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How do you test your website’s names?

I was recently riding on the Washington Metro and noticed a new station name: NoMa-Gallaudet. I had never heard of NoMa, but a quick Google search told me that it stands for “North of Massachusetts Ave”–a new trying-to-be-hip neighborhood. I thought it was a bit strange that they would change the Metro map for that, but the article went on to explain that they are trying to have each Metro station have a main, 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.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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