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13 June 2006

Lead the reader, follow the reader

By Andrew Clifford

Lead your readers on a path through your website. Follow them to make sure they don't get lost.

To be effective, your website must be simple, direct and focused. It must call the reader to action – to buy your goods, view your pictures, read your documents.

But this is not enough. You must lead your readers on a path through your website. The path must start at the page they land on and lead them to the call to action. If you do not define the path, your readers will not find it for themselves.

To show you what I mean, I will "lift the hood" on the Metrici website.

Our call to action is: "take the free trial of our service". It is a web-based service that helps IT managers assess and improve their IT systems.

We have two landing areas: the home page, and the publications pages.

The path from the home page is:

  • Home page gives an overview of the main benefits of the service, and leads to
  • Product page, which explains the product, its uses, and its benefits, and leads to
  • Free trial page.

The path from the publications pages is similar. The publications pages provide details of our ideas on system governance. They then lead to the product page, the same path as from the home page.

Defining a path through your site is a balancing act. If the journey is too short, it will not be convincing and it will not call your readers to action. If it is too long, you will lose your readers.

Of course, some readers want more. You should provide navigation, and more in-depth content, to satisfy their curiosity. But most readers have neither the time or the inclination, and laying a path for them should be part of the service your website offers.

Having defined a path, you need to follow your readers and check that they are not getting lost. To do this, you can use statistics gathered from web server logs.

There is some excellent material on web statistics at Google Conversion University. At Metrici, we use AWStats to understand how well our readers keep to the path.

These statistics have shown us that "less is more". We have seen an improvement as we have removed less relevant content from the path, and taken out links that tempt the reader to stray from the path. We have learnt to put the most important information and links at the top of the page (for impatient readers), and the detail below. We have learnt to focus on benefits, not features.

We have more work to do. We are happy with most of the path, but we are losing readers on the last step. Perhaps we have removed too much content. Perhaps we have created a barrier. But at least by laying a path, and measuring how it is being followed, we know where to improve.

Is there a clear path through your website? Are your readers following it?

Next: Websites: the right and wrong way to start up


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