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Thursday, 20 March 2014

Infinite Scrolling or Good Old Pagination? Myths, Best Practices, SEO & Usability Tips

Usability is a deep topic; there are a million different choices to make whenever you’re trying to design an effective eCommerce site, and it’s is usually a top consideration in your thought process. A big debate that seems to pop up quite consistently is between the merits of an infinite scroll setup versus the more commonplace pagination model.

For those unfamiliar, pagination is the separation of content on distinct pages, while infinite scroll is a technique that allows a single page to grow larger as a user scrolls down. Each has its problems, perks, and misconceptions, but which is the better all-around choice for your average online entrepreneur? That’s the question of the day, so let’s find out together.

Pagination

Everyone should be familiar with the pagination format, even if you aren’t acquainted with the terminology. A paginated site, is exactly what it sounds like: a web site with its content divided into specific pages dedicated to a single topic, linked together in an organized and easily navigable structure. When we talk about SEO and Keyword optimization, we usually have a paginated model in mind. Each page targets a couple of main keywords and a few long tail variations. These make the work of search spiders, which crawl through the site looking for relevant content, easier by organizing common concepts in clearly demarked locations.

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Pagination is an attractive model because of that organized structure, which allows for simplified and user friendly browsing. You know what content goes where by reading the labels. The search engines scan the site in the same way you might skim the page of a textbook. They search for anything that sticks out. This can include bolded text, headlines, and the keywords you target in your meta-tags.

While there’s nothing wrong with pagination, it’s just not as sexy as the newer design trends such as infinite scrolling.

Infinite Scroll

For an example of how infinite scrolling might work, look no farther than your favorite social media platform. Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest all feature infinite scrolling as a major part of their interfaces. Whenever you’ve exhausted the current pages content, more content is loaded at the bottom, causing your scroll bar to decrease in size. This can be quite handy if you’re expecting frequently updated content and you want to include a feed to reflect recent developments.

 

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Infinite scrolling can help with faster browsing, making the most of a limited screen (as is the case with mobile devices,) and ensuring that more of your content is actually viewed by the user. The latter consideration takes advantage of the average user’s inclination to stay on a single page rather than explore multiple pages within a site.

Unfortunately there are some negative aspects to infinite scrolling, but nothing so overblown as many prevalent online myths would have your believe. Let’s begin by discussing the most often cited problem with infinite scrolling.

Infinite Scrolling and SEO

There are a lot of misconceptions about infinite scroll, top among these is that the lack of index-able pages makes it a bad format for SEO. While it’s true that search engines can’t perform their normal indexing processes on infinite scroll pages, there are some workarounds that you can implement in order to make sure your SEO doesn’t suffer. The first is called graceful degradation.

Graceful degradation is a web design technique that ensures a web site can make allowances for devices and browsers with limited functionality, without the user experience suffering unnecessarily. There’s a common problem between search spiders and outdated web browsers, and that’s that they both have a certain limit to the data that they can handle per page. What graceful degradation does is layer the different levels of functionality into its interface. This is done in order to facilitate optimum performance regardless of the browser or device used by a site’s visitor.

In other words, alternate versions of the webpage are built in by the developer and applied when the web page is visited by a user inhibited by limited functionality. In the case of infinite scrolling, progressive degradation aids with SEO because it recognizes a search spider as a device limited in its functionality, and consequently provides it with a suitable alternative to the infinite scrolling functionality.

More advanced variations on this technique actually index the content into separate pages so that the spiders can go about their work as if the site were designed with good old fashioned pagination. So basically your page as infinite scrolling as its user interface, but layered beneath the page is an indexed version of the site, and this unseen version will be what Google looks at when indexing your website; as well as anyone with a browser or device incapable of handling the data load required by infinite scroll.

Infinite Scrolling and JavaScript

Another possible problem is that infinite scrolling requires a user to have JavaScript enabled for the site to work properly. This is again where layered in pagination comes into play. Pagination needs to serve as a lower tech scaffolding that you build more advanced functionality on top of. If you don’t have this progressive degradation built in your site simply won’t cater to many users with insufficient browser or device capabilities.

So basically the biggest problem with infinite scrolling is not every user’s browser of device is properly equipped to handle the data requirements of the UI. This trouble is real, but it can be circumvented by doing a little extra work on the backend. Which means regardless of which model decide to base your site on, you’ll still need to implement pagination as the site’s skeletal structure.

How Do You Decide Between the Two?

So which model makes more sense for your site? It’s hard to say. It all depends on what your needs are. If you have a never-ending flow of curated material constantly being uploaded to your site, then infinite scroll might be the way to go. It may also be a good move if you’re not trying to highlight anything specific, because if you have something important you want to say, it’s probably best not to put it in the middle of an infinite flow if information. In the same vein of thought, if you want something organized and searchable (by the user, not the search engines), pagination might be the better route to take.

What’s sure is that through proper preparation neither your UX nor your SEO need suffer because of the way you design your site. There’s always a work around for your problem, so be sure to build the website you want, rather than whatever seems most convenient.

 

About the Author

Zack Rutherford is a freelance copywriter. He contributes web content and especially snappy articles to TemplateMonster. Combat sports enthusiast and poetic soul, Zack endeavors to create beauty through syntax, sentence structure, and the liberal use of hyperbole. Follow him on Twitter (@zack_rutherford) or visit his website (Zackrex.com) to read all of his innermost thoughts and unfounded opinions.

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