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Three popular web development ‘rules of thumb’ and why they’re WRONG!

Rule No. 1 – “All content on a website should be accessible within three clicks from the homepage”

This is a popular myth that we often see in requests for proposals from new clients. I’m not sure where it originated, but it crops up all over the place, including several academic websites. At first glance it seems to make sense – you’re trying to make it easy for your users to get to the content they need, but if you think about it, the rule misses the point. It’s not the number of clicks that’s important, it’s simply how easy it is to get to the content that really makes the difference.

At NixonMcInnes, we regularly carry out usability tests on websites. In these tests, we observe people using a website and find out where they get stuck. On many occasions, we’ve seen users stare at a homepage for several minutes, unable to find the link they need because it’s not got an obvious label, it’s too small, or sometimes it doesn’t even look like a link at all. It doesn’t matter to the user that they’re only one click away from what they need, if that click is not obvious.

We would re-write this rule as:

When you’re designing a website, make sure that the navigation is easy for users to understand so their next click is always obvious. And to prove you’ve got it right, test the site on real people.

It’s not as catchy, but if you follow this one, you’ll end up with a better website.

Rule No. 2 – “Get as many other websites linking to your site as possible. The more you get, the better your positioning on Google will be!”

This one really makes Search Engine Marketers cringe. ‘It’s not the quantity, it’s the quality’ they’ll cry, and they’re right.

Incoming links are a vital part of success on Google and if you’re serious about search engines, you should absolutely have a programme of link building in place. But the thing you need to focus on is not simply the number of links, but the relevance and importance of the sites linking to you.

To successfully build your Google positions, look for other sites about related subjects and ask them to link to you. This helps Google build up an overall picture of what your site is about, and therefore which keywords to give you the best results for. If you have all kinds of sites about a range of subjects linking to you, this dilutes the keywords and you won’t fare as well. It’s also important to get your keywords into the link text (the underlined words that a user actually clicks on).

Finally, look for sites which themselves have lots of quality incoming links. Google will judge your site to be important if the sites linking to you are themselves important. This is where the ‘quality, not quantity’ mantra really comes into effect. It’s better to have 10 important sites linking to you than 100 sites which don’t have any incoming links themselves.

So how do you find out if a site is ‘important’? Easy – just download the Google toolbar from http://toolbar.google.com and it will tell you the PageRank (Google’s measure of importance) for every page you look at. Only bother with links from pages with a PageRank of 3 out of 10 and above, but the higher, the better.

Rule No. 3 – “Pages that require users to scroll down are bad. All of your pages should fit onto one screen.”

The problem with this one is that it’s a sweeping generalisation. Websites contain such a wide variety of content, serving so many different purposes to many different types of user, that when it comes to scrolling, the rule is ‘it depends’.

You should certainly make conscious decisions about what the important information on a page is, and which elements should be visible without scrolling down the page, but scrolling isn’t always bad.

In her book ‘Information Architecture: Blueprints for the web’, Christina Wodtke talks about a phenomenon she has observed in usability testing sessions which she has dubbed the ‘land-and-dip’. She has observed users landing on a page, where they notice from the scrollbar that there’s content lower down. They sometimes quickly scroll down to see what’s further down before returning to the top. This can be perceived by the user as being less of an effort than clicking through to further content on a different page, and it helps the user to scan the entire page to decide if they want to read it.
Conclusion

Rules of thumb can be dangerous as they over-simplify the process of building effective websites. Every website is different and presents its own challenges. Rather than blindly following rules of thumb from ‘web gurus’, just remember to focus your attention on the users of the website, and their needs.

If you would like some help maximising the potential of the web for your business, give NixonMcInnes a call for a friendly chat. Speak to Will McInnes on 0845 345 3462.

This post was filed under Not for profit, Social media, The future, Training, Working culture and tagged , . Join the conversation - leave a comment.

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