Search is not a substitute for straightforward navigation
Business owners have come to know that the web can be used to answer questions that buyers and customers have. The more questions you answer on your website, the less money you have to invest in people answering those questions, one at a time. This is not a difficult concept to understand.
Unfortunately, grasping it and succeeding at it are miles apart. One thing we see standing in the way is a tendency to believe that "a good search function" on the site will somehow substitute for poor navigational organization. Not true.
Your visitors should be able to navigate to any piece of information on your site. Web-based content must be "findable." There must be a logical way to get to the answer, whatever the question is. The person who has a question wants to be able to come to the site, glance at the choices offered, and see a word or phrase that he knows will lead him to the answer. He has to keep feeling that each choice will bring him closer to his goal. As long as he is feeling this way, he will happily click through a series of menus.
There are people who think that this is the wrong way to approach navigation of content. They think that website visitors should be able to type in a question and get an answer. But how many times have you typed a question into Google and "gotten the answer" - without having to revise your search several times? How many times have you typed a question into a company's search box and "gotten the answer" - at all? How many times have you typed a question into any Help function in any Microsoft product and gotten anything resembling an answer? I thought so. Why does search work so poorly?
Because the people seeking answers tend to form their questions differently than the people who know the answers. The moment you learn the answer to a question, your view of the subject is completely different from the view of the person who is asking the question.
It's like asking for directions. My husband and I used to live in California, where most people are from somewhere else. Most Californians tend to give fairly decent directions, because they came to California from somewhere else, and had to learn how to get around. They still know how to think like someone who is new to an area. Someone who needs directions, in other words.
When we moved to New England ten years ago, and started asking for directions, we were amused (sometimes) at the difference between Californians giving directions and New Englanders giving directions.
When someone from New England gives you directions, they tend to use landmarks instead of street signs, because that's how they drive. "Turn left at Dunkin' Donuts," they'll say. When the directions have almost gotten you there, they always stop giving directions and say, "You can't miss it."
Actually, you can - and probably will - miss it, since you don't know what you're looking for. They can't miss it, because they already know where it is.
The navigation on your website should be so clear that no one ever has to "ask for directions" by using a search box, especially since search box results are seldom satisfying. They should be able to find the answer to every single question by pursuing navigation. And they should never have the feeling that they've just "missed it."
Last week I talked about email absolutes; this week let's look at some website navigation absolutes.
- Stick to website conventions. People are used to "products," "services," "about," "contact," and so on. Don't try to be clever and break from convention. Navigation is mostly about convention. Put things where people expect to find them. Use the left columns for detailed website navigation categories, and make sure they stay the same as the person goes through your website. Use the top for tabs showing the main categories. Use the right-hand side for special messages or actions that the person can take on that particular page. These are the conventions. They work. Use them.
- Map out your entire navigation scheme based on what you expect people to do. Map out their pathways, and make sure each pathway is supported. Many people think they're doing this, but their website visitors will tell them they didn't do a good enough job.
- The more they drill down, the more detail you should give them. If they're interested enough to drill down, they're interested enough to read some content. Take them all the way to the 60-page product manual, if you can. If they find the answer there, they'll buy your product. They won't mind they had to do that much digging, as long as they find their answer.
- Know the questions they ask and the order they ask them. What's most important to them, first? What do they need to know next? Make sure your copy answers their questions. It's quite common for even the most basic questions to be unanswered in a product description.I often find myself reading customer reviews before I read product descriptions, because I get more useful information out of the product reviews. The descriptions are always filled with vague promises, whereas the product reviews give me very specific information.
- Give them a chance to buy on every page - but don't be too pushy. At some point, they will have the answers to their questions and will be ready to buy. But don't keep shouting "BUY ME" on every page. They'll see the buy button clearly enough when they're ready.
Once your navigation is solid and logical, you can work on building search capability into your site.