting was minimal Ideally though, the main navigation would be more clear. Imagine for example someone clicked on the wrong link and then concluded what they were looking for wasn’t on the site.

Perhaps it’s not an issue for Walmart since you likely know they have lamps. Your expectation of gain was high enough to exert some effort.

Most of us don’t have the brand of Walmart though. Our brands don’t automatically carry the same expectation of gain and so we need to put more into reducing the perceived expectation of cost.


Providing Feedback

There’s another thing we need to do to ensure a strong scent. When someone clicks a link they have the expectations mentioned above. The last thing we want to do is break their expectations.

If a visitor clicks a link for an Easton Synergy softball bat they better land on a page for Easton Synergy softball bats. If not the scent trail is completely lost.

You need to make it very clear as soon as possible that your visitor has landed on the right page. Text in the link should match closely with the headline on the page. In a sense you’re trying to match mental model and conceptual model.

This offers clear feedback that the visitor is still moving along their desired path and it strengthens the scent trail. Breadcrumbs and sub-navigation can both also offer feedback about the trail. We don’t want visitors landing on a page and pausing for even a moment to decide if they’re in the right place.

We can also make use of design layout patterns and verbal and visual design flow to place visual cues where visitors are most likely to look. Visually we can make it clear instantly that they are where they want to be, by drawing their eyes to those cues that let them know they’re in the right place.

Deep in thought

Additional Thoughts

When the scent trail isn’t strong people resort to searching. A search is akin to starting a new trail. While you want to provide search options on your site consider that if your visitors are searching often it could mean you aren’t providing a strong scent.

We can’t predict in advance how every person will interact with our site. We don’t know exactly what they’re looking for or the path they’ll take to find it.

As Jakob Nielsen points out we can:

  • Support short visits — Allow visitors to get in and out quickly so they feel confident they can do so again in the future.
  • Encourage return visits — The scent doesn’t have to end with a single visit. RSS, email newsletters, forums, etc can encourage people to return and provide additional ways for you to leave a scent trail.
  • Be visible in search results — People searching have immediate needs and a strong desire to follow a scent. Grab people when their scent is the strongest and optimize your search results for scent.

While researching this post I came across a list of bullet points summarizing a presentation on design and scent given by Jared Spool. I found the following point about the design process particularly interesting.

Start at the content page and ask: what are all the pages the user needs to be sucked in from? Donโ€™t start at the home page, build your navigation, then build your content pages (not very scent-full!).

Most of us probably design a page and think to ourselves where do we want the visitor to go next and then create calls-to-action pointing them to that next action. I like Jared’s idea of reversing this thinking.

We still need to include calls-to-action, but this reverse thinking should help ensure our visitors never feel like they’ve landed in the wrong place.

The sweet scent of lilacs


As much as you’d like it to happen, many people won’t land on your site exactly where they want to be. They have specific goals in mind and part of your job is helping them travel a path through your site so they can complete their task.

Improving the information scent on your site will help your visitors find what they want and encourage them to take the steps necessary to get there.

Through the use of clear navigational cues and a strong connection between links and landing pages we show our visitors that they’re moving in the right direction and that if they continue they’ll reach their destination.

How often do you actively think of the scent trails you’re creating in a design? Do you create strong connections on both sides of links? Is it clear where people can go and what they’ll find when they get there?

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  1. Without calling it by this term, it explains why I the only click I make when I follow a specific link and only get a general page is the exit or quit. However, I notice that I rarely follow links that look like someone has merely underlined a sentence (ie more than 3-4 words) or when I get the least hint of manipulation or scamming.

    • Yep. Good examples DJ. Now you have a term for it the next time it happens. ๐Ÿ™‚

      The link one is interesting. I know I link to other posts sometimes with a single word as the anchor text. I tend to write the post first and add in the links I’ve collected after.

      Sometimes I’ll rewrite a few words or sentence so it makes more sense with the link, but sometimes I don’t want to alter what I wrote and may just link with the single word. I’ve always suspected that those single word links are clicked less often and I guess I have at least one confirmation that’s true.

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