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More Than Just a Footer

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In: Columns > IAnything Goes

By Jeff Lash

Published on February 4, 2004

While arguments about getting more links, content, and important elements “above the fold” are common, more sites are taking advantage of the entire Web page, adding useful elements to the bottom of the page. These features don’t just place normal elements at the bottom of the page, they use the location to a distinct advantage. Here are three examples, along with some rationale, for adding a feature to the bottom of a page.

Short is out, scrolling is in

Back when the Web was young, and users in general were less savvy, there were plenty of reasons to keep a page short. Screen resolutions were generally smaller, limiting the amount of vertical space available on first view. More users were accessing the internet through slow dial-up connections, making it important for pages to be short and small so they would download quickly. Common wisdom was that users, naïve to the Web and the browsing experience, just didn’t know how to scroll.

However, in recent years, these issues have diminished significantly. The average screen resolution has increased, as has the typical internet connection speed. Though it is still debated, the success of sites that rely on large, long pages has, for the most part, disproved the “users don’t scroll” myth. Additionally, the widespread use of the “scrolling mouse” has greatly improved the ability to scroll more quickly and easily.

Since the very beginning, it has been standard practice to include a “footer” on most Web pages. These horizontally-arranged links typically contain basic navigation, usually to fulfill a business request and not necessarily a user need. The typical footer links—About Us, Feedback, Copyright, Privacy Policy, etc.—are indeed useful, but not necessarily the things a user is looking for when reaching the bottom of the page. During countless usability tests, I have observed users who scroll to the bottom of the page when they are lost, only to be left helpless by the generic footer navigation.

Designers need to give as much attention to the footer design as to the other elements on the page. While simply blocking off some space for the footer might be an acceptable solution in some cases, there are many ways to take advantage of the bottom of the page. For those that suffer “footer designer’s block,” three inventive approaches are noted below.

An out-of-site map

The general concept of a footer is to provide links to some generic site-wide utility navigation. Why, then, should it be limited to just a few links? More sites are including partial or total sitemaps at the bottom of every page.

Though certainly not the first designer to implement the idea, the sitemap on every page concept was extolled by Peter Van Dijck. He first implemented it on a site which is no longer online, but his rationale and explanation are still available in the WebWord article A Sitemap on Every Page, where he explains that the sitemap at the bottom of the page accounted for 65% of the navigation on the site.

The concept has been adopted by many sites, each with a different approach. Some simply detail the high-level navigation (e.g. devShed.com; see image below), some have a slightly more expanded sitemap (e.g. kmov.com; see image below), and some provide considerably more detail. Contextual detail can be added to focus on the current page as well. And, regardless of the approach, the additional crosslinks will help with search engine indexing and possibly even ranking.

devshed.com footer nav
Footer high-level navigation at devshed.com.

kmov.com footer nav
Footer high-level navigation at kmov.com.

Rate it

A bottom-of-the-page element that is becoming more popular is a “rate this” feature. Commonly found on news articles or support pages, these allow users to rate how well a page answered their question or if it is worth recommending. In the best cases, these ratings are then used to improve the experience for that user.

Such rating features are commonly found on pages where a user’s task should theoretically end—for example, finding an answer to a question about a software problem in the support section of a manufacturer’s Web site. Yahoo! News allows users to rate stores, and those ratings are then compiled and the top-ranking stories are featured on the Most Popular page; see this story for an example.

yahoo news story rating option
Yahoo! News story rating option

yahoo news reader ratings
Yahoo! News reader ratings

Sell it

Amazon recently introduced “Bottom of the page deals”—special bargains and closeouts that only appear at the very bottom of the page, below the standard footer. This novel approach would not be appropriate for all sites, but works well for Amazon. The special deals are not the main focus of the page, and are initially not expected by the customer. An important piece of page furniture should not be buried this low, but for a “bonus” feature like this, the location is part of the idea—that the deals are too good to be advertised in the “normal” area of the site.

Taking it down a notch

These examples show that there are effective ways to utilize the entire height of the page, and to take advantage of the footer location to add value for the user. Innovative sites will surely extend these ideas and come up with new ways to keep users involved no matter what part of the page they are viewing.

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Related Topics: Information Architecture, Navigation

 

Jeff Lash is a User Experience Designer in the Health Sciences division of Elsevier. He is a co-founder and Advisory Board member of the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture (AIfIA) and has also written articles and tutorials for Boxes and Arrows and WebWord. His personal website is jefflash.com.

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