A Link Labeled “Products” (or “Solutions” or “Clients”) is a Bad Idea

Jared Spool

June 18th, 2010

The other day, I listened to a fascinating interview that John Jantsch conducted with Vanessa Fox, author of Marketing In The Age of Google.

Listening to her, I got this idea about links like “Products”, which we see on a lot of corporate sites. Vanessa was talking about these words from an SEO perspective, explaining that, when we use them as the headings and main navigation on the site, the search engines don’t know what to do.

Vanessa points out that nobody goes to Google and searches for “Products”. Instead they search for what they are looking for. But the heading and navigation links are critical to helping the search engine do what it needs to do.

3m.com Home Page Navigation
Home pages, like at 3m.com, use generic words like “Products & Services” and “Our Company” for their links and headings.

So, her recommendation was to stop using words like Products, Solutions, and Clients and start using words that actually describe what you offer. This way the search engine would list you higher for those terms.

Interestingly, I’ve found the same when watching people use the web sites. Rarely, does someone say, “Hmmm. I wonder what products they have.” Even when they do, the menu (usually a simple drop down, but these days, a mega menu is common) lists the trademark names of the products, which, almost always, don’t actually say what the product does.

Progress.com's Product Mega Menu
Sites like Progress.com use a mega menu for their products.

If you aren’t already familiar with the product offerings, how do you know where to click next? Sybase also offers a solutions tab. Again, these are buzzword-filled terms that are vague in what they actually mean. What is the difference between predictive analytics, high-performance business intelligence, and quantitative analytics? What do these terms actually mean? (Would we ever be in the market for low-performance business stupidity?)

Sybase.com's Solutions Menu
Sybase.com‘s solution tab is riddled with buzzwords. How likely is it that anybody but dedicated customers and employees will know what this means?

So, once again, the parallels between what search engines needs for SEO and what users need from the design are striking. SEO strives to make it easy for the search engines to understand your content, so they can offer it to their searchers when that’s what the searcher is seeking. And what users need is an easy way to understand your content, so they can choose the right path through the site.

Coming up with terms for one will easily buy you terms for another. And it all comes down to providing great scent for both your users and for the search engine crawlers.

Update: Keith suggested Verizon Wireless’s site as a good example and I agree.

VerizonWireless.com Global Nav
Verizon Wireless uses terms like Phones & Accessories instead of Products.

If you search on Phone & Accessories, their site appears in the top 10 organic listings. And, from a user perspective, the labels mean something more than Products.

Another Update: @OppDes tweeted that Gerry McGovern’s new article on Top Tasks versus Tiny Tasks gets to the core of this. I agree with that too.

18 Responses to “A Link Labeled “Products” (or “Solutions” or “Clients”) is a Bad Idea”

  1. Mike Pifalo Says:

    With the term “Solutions” I completely agree. This is actually being debated now as we approach putting a “solutions” section back into out site; we seem to have settled on “Industries.”

    The idea of avoiding the term “Products” however I am not convinced. I’ve listened to many users who given the task “find the system requirements for product xxx” first look for a “Products” link or immediately use the site search. I suspect we, as web users, have grown very accustomed to seeing a “Products” section that we might actually get lost is we never saw such a term.

    But this article does give me pause for thought; it’s worth reconsidering all of our notions about what users expect.

    –Mike

  2. Jared Spool Says:

    Mike,

    The real question is how many of your customers know your products?

    The task “find the system requirements for product xxx” implies they already know your product offerings by name.

    Even if they do, do you really have so many products that you can’t list them on the home page with associated text to say what the product does (and how it’s different from other products)? Listing the products and their purpose would give the search engine ranker more fodder while making the interface better for your users.

    Jared

  3. Jim Shamlin Says:

    It sounds like a reasonable suggestion – but what’s the solution to this problem?

    Especially for a company that offers a wide range of products, it doesn’t seem feasible to publish a laundry list on their home page, and my guess is that, which the amount of content would “Feed” search engines, it would be even less usable to the human visitor, trying to find information. There would need to be a label that would attract the user to reveal the content.

    I’ve been scratching my head a while, and can’t quite understand – so an example would be helpful. Could you take one of the “bad” designs you mention (for example, the 3M site), and describe what the “better” alternative would be?

  4. Cason Bang Says:

    Would you consider http://www.palm.com/us/ or http://www.apple.com better examples? They throw their major products into top level navigation.

    A company with a huge number of products could pick a few to promote using main navigation. You don’t see AppleTV anywhere on the front page and certainly not with dedicated navigation.

    Most product/service trees are hopelessly obtuse. The goal should be to more clearly communicate what the company can do and a list of strange words just doesn’t do that.

    As for SEO, that’s a bonus of clear communication. I’d argue that Sybase is *already* optimized for the terms they’ve chosen. If you google “high performance business intelligence” you’ll find that Sybase is in the first page of results. Of course this isn’t helpful to a user unfamiliar with BI.

  5. Tony Lavinio Says:

    It looks to me like the Progress site *is* set for SEO. The left side of the mega-menu lists not product names, but types of products. The product names are on the right side. So you see both “Mainframe Integration” and “DataDirect Shadow”.

  6. Vlad Says:

    And still, User Interface Engineering uses “Services” in their navigation structure. I find this article a little ironic.

  7. Jay Says:

    I cannot say I agree. It all comes down to what the actual function of the website is. I don’t believe any of the 3 example businesses you’ve listed here actually rely on search engines to gain new customers, or even on their websites to generate sales. These are all businesses that most probably already have dedicated sales teams targeting select customers. They are all corporate websites, functioning more as an extension of their business cards rather than an advertising billboard. You ask how likely is it that anybody but dedicated customers and employees will know what the website is talking about. Maybe that’s because the websites ARE targeted at dedicated customers and employees. The website’s function is for the targeted customer to find detailed information on something they are already looking for. From this perspective, SEO is not likely that much of an issue. After all, for businesses like these, how likely would it be for some random searcher to become a customer?

  8. Jared Spool Says:

    @Tony & @Cason:

    You are correct that the categories listed under “solutions” are optimized, assuming those terms are phrases their customers are familiar with. I don’t know anybody who would type “Semantic Integration” or “Mobile Enterprise Ecosystem” into the search engine, but it’s possible those folks really exist—I just don’t hang out with them.

    (Just an aside: If those are in the solutions category, does that mean there are matching problems? Maybe stating those problems would help people find solutions in the search engine. Just saying.)

    But that wasn’t really my point of this post.

    My point was that you’ve got some valuable real estate, according to Vanessa Fox: the main navigation links and the H1 Headers on the result pages. When combined, these two links really help a page’s rank. Yet, we relegate them to generic terms used on thousands of other sites, like “Products” and “Solutions”.

    These terms don’t help the site improve its ranking. They don’t help the user who is looking for something specific (the more likely use case). And they don’t help the user on the site because the terms are devoid of meaning.

    Apple and Palm, as @Cason pointed out, replace Products with the product names. For highly advertised consumer brands, this could work. (Though, I wonder how many Palm visitors know what the difference is between a Palm Pre and a Palm Prixi.)

    However, it won’t work for those companies with a ton of products. There are two thoughts here:

    First, are we assuming that all the products are equal? As @Cason pointed out, Apple chose to leave off Apple TV (for now). They’re using the navigation for their most important content, which is exactly what they should do.

    Not every product is as important to the organization as every other. Yet, we often present them as if they are. That’s mistake for ranking and it’s a mistake for ease of finding. We want the most important stuff to jump off the page faster than the least important stuff. (We amplify this problem when we order our products in a randomized or alphabetical order, taking any real meaning out of the order of the list and possibly obscuring the most important products, because they were penalized with a lower position.)

    Second, there may be too many products for this to work. Given that, what if the navigation divided the products into use categories? Without playing too much buzzword bingo, it might be easy to assign categories that are meaningful to people coming to the site. Those categories, if chosen well, will rank high because of their prominence and provide good scent when for finding the right product page.

    Any of these alternatives are better than the bland term “Products” which does nothing to help the site’s rankings nor the users ability to find what they want. It’s only one step better than “Click Here.”

  9. Jared Spool Says:

    @Vlad:

    I was wondering how long it would be before someone pointed that out.

    Our web site suffers a bit of the shoemaker’s children’s problem, in that we spend most of our resources on making our clients happy before we turn to our own stuff.

    I have no real excuse but to say it’s on a very long list of things we want to change.

  10. Jared Spool Says:

    @Jay:

    I’d be willing to bet that the SEO budget for each of the companies I listed is more than a quarter million dollars annually. If they don’t get customers through search, why do they spend so much?

  11. Deric Loh Says:

    Adding onto the above points, the mega menu sub links for Progress (i.e.Application development etc) is not even crawlable by the search engine bots, and even if they do enable the sub links to be visible to the search engines, does it really help their potential customers whom had yet to hear about them – through searching for terms that relate to their needs or solving their current issue find them easily through their “defined terms” ? And not jargons or terms that we thought the new / potential or existing customers might be actually seeking for ?

    End of the day it doesn’t really matter if we rank top in the search results page if it doesn’t actually correlate to what the potential customers might be seeking for in the first place.

    And the alternatives are readily available through the search phrases keyed in by their new / potential and existing customers found via:
    + their web analytics data
    + also through external anchor text links
    + external communities visited by their customers (forums etc)

  12. Cliff Tyllick Says:

    @Jared, I wonder if terms like “Products” might be useful in a verbose footer. I don’t mean a tag tree — I mean a large collection of links that might provide the scent to someone, but failing in some way to earn their place in more valuable real estate. I’ve heard of one site where, seemingly out of frustration, they shoved all the various links that were competing for *some* spot on the home page down there and used the prime real estate for audience-optimized links. I’m not sure I would call their footer a site index or even a site map, but it does contain a fairly well organized group of links that help at least a few people each, and it avoids giving the home page a cluttered appearance.

    With this verbose footer they manage to take care of two problems: first, in the prime real estate, they achieve SEO for the terms their audience (and potential audience) actually uses in Web searches; second, in the footer, they have a wealth of links that each might work for the 1 or 2 percent of their visitors who wouldn’t recognize anything else to click on.

    Of course, anyone who follows that approach needs to be sure that the target of “Products” is a usable, well-scented page in its own right.

  13. Keith LaFerriere Says:

    This is a completely difficult thing for business owners to grasp as they duke it out in the content/posturing meetings. However, it’s also about laziness, lack of budget, or complacency. While “products and services” or “consulting and research” or “whatever and whichever” are easy and solve issues with warring fiefdoms, the lack of a true content strategy (or imagination) is a deeper level issue.

    One quick example of bridging a gap is Verizon Wireless. They have a less generic approach:

    Verizon.com

    It’s not a total solution, but it does cover more ground and gets the user to take on a task at the heart of the content.

    I don’t disregard how people have been trained to use the web. I disregard the notion that it has to stay that way.

  14. Keith LaFerriere Says:

    (Mondays rock)

    The preceding post should have the following link:

    http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/index.html

  15. Brandy Reppy Says:

    Jared –
    We had the same problem of trying to find examples of sites that didn’t use the “Products”, “Services”, etc wording in navigation when we were restructuring our company website.

    What we settled on after talking to users was keeping the more typical structure or “Our Products”, etc in our main navigation, but keeping more problem/solution based navigation opportunities on the homepage to drive potential customers into paths where they didn’t need to know specifically what product or service that they wanted, but more what problem they were trying to solve.

    I realize this can vary depending on what your company offers, but it was a way we found to keep a familiar structure to the site but yet still use a more contextual solution for visitors who aren’t as familiar with our specific products and services.

  16. User Experience, Usability and Design links for June 29th | BlobFisk.com Says:

    [...] A Link Labeled "Products" (or "Solutions" or "Clients") is a Bad Idea …got this idea about links like “Products”, which we see on a lot of corporate sites. Vanessa was talking about these words from an SEO perspective, explaining that, when we use them as the headings and main navigation on the site, the search engines don’t know what to do. [...]

  17. Vanessa Fox Says:

    How I approach SEO is not just to use the words you want to rank for, but to use the words that your audience does so you can better engage with them (starting at the search results page and continuing on to your site). It’s super common for a company to have a primary navigational element titled “Solutions”, but that doesn’t generally mean anything for visitors to the site.

    Jared, you get right to the heart of it — your web site makes sense to you because you understand the context, but many visitors don’t have that context. For instance, I was looking at a massage school the other day that talked about their “classes” but never mentioned what kinds of classes they were. The word “massage” was nowhere on the page. Instead the wording was all about being relaxed and soothed, but with no sense as to what was doing that soothing!

    Jay, believe it or not, most enterprise-level companies can acquire many new customers from search. Search is becoming the primary way we look for information and solutions to our problems (even in the B2B and enterprise worlds).

  18. Quora Says:

    What is the SEO value of “mega menus”?…

    Mega menus do not provide the content, they provide visibility to the content. Jared Spool has a good article on them and their value for search (http://www.uie.com/brainsparks/2010/06/18/a-link-labeled-products-or-solutions-or-clients-is-a-bad-idea/)….

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