Tuesday, July 04, 2006

How to read a web site

It's fun to watch someone read the newspaper. Some methodically turn pages from start to finish, section to section. Others grab the business section, sports, or crossword puzzle, then wander to editorials, local news and get lost in the wanderlust detail of the weather page. Me, I start and stop several times during the day, always interrupted, but can pick up right where I left off when I get a few more minutes to read.

Yet, web sites, containing much the same mix of loosely organized information, seem to leave people transfixed. I'm a frequent observer of people's navigation behavior and have noticed what I call the 30-second stare.

First the eye looks around the page for something, anything, appealing. Behind the eye, the brain is saying "Why am I here? What am I supposed to look at? If I click something, how will I get back here?"

Then, the glazed look begins and the mouse is thinking: "I don't know what to do next."

Then, the click, often taking the person away from that page, forever.

You put a lot of time into the look of your web site, but like the newspaper, which produces new material every single day, you need something of value on every page, and have to give people a way to navigate where they want to go, not just where your logical mind feels they should navigate. And, always give them a way out, but invite them back. It's disappointing to follow a site for several pages and then not be able to get back to an interesting page.

So take time for some quality reading -- of your own web site. Make sure it measures up to your standards, and is also pleasing to your clients. Check the traffic your site receives through your web host, and pay special attention to which pages receive the most hits, and what pages cause people to exit the site.

For an interesting view of how the eye responds to web pages, follow this link to an example of Marketing Sherpa.com's Eyetracking Study. It uses "heatmaps" to illustrate how people look, scroll and click on web pages. Then, take another look at your site and see how you measure up.