The lowdown on drill-downs

When it comes to Website drill-downs, you can have too much of a good thing. “Navigation that has you drill down from category page to product category page to subcategory page isn’t necessarily bad,” says Elizabeth Peaslee, senior consulting partner at New York-based e-commerce consultancy Creative Good. The problem, she says, is when drill-downs become excessive.

What’s excessive for one Website and target market may not be excessive for another, of course. But if you’re finding above-average site abandonment rates, an overreliance on drilling down as a navigation tool can be why. According to Grant Hosford, director of business development at Seattle-based Internet design, technology, and analytic company Zaaz, exit rates from a merchant’s home page should be below 20%. Merchants with rates of at least 30% should take a closer look at their site navigation to figure out what’s going wrong.

In fact, overuse of drill-downs is as much as a symptom of a deeper problem as it is a navigational problem in and of itself. “Sites that have what I consider to be excessive drill-downs may have larger issues,” says Peaslee. One such issue might be overly broad product classifications that result in too many subcategories, a consequence of a company knowing its merchandise so well that it has difficulty seeing it from a customer’s perspective. Many times this results in overly granular organization, the use of industry language used for product labels, or a Website organized as the company views the business instead of as the customer does, says Peaslee.

The best use of drill-downs requires site visitors to make understandable choices at each step of the navigation. “It’s more about messaging at each conversion point than about the number of clicks,” says Zaaz’s Hosford. “If the process is clear and simple in how to move forward, then they’ll go much further.”

Salt Lake City, UT-based Overstock.com makes customers drill down through product categories and subcategories. Navigational tabs such as “Home & Garden,” “Jewelry & Watches,” and “Electronics” on the top of the site as well as on the left-hand navigation column take visitors into subcategories where they can narrow their search down even further. Selecting the “Electronics” tab, for instance, takes visitors to a category landing page with promotions, hottest items, and multiple ways to navigate to find products, including a straightforward left-hand navigation bar with additional subcategories.

Clicking on the “Cameras & Optics” subcategory, for example, takes users to another page with product listings and additional choices on the left-hand navigation bar such as “Accessories,” “Binoculars & Optics,” and “Camcorders.” Although a user must continue drilling down, the product selections follow a logical progression and become more refined after each click.

Peaslee says that a good way to get the most out of drill-downs is to use pictures of products to illustrate categories rather than text. “We find universally that when people are shopping they’re scanning pictures to make decisions,” she says.

On the Website of outdoor apparel merchant Patagonia, product pictures are a component of the navigating system in major product categories such as men’s and women’s clothes, but not when customers want to toggle between the two. Craig Wilson, director of e-media at the Ventura, CA-based company, hopes to change that with a site navigation revamp later this year.

A drawback to using product shots is that they aren’t crawlable by search engines. If scoring top positions on search engines is a top priority for you, Tony Wright, chief interactive marketing officer at Dallas-based Web consulting and services firm Zunch, says text links with keywords are the way to go for site navigation. They have a drawback of their own, however: They are not always ideal from a design standpoint. No doubt that’s why Wilson counters, “Text is what you default back to if you can’t achieve [good navigation] through other means.”

Drop-down menus and fly-out menus are two alternative options for offering users a list of product categories or subcategories to guide them in their search. As their names suggest, a drop-down menu reveals options in a vertical list when a customer clicks on the menu, while a fly-out menu reveals a list of options when a cursor is moved over it. If a subcategory on one of the menus is further broken down into additional subcategories, those will be presented in an accompanying fly-out menu should the user move his cursor over the subcategory leading into it.

Quincy, MA-based apparel cataloger/retailer J. Jill uses fly-outs as its main navigation method. Primary categories such as “Petite,” “Tall,” and “Misses” appear on the top navigational bar of the home page. Place the cursor over, say, “Petite,” and a menu with a dozen subcategories appears. Put the cursor over one of these — “Sweaters,” for example — and another menu with additional subcategories (in this case, “Pullover,” “Cardigan,” “Oversized,” and “View All”) appears. The user can quickly locate the desired subcategory from the home page, without having to wait for subcategory pages to load.

Of course, drop-downs and fly-outs have their downsides as well. For one thing, they don’t lend themselves to providing a breadcrumb trail — a series of links at the top of a page listing the categories and subcategories the user has passed through — to help shoppers navigate back to where they started. What’s more, says Hosford, fly-outs and drop-downs sometimes cover content on the site that customers could be looking for. Clever home page design can mitigate this issue. J. Jill, for one, designed its home page so that the fly-outs obstruct only lifestyle photography and sparse promotional text.

And as is the case when using graphics, relying on drop-down or fly-out menus can reduce visibility on search engines. Dynamically generated pages — pages created on the fly based on visitor behavior, which usually includes many fly-outs and drop-downs — require users to select an element or variable to create the page. Because spiders can’t make those selections, search engines have difficulty crawling sites that use dynamically generated pages. Javascript, a programming language that facilitates dynamic content and motion on Web pages, poses a particular problem when too much of it is stuffed near the top of the page, because search engines often consider content near the top of a page to be more relevant than information at the bottom, Hosford explains.

Bethel, CT-based Star Struck, which sells licensed sports apparel and memorabilia, uses a combination of drop-down menus and straight text links. On its home page, customers have an overview of product categories and limited view of subcategories, all as text links. But on the landing pages for the major product categories such as “Baseball,” “College,” and “Auto Racing,” drop-down menus organize products by team or product type.

Up until several months ago, Star Struck had relied exclusively on drop-down menus. “We know that based on the way spiders crawl sites and everything else, that it’s better now how we have it set up,” says president Ken Karlan. He adds that the site has not seen an increase in visitor abandonment rates since the switch.

Refinement or filtering, a navigation method that allows visitors to refine search results by choosing from a predetermined list of product characteristics or subcategories, is yet another navigation option. Peaslee says that filters are the most common alternative to drill-downs and will become more prevalent as the technology becomes easier to use and users become better acquainted with it.

Electronics retailer Circuit City uses filters in its site navigation to help customers narrow their search based on merchandise specifications. Visitors start by navigating through fly-out menus on the home page — selecting the “Audio” category, for instance, produces a menu of 11 subcategories, including “Home Theater” and “MP3 Players.” Once on the, say, “MP3 Players” landing page, customers can view all MP3 players or further refine their search by price, brand, and several other criteria preselected by Circuit City.

Although the selection options may seem commonsensical to those creating the site, Peaslee says that feedback Creative Good has gathered from consumer labs shows that users find the technology confusing. “For all its ‘whiz bang,’ if you don’t do it well, you’re better off with drill-down,” says Peaslee.

Filters can also inadvertently deter visitors from purchasing because sometimes not enough product choices show up as a result of excessive filtering. And ironically, users tend to click more when using filters, Peaslee says, because they are not sure if they filtered out something they wanted, so they return to the previous page and filter a different way.

If you have only several hundred SKUs for sale, Peaslee suggests steering clear of filters; your relatively small merchandise selection won’t make them worthwhile. But filters are a viable option for merchants with hundreds of thousands of SKUs in hundreds of categories and dozens of subcategories, as well as for merchants with high-tech products that customers search for in terms of whether they do or don’t have specific features.

Don’t overlook onsite search, your own site’s search mechanism, as a key navigation tool. Nearly half of all visitors to e-commerce sites use the onsite search function, as reported in “The State of Retailing Online 7.0,” a study by Cambridge, MA-based Forrester Research. (For suggestions on improving your onsite search functionality, see “On-target onsite search” in the March issue of Catalog Age.)

With all the site navigation choices available to merchants, there are a few common denominators to keep in mind. First, keep it simple by giving clear directions with an intuitive design. Don’t be afraid to call out what customers should do or click on, Hosford says.

Second, don’t be overly cutesy in your choice of catalog descriptors. You know your products inside and out, but your site visitors may not. Patagonia’s Wilson recommends using universally understandable language in the broader categories and more detailed language — but not industry jargon — in subcategories and product descriptions.

Finally, although category landing pages are an additional level that users must drill down through, think twice before getting rid of them. They are a huge merchandising opportunity, and most site visitors aren’t bothered by them, because they perceive the pages as a source of helpful information.

Peaslee believes that a hybrid of navigation systems — like a combination of text drill-downs to get users to category landing pages, then filters, drop-down menus, or fly-outs to further refine product offerings — could be the next wave for site navigation. But before deciding that your site would benefit from layered text, filters, or a hybrid of methods, get customer input. Talk to users about their needs so that you can “design a site that creates a good experience for customers,” says Peaslee.

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