A little while back I was riding the Washington Metro when I noticed something new. The station name read "NoMa-Gallaudet." I'd never heard of "NoMa", but all it took was a quick googling to learn it's short for "North of Massachusetts Ave." At first I was a little confused why a Metro map would be changed just because a new neighborhood was making an effort to try and look hip. But the article went on to explain that they are trying to provide each Metro station with its own short name (between 13 and 19 characters, depending on the importance of the station) that is easy to scan when hurrying passengers are racing to their destination. That makes sense to me, and it reminded me of how important the same principle is for website information architecture.
Too often I see the top nav of a site use words that just don't make any sense to me as a visitor. Half the technology sites I go to list Products, Solutions, etc., and God bless me if I can figure out what the technology does. These words are short and scannable, but not very informative. This was actually the controversial part of the Metro's decision to use the name "NoMa" because area residents (let alone tourists) don't recognize that name as readily as the old "New York Ave." But they at least had tested the word with riders and they made the decision with their eyes open, rather than just changing the name just because they wanted the new cool name.
But most websites have bigger issues. Some of them have long names in the top nav, such as the site that had a choice of "Why [Really Long Product Name]" which not only isn't scannable, but I suspect is answering a question that most visitors aren't asking. I saw another site that liked to mix up short names with long names: Products, Why Company Name, Blog, Get a Demo-it really doesn't work. One word navigation names work best if you can make that happen, because the spaces between the words act as the spaces between the choices. If have to have multiple words, you need plenty of space in between the choices so that the eye can distinguish the breaks between them. But when you use too many multi-word choices, you have to make the font even smaller to provide the required spacing, which defeats the ability to scan all by itself.
So, when designing your site's information architecture, don't settle for the words that insiders think are the ones that best describe their choices. Try to choose uniform-length, short names that you have tested for recognition. You don't even need any exciting technologies here. Old-fashioned cart sort tests will do. Just put different ideas of the right names on cards and show them to people who represent your audience. Ask them-what kind of information would you expect to see after you clicked this name? See if they know.
The names for the areas on your website are among the most scanned and most clicked words on your entire site, so take the extra time to check how well they are working. Your visitors will be glad you did.
Mike is an expert in search marketing, search technology, social media, publishing, text analytics, and web metrics, who regularly makes speaking appearances.
Mike's previous appearances include Text Analytics World, Rutgers Business School, SEMRush webinar, ClickZ Live.
Mike also founded and writes for Biznology, is the co-author of Outside-In Marketing (with James Mathewson) and the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (now in its 3rd edition, and sole author of Do It Wrong Quickly, named by the Miami Herald as one of the 11 best business books of 2007.
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