Information Scent

The Web is all about hyperlinks, but you may wonder when shown a bunch of links, how do users decide which link to click on and which to ignore? Information foraging theory, a theory developed at Xerox PARC in the 90s, has the answer people beat the link with the strongest information sent like food. Sundt guides animals through their meals information and guides people to those Web pages that are likely to contain the content they’re looking for. The information sent of a link is the user’s estimate of how relevant the corresponding page will be if they visited. Information sent is a relative concept, meaning that the same link may give out different information sent for different goals or different users. For example, a link titled Food will have high information. If you’re looking for cheese but low information and if you’re looking for soap. So what makes up information is that there are four big components. Perhaps the most important one is the link label that is supposed to be a brief yet accurate description of what the page is about. If this description feels relevant to the user’s goal and the user can understand it, the link will have high information sent for that user and her task and she will be likely to click it. That is the main reason for which we’ve repeatedly argued that link names should be clear, descriptive and easy to understand. Jargon, branded terms or simply too sophisticated words or workplace may end up ignored and may not provide enough cues for all your users. The second component of information sent is the content that comes with the link, often next to a link.

There may be a short snippet or a thumbnail intended to present the user with additional information. Even though people may not read all the text associated with a link, they may still scan it and glance at a thumbnail. Those cues will add to the information center that link. The third component is the context in which the link appears. What else is on the page? For example, for the same information, need the word Christmas might have different information sent on to different websites. If you’re looking for Christmas dinner plates, even if you’ve never heard of Williams-Sonoma, say the send will be high on its side because of the other related content also visible on the page. But it will be low on Harry and David side for the same reason. The last component of information sent is the user’s prior knowledge. This is made up of the user’s experiences with a company with a same type of content or simply with using the Web. It also includes what the user has heard as word of mouth or recommendations from friends or strangers. If someone already knows of Williams-Sonoma and perhaps has interacted with the brand before, they will be able to understand what Christmas on its website stands for. Even in the absence of other context. An experienced network administrator who has worked with a ton of Cisco products in the past may click on the link to one of its products, even though the link label is not very descriptive. Or if a friend has strongly recommended a certain article, one may click on it. Even though its title doesn’t seem that relevant, designers are occasionally tempted to attract clicks to their side, even though the site may not be fully appropriate for the user’s needs. For example, you may be tempted to come up with an intriguing title that matches of trendy topic for a boring article that is not even remotely connected to the topic. But this approach can backfire. Yes, you will get a click, but at the same time you will use up your visitors trust, like in the story of the boy who cried wolf too many times.

Next time when you will actually have relevant content, people will be less likely to click on it, knowing that they’ve been burned in the past. And even worse, although they may not have been burned personally, they may read complaints from other people who have had a bad experience. So you may not even get that first click.

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