Horizontal Browsing

It’s time to get horizontal. Of course, I’m talking about browsing behavior. Typically, we classify users into two groups: searchers and browsers. Browsing has traditionally been a vertical affair. People would start at the top (the home page) and work their way down the tree structure of our sites: categories, subcategories, products. That’s a vertical, top-down way of browsing.

A long time ago, retailers started using cross-sells and accessories to present users with alternate ways to browse their catalogs. On a product page, users could move horizontally across the site into other product or category pages. They didn’t have to start at the top and browse vertically anymore.

The ability to browse horizontally has become a much larger idea than simply finding ways to present cross-sells and accessories. It’s become a major part of the browsing experience. Moreover, Web analytic tools can track the success of these new browsing methods and tell us which are more effective than others.

Amazon.com has long reigned supreme with this type of browsing tool. It started “Customers who bought this item also bought” and has constantly innovated the horizontal browsing experience. It’s played around with “Customers who browsed,” showing the paths users take once they’re on a given product page. It’s used community-created lists to allow users to browse in more ways that transcend its category structure.

Another example of horizontal browsing that subverts the tradition top-down approach is tagging. Part of the much talked-about Web 2.0, tagging is the process by which users supply keywords to identify content. Other users can then browse content by these tags.

These types of browsing tools can add at least 5-15 percent of incremental revenue to your business, based on my experience. Yet there’s an art to making these tools effective, and there’s a point of diminishing returns when using them.

Some people like to browse around a site. Others know exactly what they want and don’t want to be distracted. Although tools for horizontal browsing are certainly enticing and add an exciting serendipity to the browsing experience, they’re also distracting. If a product page has five other ways to look for similar products and links to 40 other products, a user can be easily distracted from making the purchase. The point of a product page is to sell that product and provide ways for users to find other products (if the current product isn’t the right one), in that order. If links to other products outweigh the information about the current product, the page is no longer an effective sales tool.

When implementing these browsing experiences, you must carefully track sales of the products themselves (on product pages that include them), as well as the relative effectiveness of each browsing tool. Additionally, you should test to see how many of these tools you can have on one page before they have negatively affect sales.

When the Web first started, we could all assume the home page was the first page users saw. Now that both organic and paid searches lead users to pages deep within you site, the top-down, vertical shopping paradigm cannot exist by itself. The ability for users to browse (and shop) horizontally is essential. Carefully implemented, these horizontal browsing tools will add serendipity to the user experience and incremental sales to your bottom line.

Thoughts, comments, questions? Let me know!

Until next time…

Jack

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