Since the Internet has existed, researchers have studied how people interact with it. Despite this, persistent myths about how visitors use websites have sprung up. In this post, we’ll take a look at a few of these myths and use research and data from the field and from the Extension website to determine whether or not they have a basis in reality.

Myth #1: Visitors don’t scroll and thus are likely to miss content “below the fold”

For years in the early days of the web, people were told that important content on a page needs to be at the top of the screen, where visitors can see it without scrolling. Recent research has shown, however, that this trend in behavior is changing. In 2010, users spent about 80% of their time looking at content in the first screen they could see. In 2018, they spent the same amount of time looking at the first three screens of content (see Scrolling and Attention). This is partially due to the prevalence of mobile device usage. On mobile devices, 90% of users scroll within 14 seconds.

At this point, nearly all web users are familiar with scrolling. What determines if they will scroll on a given page is whether or not they have reason to believe that they’ll find what they’re looking for by doing so. This concept of users following “information scent” is part of a larger field called “information foraging theory”, which compares the methods people use to find information online to the methods animals use to find food in the wild.

When deciding whether to take an action like scrolling or clicking a link (or moving to a new area to forage for food), two factors are considered:

  1. The “cost” of the action – how long it takes, how difficult it is to undo,  etc.
  2. How likely it seems that performing the action will get the desired results

Scrolling is one of the most low-cost actions a person can take on a web page – it doesn’t require loading a new page and you can undo the action without even moving the mouse pointer. Therefore, according to information foraging theory, if a user has to choose between two equally likely methods of finding information – clicking a link or scrolling on the current page, they would be more likely to choose scrolling.

What this means for you

  • At the top of the page, tell visitors what they will find by scrolling down. This can be done with a table of contents, a quick links bar, a short summary in the first paragraph, etc.
  • Make sure the sections further down the page are easily scannable – even though most users scroll these days, they do focus most of their attention on content near the top.

Myth #2: Visitors read all of the content on a page

Although this contradicts the previous myth somewhat, many content authors develop content for web pages with the assumption that visitors will read the entire page from beginning to end. For many years now, we have known this is largely not the case. Website visitors almost always scan the page in an F-shaped pattern, reading the first few words of each section or paragraph as they go down the page. 

The reason for this is based in information foraging theory, described above. Users scan in order to determine the likelihood of finding the information they want on the page. If in the course of their scanning they determine that the likelihood is high, they will decide it is worth their time to read the page or section in more detail.

What this means for you

  • Make your web content scannable as much as possible. There are several techniques for doing this:
    • Use headings frequently to break up text. These headings should describe the information found in the following section. On longer pages, you may consider further differentiating sections by using alternating background colors.
    • Use pull quotes, where certain sentences are enlarged and emphasized graphically like in a magazine.
    • When enumerating multiple ideas (such as a list of items or series of steps), break them into a numbered or bulleted list.
    • Keep paragraphs short, with one idea per paragraph.

Myth #3: Visitors to a website always (or almost always) start at the home page

When designing a home page or landing page, many people assume that it will be the first page that visitors see when they come to the site. However, this idea is not supported by the data. 

Over the past year (May 13 2019-2020):

  • 2.71% of visits to the Extension website started on the home page
  • 6.47% of visits started on a program landing page
  • 3.71% started on a county landing page
  • 1.95% started on a topic landing page
  • 0.22% started on a project landing page

This means that about 85% of visits to the site start on a page that isn’t a landing page.

In comparison, more than half of visits (57.6%) start on an article or a news story, mostly via searching on Google or other search engines for specific information. It is also slightly more common for visits to start on a program subpage than the landing page (6.79% of visits vs. 6.64% of visits).

What this means for you

  • Don’t assume that putting something on your landing page means all (or even most) visitors will see it.
  • Make sure that visitors can understand your content and get all the information you want them to have without needing to visit the landing page.

Myth #4: Visitors won’t find information if it can’t be found within three clicks of where they start

This is an extremely pervasive myth that we have addressed before. The first thing to know is that this measurement is not useful in telling you how easy content is to find. Technically, all content on the Extension website can be found within two clicks of any page by using the search feature. 

Additionally, although it is still often repeated, the “three-click rule” has been proven false. This is due to, again, information foraging theory. As long as visitors have a reason to believe it is worth their time to follow a link, that it will bring them closer to their goal, they will do it regardless of how many links they have already clicked.

What this means for you

  • It is better to “chunk” information into more pages with fewer link options rather than putting a large number of links all together to try and minimize the number of clicks to get to each destination.
  • Make sure visitors know why it is worth their time to click a link. This is mainly done by using meaningful link text. People are more likely to click on a link that says what they will see if they click the link (such as “full results of the study”) rather than something generic like “click here” or the link URL.

Myth #5: You should open links to external sites in a new window/tab to make sure visitors get back to your site

For a long time, it was considered a best practice to open links to external websites or applications in a new window or tab. It was believed that doing so would prevent the user from leaving your site entirely for the one being linked to. However, doing so leads to serious accessibility, security, and usability problems, to the point where today opening links in new windows is often considered one of the top usability problems on the web.

Additionally, data suggests that this idea is not accurate. Studies have shown that the back button is the most used control in web browsers. This means that by opening a link in a new window/tab and thereby disabling the back button, you are preventing visitors from using the control they are most likely to use to return to your site.

What this means for you

  • In almost all situations, you should have links open in the same tab as they are clicked in.
  • If you have control over the external page being linked to, provide links back to the original site (e.g. at the end of a Qualtrics survey or YouTube video).
  • If you or people you know have a personal preference for opening links in new tabs, learn the shortcuts for doing so (such as clicking with your mouse’s scroll wheel or holding Ctrl or Cmd when you click)

Myth #6: Visitors primarily use menus to find what they need on a site

Research has grouped web users into three categories:

  • Search-dominant: users who mostly use a site’s search feature to find what they’re looking for
  • Link-dominant: users who mostly use menus and links to find what they’re looking for
  • Mixed: users who use the site search feature and menus and links about equally.

In general studies, it has been found that about half of all web users are search-dominant. On the Extension website, the search results page is by far the most visited page on the site, receiving nearly twice as many page views as the home page.

Even for users that are link-dominant or mixed, heat maps we have created for the Extension website (which show where on the page users click) show that users are more likely to click on links in the main body of the page than menu items. You can see an example of this in the heat map below. Notice how, while the heat map was recording, the “Events” link in the quick links bar got many more clicks (23) than the same link in the sidebar (0).

 

This is also likely due to information foraging theory. Links in the body of the page have more context that allows visitors to determine whether clicking the link will get them the information they are looking for. The main body of the page is also where users are more likely to be scanning. It seems that if they can’t find what they need by scanning the page, then they will try the menus. 

What this means for you

  • Make sure important links are included in the body of your pages, not just the sidebar. A quick links bar or call to action page section is often a good way to do this. 

Web updates

Topic committees now have the ability to configure “topic categories”. These are a pre-defined list of keywords that will be available to select from when a piece of content is tagged with the corresponding topic. See instructions in the website user guide.

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