Infinite scrolling: What the big sites teach us

Google's next page link vs. Facebook's loading symbol

I tell non-profits to “cheat” by watching the big companies we know are doing a ton of testing. If they all adopt something, consider it for your site. Even if you have money and time for your own tests, you can pick up good direction.

Interpreting what you see isn’t always straightforward, though. Infinite scrolling is a perfect example — some big sites are using it, but a lot aren’t. Here’s my take on what that means for the rest of us:

First, what is an infinite scroll? Traditionally, long lists of items (say, products at a store), are shown in batches, and you click a “next” link to see more. You can often choose to see the whole list, but most sites don’t default to that, for quicker loading.

Infinite scrolling starts with a small number of items, too, but every time you reach the bottom of the page, it adds more. The initial page still loads quickly, and you can scroll pretty much forever.

Who’s using infinite scrolling?

Social media sites. Anyone who has gotten sucked into Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest can attest to the power of infinite scrolling. It is widely adopted by the major players, and in many parts of their sites. We can safely assume they’ve tested it and it has won.

It seems like a no-brainer to use, until you ask…

Who’s not using infinite scrolling?

E-commerce and search sites. Amazon doesn’t use it. Etsy shared the story of how it failed for them, which was the only account I could find of someone testing it. This week, Jakob Nielson, who focuses on e-commerce sites, looked at how to show long lists. He didn’t even mention infinite scrolling!

Google tested it, too. They didn’t say anything about the results, but they still paginate their results.

Why the split?

There’s a really clear division here, which is great — we can distill solid lessons from it. The two groups of sites represent two modes of looking at lists:

  • For “Entertain me!” mode, use infinite scrolling. People are open to discovering whatever you put in front of them, and have no agenda, except maybe something general like “see cute cat pictures.” Don’t make them work hard or interrupt their flow — no need to call attention to how long they’ve been browsing! They don’t care about getting back to items they’ve seen, in part because they do common actions in context — like, re-pin, reply, etc.
  • For “I want to find something” mode, use paged results. People want to know that they’ve found all the brown shoes in their size and price range, so they can compare them. Or that they’ve seen the most relevant search results so they might as well stop. Or that they can easily get back to that cool shirt on page 3.

For non-profits, if we’re being honest with ourselves, the times when we’re truly serving people in “entertain me!” mode are limited. Ultimately, we want them to DO something, to finish browsing, and get on with connecting with us and saving the world.

For EDF’s site, the only place I could make a strong case for infinite scrolling is for a list of our blog posts. How about you?

"scroll to top" buttonBonus usability tip: If you use infinite scrolling, include a “back to top” option or keep your navigation on-screen. (Thank you, Pinterest!) It is  soul-crushing, especially on mobile devices, to get 40 screens in and realize you have to scroll All. The. Way. Up. to go to a different section.