An Event Apart: The Secret Lives of Links

by June 14, 2011

In his presentation at An Event Apart in Atlanta, GA 2011 Jared Spool detailed the importance and role of links on Web pages. Here are my notes from his The Secret Lives of Links talk:

  • Jared has been putting web sites under microscopes for years. And seeing the secret lives of links. Links live to deliver their user to their desired objective.
  • All links are trying to get us to understand what’s available on a site. Links are oriented around tell you what’s going on. They are designed to get people to the content they want.
  • The content of a site (the most important stuff) talks to us through links. If people find the links they are looking for, they have a good experience.
  • The Scent of Information is the process by which content communicates to the user about how to find it. Links are responsible for the scent of information. Grewat link design is getting the scent right.
  • The distinction between what the site owners insist we put on the site and what the users want –we’ve all faced this tension. But it’s possible to get the links and content people want on your Web site by understanding how links can help you achieve your goals.

Trigger Words

  • On the Walgreen’s site, 21% of people go to photos, 16% go to search, 11% go to prescriptions, 6% go to pharmacy link, 5% go to find stores. Total traffic is 59% for these five links. The total amount of page used for these 5 links is ~4% of page space. The most important stuff on the page occupies less than 1/20th of the page.
  • This violates Fitts’s law. The bigger and closer, the easier a target is to hit. So we’re often using the real estate of Web pages poorly.
  • Product manager win is using the screen space on Web sites to communicate "messages" people don't care about.
  • Make real estate reflect the importance of links. Link copy needs to communicate what the user will get. The links have to take the user to where they want to go.
  • Nobody goes to a Website just to visit. They have a reason. Trigger words serve the goal of the user. They trigger the user to click/take an action. When trigger words are well done, they get the user to the content they want and signal where to click.
  • You can break down information scent to having great trigger words. Getting trigger words right is the best way to make your site usable.

Common Issues

  • It’s easy to know when your website scent is bad. Use of the back button, pogo-sticking, and using search are all signs that the scent of your links is off.
  • Usage patterns are the same across all websites. In 15 years (and thousands of sites) things have not changed much. Only 42% find what they are looking for. 58% do not find what they are looking for. For these people the scent is not coming through.
  • Looking at all the click-streams, you can see patterns that emerge. In click-streams with a single back button success dropped to 18%. If they hit the back button twice, success drops down to 2%.
  • The back button is the button of doom. People hit the back button when they run out of scent.
  • Pogo-sticking is the behavior of a user jumping up and down through the Web site. When users pogo-stick they don’t find what they are looking for. When looking at click-streams with pogo-sticking, success drops to 11%
  • On e-commerce sites, 66% of purchases do not include pogo-sticking at all. People don't jump between products to choose what to buy. The more people pogo-stick, the less likely they are to buy something. People select what to buy from gallery pages.
  • If you see a user pogo-stick, they have lost scent.
  • There are only three ways to get from a home to content: search, category, or featured content.
  • If people don't see their trigger words, they click search.
  • What do people type into the search box? Their trigger words. They are creating a link. If they don’t see a trigger word, they enter theirs into search.
  • Your search logs are filled with trigger words. Have you looked there lately? Match the search phrases up with the pages users search from.
  • You want to minimize the amount of search on your site. (average is 7% of clicks on home page) People don’t want to search, its the design of your sites that force users to search.
  • Click-streams that use search drop to 30% success. You put search on your site to help your users. But if they use it, their chances of success drops 50%.
  • Number of pages to purchase apparel. 12 on the Gap, 16 on land’s end. 51 on macy’s and 51 on newport news. These both had search, pogo-sticking, and use of back button.

The Look of Links

  • The only text more useless than “learn more” is “click here”.
  • Good design is invisible. It is like air conditioning –you don’t notice it until something is wrong. Clutter on a web page is only clutter if it is not what you are looking for.
  • Links want to look good. They want to look like links.
  • Links are supposed to be blue and underlined. This was not a great choice. Made by the astrophysicists at CERN. Blue is the hardest color to see. Men and women lose the ability to see blue as they age. Underlining screws up our ability to interpret words. Makes it harder to read.
  • Sometimes we take things too far and it becomes hard to tell what is a link. You end up having to wave your mouse around on the page until the browser gives you “the finger”.
  • We don’t have to use blue and underline but we need a consistency of language for what is a link. We confuse users with things that look like links but aren’t.
  • Users don’t move their mouse until they know what they are going to click on. Hidden content (in an hover) throws people off as they have already mad a decision on what to click on
  • Designer win is when design takes over instead of user needs.
  • Support the user with what they want to do. Don’t distract them.
  • Deliver users to their desired objectives. Emit the right scent. Look good while still looking like a link. Do what the user expects. Users like to move in straight lines.