Question: As the power and influence of search engines such
as Google increase, will Web users bother going to homepages and trying to
figure out each site’s navigation scheme? Or with our increasingly
shortened attention spans and demands on our time, will we just Google
Nielsen: Users have never wanted separate interaction designs
on each Web site, and the associated learning overhead. That’s why it has
always been a strong guideline to comply with user expectations and avoid
deviant design. Search engines are simply making this trend stronger; they are
not its cause. I know from user testing that one of the reasons users have been
embracing search engines so warmly is as a way to liberate themselves from
awkward and clumsy design on individual Web sites. One user told me: “I
don’t want to navigate this information the way this Web site wants me to;
I just want to go straight to the page I want, so I’m going to search for
Garrett: I don’t think we should lament the passing of
an era in which users had to master navigation schemes in order to use sites. In
some ways, search may be the best thing that ever happened to
navigation—we’re seeing lots of sites now paring their navigation
back to just what’s really necessary and essential to user needs, rather
than trying to cram an entire site map into the left rail on every page.
Calishain: I don’t think they’ll Google
everything. I think instead what will happen—what is happening—is
that standards are developing for site navigation. Users will not have to grasp
new site navigation schemes since they’ll get used to going to a site and
looking for the nav bar HERE and the content HERE and the search box HERE. I
think people understand that search engines don’t include the entire Web.
As long as that’s understood, they’ll further understand they
can’t Google everything. They’ll have to explore sites.
McGovern: I think people everywhere are very impatient when
they’re on the Web. If they don’t get what they’re looking for in
the first page of search results, they’re not very likely to go to the
second page. Very few people will use advanced search. I haven’t seen this
basic pattern of behavior change in the last five years.
Q: Do you think it’s futile for site designers and
information architects to struggle with developing effective navigation schemes
for their sites? In other words, is search engine optimization becoming more
important than navigation optimization?
Calishain: Good lord, I hope not. A truly effective navigation
scheme, it seems to me, should prove effective for both a human visitor and a
spidering ‘bot. The challenge is to build a structure that a ‘bot can
appreciate and a human can understand, and build a vocabulary of description on
your site that a human can appreciate and a ‘bot can understand. I believe
these are complementary aims.
McGovern: No. In my experience, there is a difference
between the behavior of someone when they are on Google and when they are on an
ordinary Web site. People may use Google to find a type of Web site, but then
they are likely to navigate around it if it’s well-designed. They will
often only resort to using search on that site if the navigation is poor.
Garrett: Navigation still has a very important role to play.
First of all, there is a large audience for whom search is not their preferred
method of information retrieval. Secondly, navigation helps users make
connections between content elements that they might not otherwise make. Search
is great when you’re looking for a particular piece of information;
navigation helps you find information you didn’t know you were looking
Nielsen: Good navigation is still essential, especially
local navigation to information in the neighborhood of the current page. First,
search engines are not magic, so they don’t always lead users to exactly
the right page. Sometimes users need to move around a little inside the site to
zero in on the stuff they want. Second, Web sites often have additional
information to offer that’s spread among multiple pages. This is especially
true for B2B sites where products and services are too complex for a single
product page to offer everything users want. There’s a need to navigate to
whitepapers, spec sheets, and much more, and there’s also often a need to
navigate between members of a product family before users can decide which one
is the most appropriate for them.
Q: On the premise that Web users are already Googling more,
navigating less, what would you recommend to site designers to make their sites
more usable and searchable right now?
McGovern: Creating a good navigation will always be a core
challenge for the Web designer. What is often forgotten is the relationship
between well-organized content and search. The better organized and written your
content is, the more searchable it is. And it’s not an either/or. Search
and navigation needs to work in tandem, with some people using people to get to
a certain part of the Web site, then using navigation to go further.
Nielsen: Good usability has always been essential, since
people have always left sites that were too complicated. The rise of search has
simply lowered the threshold of what’s considered “too
complicated” a good deal because users have nine other sites at their
fingertips on the SERP [search engine results page]. There is now more of a
tendency for users to dip into sites briefly for a very quick visit of 1–5
pages. As a result of this information-snacking behavior, Web sites must design
to be attractive snacks and offer value for these ultra-short visits.
Calishain: If there are any pre-existing organization
structures that would work on your site (organizing by date, alphabetization,
card catalog number, etc.), use them. Consider using a site map. Have a Home
button on each page. Put an About button somewhere, no matter how bloody obvious
you think your site’s purpose is. Make sure that if someone does
come to your site via Google that they have some way to quickly get to a summary
of what your site is all about.
Garrett: It used to be that we could reasonably assume that
most of the audience seeing a page deep in the site will have already seen the
home page, a section page of some kind, and possibly some related content. As
search engines become more effective, we have to acknowledge that users may not
have all that context when they come to the page, and design every page as if it
were the very first page the user sees in their experience of our site. The
homepage is no longer the only place where we have to make a good first