A Time to Share

In these competitive times of the online world, optimizing web pages for Google and other search engines is often not enough.  Many sites have already added another successful tool to their online marketing toolbox – and it has to do with something we (or most of us) learned to do as children – sharing with others.

Commonly, we see ‘Email’ and ‘Print’ options on web pages, but ‘Share’ icons are gaining popularity on a variety of site types.  By providing ‘Share’ icons, site visitors can link the content within the page to their social networking page on sites such as Facebook, Digg, and Twitter (just to name a few).  This is an effective and easy way for visitors to share content with others and as a result, increase the chance that your site will be visited by a greater audience.

News-related sites were some of the first to offer ‘Share’ icons, but we have begun to see them on all types of sites, as well as in email advertisements.  Figure 1 below is an example of an email sales announcement from Gymboree, a children’s clothing store, and it includes options for customers to share the information via a number of social sites.  The social site icons are referenced with ‘Share with your friends!’ and display near the bottom of the email.

Figure 1 – Gymboree Email Sales Advertisement with ‘Share’ Icons

In the usability studies we have conducted with sites that offer ‘Share’ icons, it is typically those users who are members of one or more social sites that quickly understand how to use the icons.  However, they can be foreign and unknown to visitors who do not participate in social sites, and therefore should be defined, at least subtly.  In Figure 2 below, USAToday.com provides a discreet ‘What’s This’ link directly beneath the ‘Share’ icons.  By clicking the ‘What’s This’ link, a small pop-up window displays and provides a brief explanation of the icons; therefore, users can learn about the icons and how they work if they so choose.

Figure 2 – News Article on USAToday.com with ‘What’s This’ link

Some best practices for presenting ‘Share’ icons on a web page are demonstrated in Figure 3 and Figure 4 below:

  • Do not devote prime screen real estate to the icons or allow the icons to get in the way of what the user is trying to accomplish.  Placing the ‘Share’ icons on the right side of the content or directly below the content will ensure users are not hindered by their presence.
  • Provide the icons in context, such as on an article or announcement page.  Displaying them on your Homepage is not necessarily appropriate.  For example, a real estate company’s website might use ‘Share’ icons on a Property Listing page or a hospital might provide ‘Share’ icons on Birth Announcement pages.
  • Do not overwhelm your visitors with too many icons.  As the number of social sites continues to increase, it is becoming more common (and necessary even) to place all of these icons behind a single ‘Share’ link to avoid icon overload.  If you’d like to provide more than 5 social networking site icons, consider using a single ‘Share’ or even ‘Bookmark & Share’ icon and upon mouse roll-over, display a fly-out box with all the community icons.
  • Finally, place the ‘Share’ icons in close proximity to the ‘Email’ and ‘Print’ links or combine all of them into a single ‘Share’ link as previously recommended.

Figure 3 – News Article on CNN.com with ‘Share’ Icon Collapsed

Figure 4 – News Article on CNN.com with ‘Share’ Icon Expanded

As social sites continue to gain popularity and more sites adopt the use of ‘Share’ icons, they will become as common and as well understood as a ‘Home’ link.  In fact, according to a survey by the Pew Internet Project (August 2011), 65 percent of Internet users in the United States aged 18 or over now use at least one online social network.   So, it may very well be time to invoke your site’s good manners and share!

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