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Information Foraging: Engagement & Conversion Optimization

Last Updated: September 22, 2016

Information foraging is one of the more helpful and interesting theories to consider as you optimize your website to increase engagement or conversions. The theory was first proposed in 1999 as a way to describe how people hunt for information. It is based on anthropological, biological and ecological explanations for how animals hunt and search for food. The optimal food foraging theory that information foraging is based on describes how animals conserve energy while hunting their prey. Animals selectively choose their prey so that they can avoid wasting energy chasing prey they have little chance to capture and eat.

This theory of the animal kingdom translates pretty neatly to how people browse the web. We browse the web or search on Google for a specific thing—ultimately, the prey we are hunting. As we find links that seem like something of interest, we click on the link and quickly size it up, scrolling and skimming through the page. We try to exert as little effort as possible in the process of finding whatever it is we want to find. We only stop to invest more time on a website when we find something that seems relevant to our search and worthy of our time and energy (and mobile data costs).

To increase engagement and conversions, you need your website to look worthy of a visitor’s time and energy. That means you need to provide the right cues to demonstrate just how compelling your website is. One of the key cues animals use as part of foraging for food is scent. For people visiting website, we don’t rely on scent but instead we look for text and design elements that give us an idea of what information exists on this website. This is referred to as information scent.

The cues might start on Google search results, where optimizing the text Google shows from your website can draw more people into your website. Once people arrive on your website, visual and textual cues can give people a reason stay on your website, engaging and, eventually, converting. If your website lacks the cues communicating how worthy your website is of a visitor’s time and energy, people will leave without engaging or converting. If your conversion rates are currently low or your bounce rates are high, start by adjusting your website’s cues.

Creating and optimizing cues has implications for all aspects of your website—including your design, images, text, organizational style, calls to action, features and functionality, backend technology, traffic targeting, branding, messaging, and more. One important area of your website for providing cues to your visitors is in deciding what pages are included in your navigation, and what words are used for each of those pages. The navigation is a large patch of information that visitors will often use to evaluate the website, deciding if they should stay, engage, and convert. The more your navigation speaks the language your visitors use, the more it is designed to draw people’s attention visually, and the easier the navigation is to use technically, the more likely people will pick up on those cues to successfully locate what they were seeking. The same holds true for other large patches of information, like the top section of each page, featured content area on the home page, and calls to action.

Part of the theory of information foraging is a concept called information diet. Hunters will abandon prey that appears too difficult to hunt. When the prey is your website, a successful hunt may be getting people to click to another page, watch a video, download your e-book or converting into a lead or customer. If your website appears difficult to use—for instance, by showing too many options in a dropdown navigation or by pressuring visitors with aggressive calls to action—people are likely to leave and won’t convert. To increase conversions and to get more people engaging with your website prior to a conversion, you want to make your website seem less difficult to use.

With this theory in mind, my recommendation is that as you optimize your website for conversions or engagement, think of visitors to your website as lazy hunters looking for prey. Visitors are on the hunt and will be quick to pass your website by. Help them by offering the right cues drawing them toward a conversion. The more you can create an appealing, simple, and distraction-free path leading them effortlessly toward their desired prey, the higher your conversion and engagement rates will be.

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