SEO And The Scent Of Information

To truly understand web searcher behavior, search engine optimization (SEO) 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:

  • Facilitate clear navigation (where can I go)
  • Allow for quick orientation (where am I) and
  • Communicate content value (should I click on this link)

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, it increases user confidence. 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. In the past few years, search engines have been displaying thumbnail photos that lead to web pages containing graphic images and videos. These thumbnails are also part of the scent of information. What do 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?

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 abandon the website.

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 within 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.

Value – should I click on this link?

Why should web searchers click on your organic listing and not others? Why should web searchers click on your search engine ad? How have you encouraged them to click on your link? Is your HTML title-tag content compelling as well as your snippet and/or meta-tag description? 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?

Did you make a video that pertains to the keyword phrase that your target audience types as query words? Does your target audience expect to see a video? 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. Keyword research tools do not give you a full and accurate picture of searcher mental models.

Talk to your users. 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.

About The Author

Shari Thurow
Shari Thurow is the Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive and the author of the books Search Engine Visibility and When Search Meets Web Usability. Shari currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Information Architecture Institute (IAI) and the ASLIB Journal of Information Management. She also served on the board of the User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA).