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.
In my opinion, too many search professionals associate search 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.
Many times, the reference point is a home page or a website’s domain name. However, when people click a link from an organic search listing or a search engine ad, they don’t always go to a site’s home page. They most likely land on a page in the middle of the website, or a landing page created specifically as a destination from someone clicking on a search engine ad.
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—both textual and graphical cues. As a search usability professional, I want to understand which textual and graphical cues are important to my target audience. Where should these cues be placed on a web page? If it is a textual cue, how should it be formatted (color, font/typeface, white space)? If it is a graphical or multimedia cue, how large or small (in dimension) should it be? Where should these cues be placed on a category page or an article page?
Here are some questions we commonly ask web searchers 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 use a URL or domain name as an information scent, which is extremely common for navigational searches, they often look at the logo, which is a graphical “you are here” cue to establish ownership of the site. A tagline or a slogan can also be a “you are here” that establishes and reinforces site ownership. Web searchers can also quickly scan the URL, which is a textual cue. 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.
The benefits of accommodating orienting behavior
Why should website owners accommodate orienting behavior? One reason is user confidence. Providing consistent “you are here” cues throughout a website communicates trust, reliability, and dependability because searcher mental models are being reinforced and validated on every page.
Additionally, consistent placement, usage and formatting of “you are here” cues are important because they decrease demands on users’ attention, allowing 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).
Finally, recognition, recall and memorability tends to increase when you have provided consistent “you are here” cues on a site. In the event that searchers wish to re-find content on sites via the commercial web search engines, retrieving that content is easier. With minimal effort, searchers encode these “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 search engine advertisers need to spend more time making the orienting process as quick and easy as possible. Orientation is a search behavior that no SEO professional, search engine advertiser 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.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.