Fat footers - should they include a sitemap

Fat footers - should they include a sitemap

In several recent projects, we’ve experimented with extending the footer area. We’ve had some mixed results. It certainly seems like a good idea- the theory being that the user scrolls to the bottom of the page and gets a prompt or call to action to go to another page. There is a good summary of why on Web Designers Wall (Benefits of Placing a Sitemap in the Footer) that I’ve summarised here:

  • Engage user click and visit duration - theory being that the footer would be the last thing they see on the page
  • Lazy users who can’t find the sitemap can just go to the bottom of the page
  • Promote specific links
  • Save user’s time- allow them to quickly jump from page to page.
  • Save them a click - no need to click to sitemap
  • Enhance layout design (aka - I have no content but want to fill up my web page)

I’ve been curious about the impacts of this element, as I’ve had a few discussions with people about whether they work, and if a typical user would ever really scroll to the bottom of the page to see it. Because I’m really in to that kind of thing and get my rocks off with a good graph, we’ve been tracking some metrics around how people use these footers. This isn’t an exhaustive study of the interweb, just our experience on a handful of relatively popular sites that we’ve worked on.

The Good

By tracking where and what people click, we’ve seen that a link in a fat footer will generally get more clicks than the same link in the top navigation. Update: the actual uplift or increase in clicks changes depending on the site, the content and footer layout, and of course the time period that you’re comparing. The best result we’ve seen is 620%, which is pretty nice.

This is seems to be particularly so for links in the bottom right corner. If you’re still thinking that no one scrolls below the magical fold, then you might find this article interesting: Blasting the Myth of the Fold by Milissa Tarquini . Oh- don’t freak out, but you’re way down below the fold right now anyway

The Bad

One of the reasons that we thought using a large footer was a Good Thing was SEO. It turns out this isn’t necessarily the case. Big fat disclaimer here - we’re not an SEO agency, and personally I think the world would be a better place if Google was switched off every few days to give us all a break.

Based on advice from a variety of SEO agencies that we’ve worked with on projects (rather than SEO heresay written in forums and on toilet walls):

  • While it’s generally a good idea to link from one page to the next to promote internal linking
  • its not so great to have every page linking to every other page (or at the least, lots of pages). It dilutes the meaning of those links.
  • While a search spider can use the footer links to index your site
  • you can achieve this by including a link to your sitemap, plus using a valid sitemap.xml file.
  • Having lots of links makes you look more spammy to a spider - above a certain amount you start looking more like a link farm and less like a useful content site. And spammy = Bad.

Another reason we liked a big footer was that it made it easier for users. It turns out this isn’t always the case either.

We do a fair bit of multivariate design work, which involves testing different page elements on real users visiting a site. This is testing what real living users do on a real web site, so the results are always interesting. Some users get a fat footer, while others get a thin footer.

Surprisingly, the larger format footer doesn’t always perform better. Sometimes a smaller thin footer absolutely wallops it. Obviously this result will be different from site to site, and depends on how you determine your goal (MVT results rely on having a goal or action that you can measure at the end of a user session). One theory as to why a smaller version outperforms is that a smaller footer means less clutter on the page. So a user is more likely to click on the goal link than wander off somewhere else on your site.

Based on these results, I certainly would avoid sticking on a big footer just because you’ve seen it somewhere else. (Damn – I’ve just realised we have one at the bottom of our site). Used in certain ways, the links in the footer can be very effective and help users. Putting a lot of links at the bottom of your page might give you some advantages, but based on our experiences and results there are drawbacks as well. I’d certainly avoid the new whitehouse.gov approach of sticking the whole sitemap down there.

In several recent projects, we've experimented with extending the footer area. We've had some mixed results.

Ben Still


30 Jul 2009

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