Homepage usability' provides data on successful sites

This week, I continue my summary of "Homepage Usability," by Internet consultants Jakob Nielsen and Marie Tahir, which dissects the home pages of 50 of the Web's most popular destinations.

1. NAVIGATION. The book's study found that 30 percent of the top sites use a left-hand navigation column to help visitors find relevant pages, while an equal 30 percent use tabs across the top of the home page. Other interfaces include links across the top and categories in the middle. The only style that the authors don't recommend is pull-down menus "because they hide the choices most of the time."

2. SITE MAP. Only 48 percent of the sites provided a site map. If you use one, the authors recommend extensively testing it with real users to make sure it actually provides a workable interface for your visitors.

3. SIGN IN. Slightly more than half the sites studied offered registered users a way to log in on the home page. Significantly, none of the sites required registration before visitors could gain access to basic features. It's important to clearly separate the way new users register from the way existing customers log in.

4. ABOUT US. An "About Us" link (or "About Firm-Name") was a feature of 84 percent of the sites. The authors highly recommend having this, because it is "one of the most trust-enhancing features you can add."

5. CONTACT INFO. Almost every major site provides a way to find a mailing address or customer service telephone number for the business. This information was provided through a separate Contact Us link on the home page or as part of the About Us page 82 percent of the time.

6. PRIVACY POLICY. A total of 86 percent of the sites included a link to the company's privacy policy. The book's authors also recommend that a privacy statement accompany every spot where you ask for information (when requesting an e-mail address, for instance).

7. JOB OPENINGS. An explicit link for job seekers was provided on 74 percent of the home pages, with another 8 percent of sites offering this on their About Us page. Visiting a company's Web site to find ways to apply for employment seems common enough that a specific link for this function seems called for.

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