Map Scent Trails That Lead to Better Conversion

I’ve been pretty giddy about research uncovering the patterns users follow while searching on the Internet. One of the more popular information-foraging theories that’s currently being proven confirms what we’ve known for quite sometime.

As early as 2001, a Xerox Palo Alto Research study indicated humans track information in a similar fashion to the way animals follow a scent. According to an article on the study:

People… engage in what [Dr. Ed Chi] calls “hub-and-spoke” surfing: They begin at the center, and they follow a trail based on its information scent…. If the scent is sufficiently strong, the surfer will continue to go on that trail. But if the trail is weak, they go back to the hub. “People repeat this process until they’re satisfied,” Chi said.

Knowing how people hunt and sniff around for info is certainly useful, but that usefulness is limited until you determine more about what a person is sniffing for.

What Visitors Sniff Around For

At User Interface Engineering, Jared Spool conducted a study with his team. Participants had to try to find on a Web site a specific item that interested them. They were given detailed descriptions of what they were looking for before searching. Each site they were asked to search did contain that information. Spool cites the results:

It turned out that users were far more successful at finding their targets when the description words, which they told us before they saw the site, appeared on the home page. In the tasks where users successfully found their target content, the description words appeared on the home page 72% of the time. When users were unsuccessful, their words only appeared an average of 6% of the time on the home page.

In the persuasion architecture process, extensive research is conducted to reveal and learn everything possible about a site’s customers. The process takes into account:

  • Topographics, the competitive environment as a whole and the users’ behavior within the environment
  • Pyschographics, what customers do psychologically as part of their buying processes
  • Demographics, the customer’s attributes and how they affect the buying processes

We also study a site’s Web analytics, specifically keyword referrals and a handful of other key metrics. All this information is used to create a set of robust, three-dimensional personas. Once the personas are created, only then do we begin to build information scent trails that will lead visitors down the road to conversion.

The Trail of the Perfect Diamond

During the Leo Diamond redesign project, we researched and created a persona we dubbed Natalie. Natalie is an attractive, 29-year-young, high-end department store buyer. She earns about $42,000 a year. She is recently engaged and plans on telling her fiancé exactly what she wants in an engagement ring. Natalie comes from a family with means and was denied nothing growing up. She has a deeply seeded motivation to impress. Status and name brands are of paramount importance to her.

Not until we’re armed with this information can we begin to plot an information scent trail for Natalie. Her motivations reveal likely search terms, keywords, and trigger words that communicate a sufficiently strong scent to motivate, propel, and guide Natalie through the conversion process. Spool writes:

First, users expect to find “trigger words” in the links. A trigger word is a word (or phrase) that causes the user to click. When the trigger words match the user’s goals, they find those words right away and the links make them more confident that they are going to find their content.

We know Natalie wants the perfect diamond, a diamond that will never fail to impress, a diamond worthy of her. To convert Natalie, we must get her to the store locator page where she’ll send her fiancé to purchase her engagement ring.

We created specific pages to provide Natalie with the information she needs to determine the Leo Diamond is the correct choice for her.

A Forest Full of Scents

On sites such as, information and products fall naturally into categories that are more or less distinctive to the visitor. Search, navigation, and product descriptions help users stay and orient themselves on the scent trail. In the case of the Leo Diamond site, the scent trail is less distinctive and obvious; the entire site is about diamonds and packed with diamond information. Helping Natalie sniff her way to relevant information is a more subtle, complicated process.

The nature of the site makes it unlikely that Natalie (or any other persona) will stay on a predetermined, linear conversion path. We also don’t want to force Natalie into a hub-and-spoke cycle. Natalie, an impatient, competitive type, will bail, unable to participate in that cycle for long.

How do we keep Natalie from getting lost in a forest of scents?

Using resolving door links, we can better manage Natalie’s experience on the site, ensuring that whatever page she’s on, she can pick up a relevant scent trail leading toward conversion.

The pages she’ll visit contain two types of hyperlinks: a call to action and a point of resolution. She’ll go around and around through her points of resolution (or resolving door) until we let her out to a call to action.

Natalie’s resolving-door pages contain information that may be important to Natalie but isn’t critical. By providing links to pages with critical information on these pages, we can let Natalie wander around the site and never completely leave her conversion path. Can you find Natalie’s scent on this resolving-door page?

Scent: Another Term for Relevance

What I find most exciting about current information-scent research is it forces the question, “What’s most relevant to the customer?” The end result can only be a Web site that contains not only the relevant product or solution but also the relevant scent and content to get the customer to it.

That smells really good to me.

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