By Chris Lee
In 1994, when the Internet was in its infancy, renowned Internet strategist Dr Jakob Nielson argued that Web users paid much less attention to information not visible in the first screen view of a website. The term “below the fold” was born to highlight this area that was only visible after users scrolled down. Three years later Nielson added that scrolling was “no longer a usability disaster”, but the debate has raged amongst marketers ever since.
One of those marketers continuing the debate is Jake Bailey of digital consultancy RichRelevance. His recent white paper “Flattening the fold” argues that marketers need to move beyond stereotypes about below the fold activity, which he beliefs can often be the most profitable areas of e-commerce sites.
Bailey argues that the original thinking stated that advertising must appear wholly or in part above the fold to be profitable; website branding must live above the fold; navigation must be above the fold; and primary content of the site must start above the fold.
“Consider how this thinking does not merely impact design and usability, but also holds broader implications for all online branding and advertising initiatives,” Bailey said.
Life below the fold
According to Bailey, in the last six years research attempting to debunk the “myth” of the fold has reignited this debate on whether or not Web users visit below the fold and therefore value lies there for marketers.
Bailey cited research from one analytics firm which found that scrolling behaviour was relative, independent of actual screen height, and that people actually did make it to the bottom of the page. In another study, a design agency asserted that less content above the fold may encourage more exploration below the fold.
“Further complicating matters was the increasing ubiquity of liquid layout—enabling page layouts to flex with the size of the browser window,” Bailey added. “The result is the larger the window, the higher the fold and vice versa. Where exactly was the fold? If no one could decide, did it even matter anymore?”
Creatures of habit
The way people digest information and scroll differs significantly according to whether they are visiting an e-commerce site or a news site. According to Bailey there are three ways shoppers navigate retail sites: via browsing (i.e. menu bar), keyword searches, and personalised product recommendations, which can often be found near the bottom of pages.
“On a regular basis, below the fold placements of our personalised product recommendation modules outperform above the fold placements by a wide margin,” Bailey said. “We’ve found that far more essential than the location of the fold in determining the potential success is the layout of the page itself and the intent of the shopper visiting it. The most successful placements are near the highest areas of interest—which may land above or below the fold.”
Bailey draws three core conclusions:
1. On retail sites, it’s much easier to "own the category" of your brand’s products. Normal ad networks and exchanges can’t do this. Ask your retail publishing partners about opportunities to block out competitors for those categories that are important to your brand.
2. Make sure your brand is integrated with the customer experience. It’s one thing to have banner ads targeted at the most influential point in the purchase process, which is powerful in its own right, but it’s taking it to a whole new level to have your brand integrated with the customer’s navigation of a retail site, like recommendations, and/or search.
3. Your partner should be able to provide more insights about the consumer and your brand’s products, given that the proximity of shopping media and technology allows for you to track key metrics around shopping habits. Keywords and content sites can’t do this.
“As e-commerce sites begin to offer more and more relevant content (product reviews, recommendations, videos, how-to-guides, testimonials, etc.), consumers are turning their attention to these sites while on the path to purchase,” Bailey concluded. “Much of this content is below the fold, but our research indicates that it’s often the highest-performing area of the site.”