One of the most important features of any Web site is its navigation. A tremendous amount of effort goes into brainstorming, arranging focus groups, internal meetings and usability discussions to define site navigation and what best suits site users. And, even though it is important to go through that process, most companies do a poor job of analyzing the performance of the navigation schema they put so much effort into. It appears that many companies approach navigation with a trial-and-error process - hoping for the best once the site goes live. Assuming the company has an enterprise-class Web analytics application in place, a Web analytics model that will accurately assess and report on how successful or not the navigation performs for its visitors can be easily designed, thus providing a wealth of intelligence on how to tweak and optimize the site and its navigation. In this article, I will focus on primary Web site navigation. Even though internal searching is increasingly important and should definitively be taken into account as a visitors key method of navigating a Web site, internal search analytics is an entirely separate subject that warrants its own discussion.
But lets start with the basics. Web site navigation - what is it?
Navigation on a Web site can make or break the site. In our day and age, people have less time - and less patience.People wont use a Web site if they cant find their way around easily. Navigation is essentially about two things: getting from one page to another and figuring out where you are. Basically, navigation tells us whats on the site, and through hierarchy and display, it tells us what the site contains. Navigation reveals content. Navigation also tells us how to use the Web site, where to begin and what the options are. If done correctly, navigation should be all the instruction you need to quickly and easily maneuver around any Web site.
Common Site Navigation Challenges Faced by Companies
When it comes to the design of good Web site navigation, the main challenges faced by businesses today are as follows:
- Poor grouping of content (articles, product, etc);
- Inconsistent elements within a content group;
- Random ordering of elements;
- Confusing labels (use of marketing terminology and technology industry jargon);
- Design and layout issues; and
- Measurement and performance assessment.
The last challenge, measurement and performance, is essential and critical, because, unless youre able to measure navigation success, you cant confirm whether there are problems and where these problems exist. Once measurement determines the problem, site issues can be resolved after confirming the where, what and why. And, once navigation performance is improved, it is extremely important to be able to assess the results against the previous measurement to determine whether the pre-existing problems have been resolved.
Introducing the Confusion Index
How many times have you landed on a Web site hoping to find something specific, but found it to be much more difficult than you ever imagined? You may have reached your boiling point with frustration and left the site in anger, vowing never to return again. This happened to me almost two years ago, which ultimately led to the design of a new Web analytics method to measure what we term the confusion index. This index can be applied to home and gateway pages (also called router pages), but usually home and category pages, and works regardless of your site type (e-commerce, lead generation, media site, support site, etc).
The first step is to identify your key gateway pages, starting with the most popular ones in terms of traffic. Your best candidates are the home page and the top category pages, the pages that are not destination pages (product destination pages are product detail pages, article pages, etc.), and which contain links to non-destination pages as well. From there, we can calculate the confusion index at two different levels: one on the gateway page itself and one for each hypertext link on the gateway page (as long as these links do not lead to a destination page).
Now that weve established that a gateway page is not a destination page by definition, visitors going through this page should continue on and select one of the options offered on the page (e.g.,subcategory link). If they dont select one of the available options offered, that means the scent is broken. Scent is a term coined by analytics expert Bryan Eisenberg that means the site visitor has lost the scent on the trail to the information they seek. If the scent is broken from the page the visitor is sitting on, the behavior of such visitor will express itself as follows:
- Step back: The visitor feels he is at a dead-end, and he wants to step back and look at the other navigation options.
- Trigger an internal search: The visitor feels he is at a dead-end and doesnt feel any of the previous options offered any solutions, yet he still thinks the Web site has what he is looking for, thus triggering his decision to start an internal search.
- Go to the contact or help pages:The visitor is at a dead-end, doesnt know how to find what he is looking for and thinks that calling directly or sending an email to the company is the best option at this point.
- Navigate cross-category or cross-channel: The visitor thinks the original choice, to browse the current category, is wrong. The more the visitor dives into the category and sees the content and options offered, the more he thinks he is in the wrong area. By looking at the primary navigation, the visitor decides to jump into a different category expecting a better result.
- Exiting the Web site: Because of frustration or lack of success, the visitor believes he is not going to satisfy his goal and decides to leave the site, which is the least desired behavior and one that should be avoided at all costs.
Real-Life Example of a Confusing Navigation Experience
Lets see now how the confusion index works in a real-life situation. As you read through this next paragraph, think about your own behavior when you browse Web sites in search of something specific, and decide for yourself if your own experience relates to the confusion index scenarios described previously:
Recently, I was in the market for a Jacuzzi bathtub. I knew that one of the nationwide home improvement retailers had exactly what I was looking for, so I headed to the companys Web site to look for more information. When I arrived on the home page, I started looking for the most relevant link. I thought I found it when I saw kitchen and bath. The next page displayed new links and the tubs link was, of course, my clear first choice. Surprisingly, there were no Jacuzzi tubs on the next page. Next, I tried bath hardware, but no luck there either. How about spa? Nope, struck out again! My frustration started to grow quickly. Out of options, I decided to use the internal search box and typed in Jacuzzi tub. I assumed this would finally get me to the end of my quest for Jacuzzi options. It didnt - after all of this effort I only received this message: Sorry, we couldnt find any matches for Jacuzzi tub. That was it. Goodbye.
Now, lets review my behavior starting with the main category page (the kitchen and bath page). From that page, I clicked on three different links - tubs, bath hardware and spa - and in each case, I clicked the back button immediately because I couldnt find what I was seeking. Finally, I clicked over to the internal search engine, but when I received no match for my query, I left out of sheer frustration. This behavior is pretty typical of people who cant find what they are looking for online. As a result, we can build a Web analytics model to track the links that have higher instances of clicking on the back button, clicking to another category, clicking on the internal search link, clicking on the contact or help links, or leaving the site altogether.
Call to Action
By using Web analytics, you can easily design and build a custom report that tracks the confusion index on your gateway pages. This report can be used to closely monitor links with high scores that need to be fixed. For example, an 83 percent confusion index for any given link means that 83 percent of the time the link was clicked, the behavior of the visitor reflected confusion (such as clicking the back button or entering the site search field).
The best practices that I have used, with great success, over the years to improve navigation and navigational links with high confusion index rates are as follows:
- The name of the destination page needs to match the page name that was clicked on. It reinforces the fact that the site visitor is where he wants to be. It also forces Web designers and Web site architects to think hard about the labels.
- Use internal search as an asset and source of information to improve many navigation issues. On the pages with a high confusion index, track and analyze the internal search keywords that are typed by visitors. It is direct insight into the mind of your customers, and this data basically tells you what they are looking for and where on the Web site they looked but couldnt find whey they sought. Make sure to leverage their language and nomenclature instead of your own. In those situations, dont argue. Your visitors are customers, and theyre always right.
- Group the right products in the right category. If you arent sure in which category it best fits between two categories, put the product in both. On another Web site, I discovered that my Jacuzzi tub was not under Indoors/Bathtubs and Showers/Bathtubs where it logically should have been, but only under Indoors/Bathtubs and Showers (one category higher than where I searched). Given that this site offered their visitors direct access to the Bathtub sub-category, then of course I totally missed the Bathtubs and Showers category, and, as a result, was confused. Fortunately for the retailer, their site had a good internal search engine, and I was able to find my Jacuzzi bathtub.
The confusion index can be a powerful method of measuring the usability of your Web sites gateway pages. Such analysis has helped me and my customers achieve impressive results. For one customer, I was able to increase its home page penetration rate by more than 150 percent. And, by the way, for those who wonder if that darn Jacuzzi tub ever really existed at the nationwide home improvement retailer, the answer is yes. It was under whirlpool tubs. Food for thought: always use the visitors language and not just the manufacturers unless you prefer to have a high confusion index.
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