• Issue #61

Don’t Let Dead End Pages Clog Your Student Journey

Generative AI render of two high school students lost in a corn maze. The corn is very tall, reaching above their heads.

This Hot Take was written by Kristin Van Dorn

I live in the Midwest. So, corn mazes are a thing. Imagine running through a giant corn maze with me. Say you’re in the corn maze having a good time, but you suddenly have to go to the bathroom. Oops, this was not a well-timed adventure, but it should be easy enough to get out.

What does it feel like when you run into your first dead end? Well, honestly, it’s to be expected. You’re in a maze, after all. But what about the next one? And the one after that? Dead ends make you backtrack. Backtracking can be time-consuming and frustrating.

In an ideal online experience, the site visitor clicks around from page to page, finding the information they need and discovering new information they didn’t anticipate. The content is organized and easy to follow; the scent of information is strong. Before you know it, your site visitor’s questions are answered, decisions are made, and tasks are completed.

In a less-than-ideal online experience, a site visitor usually has a pretty easy time on the first few levels of a website. But then, BAM! The site visitor runs into a page that doesn’t go anywhere.

A dead-end web page is exactly like a dead-end street. A dead-end webpage just ends. There is no call to action or suggestions for going deeper, changing course or discovering something new. It’s just the end of a paragraph and then a footer.

“But, Kristin, that’s what the navigation is for!”

Yes, but no. Did you play Super Mario Bros at all as a kid? Do you remember those map pages where you could advance or do a level over again? That’s what your navigation is like to a user. It’s a map. Think of your navigation as a shortcut to the section you want to play.

Many users practically never use the navigation. They scroll down the page they start on, find a section of content relevant to them, and follow a link from that section to go deeper into that topic or related topics. When you leave visitors with no choice other than to engage with the main navigation or the back button in the browser, it feels interruptive. That person is out of the game and back to the map.

Here are some common places where you’ll likely find dead-end pages with a quick caveat: These aren’t dead-end pages due to their category. Some sites are absolutely killing it, and they have figured out how to encourage continued exploration. My examples are typical pitfall pages, likely to just end.

  • Curriculum pages. From the program page, your site links to a list of courses. And that’s it. Nothing else is on the page.
  • Almost any page in the About section. From pages about strategic plans to a letter from the president, these pages rarely go anywhere.
  • Form completion thank you pages. After someone fills out a form, are they redirected to a page with a brief thank you message? Is there anything else on that page other than one line of text?
  • Blog posts. Where do site visitors typically go next after reading a post?

I could keep going, but I hope you’re getting a feel for what I am talking about.

How to Prevent Dead Ends

The best way to prevent dead ends is to think about what a user would want to do next at the end of your dead-end page. A person could take multiple next steps, but all those next steps probably fit into three buckets.

  1. Follow a call to action, where users take an action like applying or donating.
  2. Follow a link to related content, where users continue exploring.
  3. Change the mode of engagement, where users fill out a request for more information, contact someone, or visit your social media.

There’s an unmistakable hierarchy here.

Following a call to action is the best-case scenario. This means that your content did its job, and the site visitor will do what your webpage wants her to do.

Following a link to related content is still pretty good. It means your site visitor was unready or unconvinced to follow a call to action, but they still want to engage.

Changing the mode of engagement can be great, but it can also be a last resort - say if the site visitor can’t get all the information she needs from the website to follow a call to action.

And, you want to be very careful about sending that visitor away to your social media because once she clicks on that link. She will see your profile, but the easiest next action is replying to DMs or watching a funny animal video. So, social links should be used in very specific ways or not at all.

I am always going to recommend that you research what your site visitors want next. But in lieu of research, putting something… ANYTHING at the end of the page that keeps site visitors engaged is better than leaving them with a dead end.

So what’s next?

Of course we have to follow our own recommendations and close with some calls to action. Bravery loves focused research projects, so why not let us audit your website for potential dead ends? Start a conversation.