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Lifestyles of the Link-Rich Home Pages

by Jared M. Spool
on June 15, 2006

The Dove home page is like many home pages on the Internet. It contains a handful of links (23
to be exact), a couple of pulldown menus and some nicely designed graphics.
It’s certainly very pleasant to look at and matches the brand expectations
Unilever has set up for the Dove product line.

Yet, does it work for the users? If the user is coming to get a new tote bag,
wants a free deodorant sample, or is interested in seeing this month’s special
offers, then it probably works well. Those links are the Featured Content and,
chances are, only a small number of people visiting the site are coming specifically
to see them. In fact, our studies show, on most sites, users come less than
5% of the time for featured content, even when heavy marketing campaigns are
promoting that content.

The Dove site has hundreds of pages of content, describing the very wide selection
of offerings in their product line and many potentially valuable resources
for Dove’s customers. However, most of this content is invisible on the home
page. Users can’t tell, when arriving on the site, if there are 20 pages or
thousands.

How does someone whose skin reacts to the harsh chemicals found in most soap
find out what Dove has to offer? The home page gives no indication Dove offers
products for this, even though sensitive skin has been a mainstay of Dove’s
product line since its early days.

The Dove Site Map

Contrast the Dove home page to the Dove
site map
. Using
5 times as many links, this page gives a real picture of the content of the
site. Even with 148 links, it is well designed and organized nicely. It’s easy
for users to find what is available quickly.

Someone looking for a gentle soap can quickly find the sensitive skin products.
A quick scan of the page reveals several choices for the user to explore.

What’s the difference between the home page and the site map? The site map
makes the content transparent, whereas the home page’s design makes the content
opaque.

The design of Dove’s Site Map is what we’d call Link Rich, while the Dove
home page is Link Poor.

Keeping Things Simple

Nobody starts their design with the objective, "We need our home page
to be as complex as we can possibly make it." On the contrary, everybody
wants to build simple designs. Yet, somewhere along the line, simplicity translated
into "Provide as few links on the home page as possible."

News sites understand this. One could imagine a home page for a news site
with only these links:

  • Top News
  • Local News
  • Sports News
  • Financial News
  • Funny News
  • Brad Pitt / Angelina Jolie News

On a simplified news site, that’s all that would be required. It would make
home page maintenance a dream. You’d never have to change it.

However, it wouldn’t make for a good news reading experience because users
want to see what headlines are under each category. Instead, they make the
news transparent by providing a link-rich environment.

Recently, the New York Times redesigned the home page on NYTimes.com.
Did they opt for the simple Link-Poor approach we outlined above? No.

Instead they went very Link-Rich, weighing in at a whopping 397 links on an
average day’s page. That’s a lot of links to update and maintain, but they
must feel it’s worth it, since it provides every visitor with a solid picture
of the news they are reporting.

The BLS Evolution

A few years back, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics came to us with their
simple home page. The
simple design managed to encompass the thousands of pages of available statistical
data into 11 links. This design approach proved to be very frustrating for
users.

After working with them on what we’d been seeing, they tried a revised
page
.
This page added 60 more links, making the most important content transparent.
The result: users loved it.

This only encouraged the BLS design team. They’ve revised their design a couple
more times, with the current
page
logging in at more than 180 links.

The BLS site is for statisticians, analysts, and economists. It’s not a site
for consumers. If you look closely at the links, you may find it hard to work
through. However, chances are, you’re not a member of the site’s target
audience. The audience loves the latest Link-Rich design, which is all that
matters in the end.

The BLS users found the site had become simpler with each revision, even though
the team was dramatically increasing the number of links on the page. Exposing
the underlying information enhanced the simplicity of the site.

The Extremely Link Rich: McMaster-Carr

If you’re thinking 397 links on the New York Times site is a lot, you should
check out the more than 700 links provided on McMaster-Carr’s
home page
. This
design is a link-rich transparency at its most extreme.

Even with all these links, the target audience of this site loves it. Like
the BLS site, they are a niche group: people who buy building materials and
tools for very large construction and building-maintenance projects. A typical
user may use the site multiple times each day to order unique items. They are
very familiar with McMaster-Carr’s 4,000 page catalogue, often looking items
up by the page number in the book.

The secret to the McMaster-Carr site is the link clusters. Users look at each
cluster and quickly decide whether the cluster is likely to contain their content
or not. By focusing on just one or two clusters, the user winnows down their
choices to just a handful of links.

If the design team doesn’t make the clusters right, users won’t succeed. This
site wouldn’t work if the links were in random groups.

Over the years, the design team has added more and more links, without hurting
the design of the site. This suggests to us that, with a good design, the upper
limit of links is much higher than we might’ve originally suspected.

Other Link-Rich Designs

Most sites can’t go to the extremes McMaster-Carr has. Their design calls
for an audience that is very familiar with the all the site’s terms, including
the ones they know they are not interested in. Many sites don’t fall into that
category.

Yet, other sites have demonstrated that link-rich designs can work. Staples.com,
an office supply e-commerce site, just relaunched with a 156-link design. Analog.com,
an electronics component manufacturer, now has a 199 link site. Guru.com,
a job site for technical freelancers, rings in at 127 links, while the infamous
Craigslist.org, a classifieds
site, has 130 links on their home page.

Each site has a radically different design, with very different looks and
styles. Yet, all of them share the same objective: make the content of the
site very transparent.

Making the Move to a Link-Rich Home Page

Dramatically increasing your content’s transparency on your home page is not
a simple thing to do well. It takes research and experimentation. You need
to understand the content your users desire. You need to know how to organize
the links into the right clusters. And, you need to have a process that permits
you to make the transition through multiple iterations.

To understand the content desired by your users, you need to know their trigger
words — the word or phrase they’ll click on for the content they seek. Just
populating a page with every possible keyword probably won’t get you the effect
you want. The teams at Staples, Analog, and McMaster-Carr spent tremendous
resources learning how their users thought about their content, through extensive
site visits, interviews, and usability testing.

In addition to knowing the trigger words, you need to know how to cluster
them together. Link-rich pages only work when users can quickly eliminate the
stuff they don’t want and hone in on the few links that match their target.
Card sorting and related techniques are critical to create quality clusters.

An iterative development process is critical to the success of these radical
home page designs. The BLS design team made multiple iterations of their page,
putting each one in front of users and collecting feedback. Each revision gave
them more feedback on the trigger words, the clusters, and the transparency
of the underlying content. We’ve yet to see anyone successfully build the right
design in a single try. Building a process that allows for feedback and revision
is key.

It’s no surprise to us that we’re seeing home pages everywhere moving to a
link-rich design. The need for more transparency drives sites to add more links
and as designers find creative ways to display all this rich information, users
are finding the sites more useful. Link Poor home pages will become a thing
of the past. •

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is the founder of User Interface Engineering. He spends his time working with the research teams at the company and helps clients understand how to solve their design problems. You can follow Jared on Twitter at @jmspool.