Wikipedia As A Website Usability Role Model

For all its faults, Wikipedia has a lot to teach us about usability. Here are three things that Wikipedia does right that I think websites should emulate to better engage users, boost time on site, and hopefully lead to more conversions.

Summary sections

Wikipedia offers summaries at the top of its feature-length articles. While I haven’t got access to Wikipedia’s visitor data, I’d hypothesize that these summaries help reduce the bounce rate (bounce rate is the percentage of people who arrive and “bounce away” within 10 seconds or so). Let’s think about the factors that play in bounce rate to understand how summaries can help.

I just finished reading the book Honest Seduction: Using Post Click Marketing To Turn Landing Pages Into Game Changers, by my friends at Ion Interactive. One key takeaway of their book is that bounce rates are partly a function of visitors’ mental time commitment.

Someone who clicks an organic listing just made a five second commitment to click. If your page displays a mass of text, you are asking for a five minute commitment. Many visitors will bounce due to the disconnect between their initial five second commitment and your subsequent request for five minutes of their time.

By featuring a summary on your page, you invite users to make just an incremental five or 10 second commitment. By bridging the gap in this way, the summary prevents a commitment disconnect.

Table of contents sections

A table of contents section is another valuable item for users that are in a hurry. While I have to admit I haven’t tested it, I’m willing to bet that these tables reduce bounce rates by boosting message match.

Besides Honest Seduction, I’ve also been reading the Bryan and Jeff Eisenberg’s books on search marketing, and I recently also finished Tim Ash’s Landing Page Optimization. One common thread amongst all these conversion rate experts’ advice is that message match is essential.

Message match is the continuity and total coherence between a click source and the page(s) it leads to.

For example, an organic listing titled “Browse Used Toyotas Starting At $5,000″ should lead visitors to a page with that headline and a number of used Toyotas with prices starting at $5,000, not $6,000. If it’s not immediately clear that your page matches the organic listing/banner ad/PPC copy/email message, then people will leave in droves.

The key is to make things obvious

The problem is that with long textual articles you can’t have everything above the fold. So if a visitor came for something that is below the fold, there’s a good chance that they will bounce.

Now, summaries are a helpful way to address the problem, but they’re only a partial solution. Summaries typically follow the flow of an article, so a scanner with a 7 second attention span might miss the second to last line of the summary. So he might not know from the summary that the article contains what he wants.

Enter the table of contents. This hyperlinked group of keywords is an easily scannable information desk, like the ones you find in malls. It enables rushed visitors to get a better idea of what lies below the fold and deep in the heart of any article.

Thus a table of contents is a tool to reinforce message match on long tail keywords and content that lies below the fold.

In the absence of a table of contents, I’d venture a guess that people may start reading at the introduction (or summary). But if they’re not captivated quickly, they probably won’t dig down in the hopes of something more interesting showing up.

With a table of contents, even if the introduction fails to grab readers, the table of contents may lead them further into the text.

Copious inline navigation

This is another way of lifting time on site and pageviews, as I’ve seen in my own personal experience. In most cases, greater time on site and more pageviews correlate to greater engagement and likelihood to convert. Additionally, this obviously ends up being very valuable for SEO.

Wikipedia is well known for pioneering the linking of keywords throughout its articles to whatever Wikipedia page existed on the topic of that keyword. Its users appear to largely appreciate this navigation, as I learned from my friend Rachel.

While chatting one day at one of my school’s computer labs, Rachel told me that she loved reading Wikipedia, for entertainment. “I could spend hours and hours reading Wikipedia,” she told me.

Obviously, she and other users browse Wikipedia articles and click from one to another. Heck, I’ve done it myself while reading about famous privateers/pirates in colonial times.

While broad general navigation is good, Rachel-style use of Wikipedia is only possible due to the simple system of internal linking that Wikipedia has created. When editing a Wikipedia page, you just need to put double square brackets around a word (i.e. [[word]] ), and it will then automatically link to Wikipedia’s page on the topic.

Nowadays, major newspapers like the New York Times have adopted the practice, and it gains more currency amongst the WordPress community daily. WordPress bloggers have downloaded my Internal link building plugin, which automates Wikipedia-style inline navigation, over 7,300 times from my own site since it was released a year ago. And many more downloads have occurred of translated versions hosted by East European SEOs.

So consider using in-line navigation to engage users longer and make more money.

Competitive intelligence doesn’t just come from analyzing competitors’ backlinks. By analyzing some of the web’s most popular sites, it’s possible to discover usability techniques that can be easily copied over to lower bounce rates and lift time on site. The conversions should follow.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Content | Search & Usability


About The Author: also writes his own SEO blog where he discusses advanced SEO tactics and ideas. He loves offering SEO consulting to entrepreneurs.

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  • bret.clement

    Seems easier said than done sometimes, but agree with “the key is to make things obvious”


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