Put Your Index in Order

As the amount of information on companies’ sites steadily increases every day, companies are facing a fundamental but complex problem: how to best lead their customers to the data they need.

Some weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of optimizing the search function on your site. But search function development isn’t for everyone. Owners of small to medium-sized sites mostly don’t have the resources for search function programming. So, in this article I want to offer a universally applicable suggestion for alleviating the search problems experienced by site visitors.

What’s my suggestion? It’s the site index. Yep, I know this seems a rather banal idea, but simple indexing might very well be the solution for many sites struggling with information overload. I’ve found 20 percent of visitors to sites finally consult the site’s index as a last-ditch effort to find what they’re after. So I conducted a quick survey of 50 Fortune 100 companies’ sites and found that most (92 percent) publish site indexes. But a careful examination revealed that few of the site designers seemed to take the feature seriously.

Many of the indexes appear to be the result of last-minute assembly, provided as a nominal requirement rather than as a really useful tool. The upshot is many such indexes offer rather limited information that doesn’t bring the sites’ customers any closer to relevant data. What’s really ironic about this neglect is these haphazard and superficial indexes are often sites’ last chance to capture a retreating visitor. Why blow your chance with the 20 percent of determined visitors who make this last attempt to garner information from your site by offering a poorly composed index?

So, what makes a useful index? When you were a child, you might have played that guessing game in which you have to guess what a certain something is by asking questions and receiving yes or no answers. You could ask all sorts of questions to help determine what the mystery object might be, and whoever asked the least number of questions before guessing the correct answer was the winner. So, your questions had to be appropriate, and the answers to them gradually lead you toward more specific inquiries. It’s just like trying to locate some particular product, the name and nature of which you can’t recall or are unfamiliar with, don’t you think? So, the site index acts as the guide through your visitor’s search game.

A poor site index often mirrors the home page by reiterating headlines and subheads without offering any more information. A good site index gives visitors an overview of the site’s content and provides signposts that give access to increasingly more specific information. It offers visitors a variety of cross-references that lead to the same content from different points of view. It helps visitors narrow their search by using an appropriate index format: alphabetical, thematic, categorical, topical… whatever arrangement is the simplest and clearest way of giving visitors a total content overview and as many indexed alternatives for every inclusion as possible. So, if you don’t know how to spell the name of the product you’re looking for but you do know its function, a good site index will enable you to locate the item. In fact, a good site index should offer so many options there would be a way you could locate the item, even if it weren’t available on that particular site.

The great news is a good site index can be composed without complex programming techniques. The task is simply a matter of thorough homework, sensible research and analysis of how visitors might search for the products or information you deal with. Then you organize it around the questions you identify, helping your customers find their way through the information clutter.

By the way, if you think this has nothing to do with branding, you’re wrong. This is branding. If, unlike your competitors, you’re able to repeatedly help your customers find the information they need, you demonstrate your brand’s understanding of its customers and their needs. Your customers will love you for this and increase their loyalty toward your brand. And loyalty is what branding’s all about.

So check out your site index, and make sure it’s not aimlessly aping your home page content. I’ll bet, when you really try using it from your customer’s point of view, you’ll find lots of holes to fall through. And I’ll bet, when you really think about it, you’ll find lots of relevant information with which to fill those holes.

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