Information Foraging: Engagement & Conversion Optimization
By Matthew Edgar · Last Updated: December 16, 2022
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 from the animal kingdom translates pretty neatly to how people use Google to search the web. After conducting a search on Google, we review the search results for a specific thing that seems to address our problem or answer our question—that specific thing is the prey we are hunting.
Like a hunter, we skim and scroll through the search results looking for something of interest. This is why it is important for title tags to include relevant keywords—those relevant keywords look interesting and capture a searcher’s attention. Search results that are enhanced with schema markup, like reviews or ratings, can look even more interesting and draw even more attention.
The information foraging theory also explains how hunters exert as little effort as possible during the hunt, which also applies to how we interact with search results. According to a study from Ahrefs, websites ranking in the top search result get the most traffic 49% of the time, and websites ranking in positions 2, 3, or 4 get 41% of the traffic. In other words, 90% of people click on the top search results. In part, that is because Google’s algorithms are usually pretty good about understanding what types of websites are relevant for any given query. However, this is also partly due to laziness as described by the information foraging theory.
If people do decide to click from a search result to your website, the information foraging theory can also help offer insight into how to increase engagement and conversions. You need your website to look worthy of a visitor’s time and energy by providing 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. People visiting website don’t rely on the scent but instead look for text or design elements that give an idea of what information exists on this website. This is referred to as information scent.
To improve information scent, it is important that the text on the page continue to use relevant keywords and discuss relevant topics (this is where it is helpful to think about the entities discussed on your website). If your website lacks text relevant to a visitor’s interest, then the visitor will not understand why your website is worth their time or energy, causing the visitor to leave without engaging or converting. Of course, adjusting your website’s cues by making the text of the page more relevant will help your website’s SEO performance because the more relevant text will help Google better understand where to rank your website.
One important area of your website to focus on when deciding how to provide cues to your visitors is in deciding what pages are included in your website’s navigation, and deciding what words to use within the links in the navigation 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, or 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, the more likely people will pick up on those cues to successfully locate what they were seeking. Along with navigation links, internal links included within the website’s text are also an important way to help communicate what your website offers (to visitors and search engine robots).
Another 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 convert into a lead or customer. If your website appears difficult to use—for instance, by loading slowly or having mobile usability problems—people are likely to leave the website 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.
This applies to search results as well. Google’s intention is to rank the most helpful content in search results. In most cases, the most helpful item to rank in search results are links to websites. In other cases, the most helpful item to rank in search results are various search features, like featured snippets, People Also Ask, a map of local businesses, or video carousels. All of these are intended to surface content more directly to searchers; these features make it easier for hunters to capture their prey. The more you can optimize your website to be included in these different types of features, the better your SEO performance will be.
With this theory in mind, my recommendation is that as you approach SEO or as you optimize your website to increase 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. People searching on Google are looking for the most relevant answer in the simplest way possible. Help visitors and searchers by offering the right cues to draw them toward your website.
If you need help improving how your website ranks in search results, please contact me. Or, for more ideas about improving how your website performs, check out my book, Elements of a Successful Website.