by Jake Bailey
Way back in 1994, when the internet was oh-so-young, the 'king of usability', Dr Jakob Nielsen, stated that people allocated much less attention to information not visible in the first screen view of a website — termed 'below the fold'.
Although Nielsen recanted his original position in 1997 (1), the damage was done and Nielsen’s original assertion that people don’t scroll had gotten so much attention it had become a ‘rule’ of web design and a commonly accepted view.
In the last six years, research attempting to debunk the 'myth' of the fold has reignited the debate over 'the fold'. One analytics company questioned relevance of the fold to site design, considering how variable its location can be with numerous screen resolutions and browser window sizes (2007). They found users’ scrolling behaviour was relative, independent of actual screen height, and that people actually did make it to the bottom of the page (2).
In 2010, the great originator of the fold argument concluded that the existence of the fold was just as incontrovertible as his findings of 1994, saying that his 1997 recanting of the hypothesis had been a reflection of fluctuation in user behaviour. However, Nielsen offered important exceptions to the rule, conceding that users do read down an entire page in particular scenarios. People will look very far down a page if (a) the layout encourages scanning and (b) the initially viewable information makes them believe that it will be worth their time to scroll. Both provided are exemplified by ecommerce sites.
So why do shoppers operate so differently on an ecommerce site, with complete disregard to 'the fold'? Above all, what sets ecommerce sites apart from non-ecommerce sites is the fundamental difference in user intent. On an ecommerce site, users are in research mode where they engage with products much as they would while browsing a physical store.
Behaviour on an ecommerce site is a prime example of the widely accepted (and entertainingly named) 'information foraging theory,' which explains how websites are browsed using the analogy of animals hunting for food. On an ecommerce site, shoppers are at the height of this 'hunting' behaviour as they search for the right product and browse corresponding product information, product recommendations, customer reviews, to ensure the product satisfies their goals. According to Dr Nielsen, users will keep clicking through a site hunting for specific products or answers as long as they continue to find links that take them closer to their goal.(3)
There is a strong 'information scent' on well-designed ecommerce sites, those with high-quality product photos, clearly defined product categories, product reviews, and personalised product recommendations. All of these features assure shoppers that they are on the right track and encourage them to keep clicking and, more importantly, keep scrolling down the page.
Far more essential than the location of the fold in determining the potential success is the layout of the page itself and the intent of the shopper visiting it. The most successful placements are near the highest areas of interest—which may land above or below the fold. No matter the site, the key to encouraging scrolling is the same: if the site content is compelling and relevant, users will follow where it leads. People scroll when they perceive value in doing so. Ecommerce sites have an inherent advantage over other site types in that they are laced with compelling content; product information, pictures, recommendations, user reviews, and so on, relate directly to what the shopper is looking for. There’s greater potential to engage a shopper across and down an entire page.
To best optimise online branding and advertising initiatives, it is essential that we move beyond generalised assumptions about user behaviour (eg the importance of the fold), which are based on aggregated data from diverse sites. When selecting the ideal ad placement on publishers’ sites, advertisers must consider how users consume content. Behavioural patterns vary greatly on blogs, newspapers, ecommerce and video sites. Brands that strategically and seamlessly integrate into the content stand to gain the most consumer engagement. As they pertain to ecommerce sites, product recommendations are far and away one of the most powerful ways to reach the consumer and ensure engagement.
(1) Nielsen, Jakob . “Changes in Web Usability Since 1994.” Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox 01 December 1997. 01 July 2011 .
(2) ClickTale. “ClickTale Scrolling Research Report V2.0 – Part 1: Visibility and Scroll Reach.” Web Analytics and Usability Blog 05 October 2007. 1 July 2011 .
(3) Nielsen, Jakob. “Deceivingly Strong Information Scent Costs Sales.” Jakob Nielsen’s Alertbox 2 August 2004. 1 July 2011 .
Jake Bailey is chief evangelist, RichRelevance