Content as Navigation Tool
Published on November 6, 2001
As designers and developers of the web, we shape our experiences by what we add to or exclude from site development. From color schemes, icons, even to the tone of the language, every element needs to work together to create the best possible page design. A series of great web pages builds an experience of interactions where each click from a quality link builds upon the entire experience.
Sometimes the number of these mouse clicks is a measurement of distance: "that page is three clicks from the 'about us' section." These simple links become a stringent benchmark for success or failure of an aspect of the web site or even its entirety. A site structure might desperately need reorganization if any one item is more than a set number of mouse clicks away. What can be used to facilitate that change, to allow users access to those new locations, is simply revised navigation.
Usually set in rows, navigation bars are often over-scrutinized in carrying out the role in supporting a site's architectural framework on their own. Just as the visual elements work in unison for the benefit of aesthetics, so must the content work toward the better user experience.
A web site's written content can be, and should be, more than simple marketing fluff. Using the content itself to guide the site visitor toward their intended destination is an important element of any process.
Web sites need what is termed "guide copy," allowing for access and understanding of what is contained within the site and leading users deeper into the site experience.
Most companies, looking to extend their marketing dollar, will re-purpose copy from print collateral by publishing it directly to the Web. This leads to a failure to profit from the inherent strengths of the web medium, linking of documents at related junctions (hypertext, anyone?). At the very least, content destined for online distribution should take full advantage of what the web has to offer.
The "Oh" in Section 508
Do you need another reason to have guide copy in your content? Try Section 508. A very small piece from the American government guidelines meant to improve site accessibility brings up an interesting scenario:
Subpart B - Technical Standards - 1194.22
(o) A method shall be provided that permits users to skip repetitive navigation links.
To aid users in surfing Web pages through alternative browsers, there should be a function that allows for the navigation to be stripped away from the content.
This means that there will be at least two added mouse clicks in the user experience. In Web development terms, two mouse clicks is an ocean of distance that rarely gets crossed.
Using "search" instead of relying on navigation bars is another way to get around a site. Letting users search your site through those ubiquitous input form fields allows them to stop learning their way around your web site in an effort to find a more direct route, in their own words, to the information they're seeking.
The power from most affordable, off-the-shelf search tools comes down to content - or more to the point - how well that content has been created since most indexes are based on the repetition of key words or similar words, and the placement of those words in a given page
Since most search software, which at the very least scans the words for content, is the intermediary between visitor and result, the frequency and location in the site's pages of likely keywords and phrases becomes a prime concern for users getting the information they need.
Ad Banner Future
The placement of Web "objects" in the user interface has been around as long as the Web. Users have grown accustomed to the placement of ad banners to the point they posses the ability to ignore them altogether.
These visual blinders have led to new online ad "standards" that take advantage of where readers' eyeballs usually go: the content. Advertisers have now created an interesting experiment: If Web developers allow advertisers to litter the "content" areas of a Web page with ads, will we see users turning a blind eye to the whole page? Or will users' eyeballs look for content, still bypassing the ad banners?
Anywhere You Look
When users come to a Web site they are looking for something. Granted, that's not a revolutionary idea. However, if you look at the state of many Web sites you don't normally visit, you will find that most sites like to play a game of hide and seek, putting content, or rather functionality, in out of the way places.
By thoughtfully putting up copy meant for print publication and writing to the strengths of hypertext, Web developers will increase the chances of a user finding what they are looking for. Well-developed content, along with content navigation, will guide the user deeper into the site without burdening them to think about how they got there.
In the event that a visitor to your site has to stop and ask for directions, make sure that your content that is well-indexed in your search engine database. When a user performs a search, you know that they're exercising their last resort before going to another site.
Any way you look at site development, the fashion in which the audience interacts with the content they encounter is of critical importance - even when you're talking about ad banners.