With web design, there are three ways to organize content: pagination, infinite scroll, and “load more.” For the purpose of this article we focus on pagination and infinite scroll.
While the former involves separating content onto multiple pages, the latter groups content onto a single page and allows the user to continuously scroll to load new content. Both options create a unique user experience.
In terms of common ground, pagination and infinite scroll have but two major similarities:
1. Both are user interface patterns through which web content can be displayed, digested and indexed.
2. Both are best defined by their differences from one another.
Each technique comes with its own pros and cons, and it is important to understand these before selecting an interface that is right for your site. Below I’ll tell you what each technique entails, what benefits they offer, and when it is most advantageous to employ them.
What is Pagination?
Pagination is a technique where online content is divided across several webpages instead of being lumped together in one giant brick of content. If you scroll to the bottom of a webpage that uses pagination, you will either see a row of page numbers or next/prev links. These are navigation controls, and they allow the user direct access to every webpage in the paginated series through manual clicking – from the first page to the last page. These controls also send the message to the Google crawlers that all content within the series is connected and indexable, even though it is separated across multiple pages.
This presentation of information grants users with the structure and hierarchy needed to fully make sense of the content, and although it requires more clicks, these actions are meaningful in that they bring the user closer to their desired outcome. Users generally prefer a clear end to their search because it satisfies the need for completion.
A great example of pagination is a search engine results page. The navigational controls on the bottom of each paginated page let users know which resources are the most relevant, which page is currently selected and how many more pages there are to sift through. This adds clarity to the search process and guides the user to exactly what they’re searching for.
(Google’s search results are housed on 10 different pages)
Ecommerce sites also frequently use pagination since there are typically so many products offered that it’s better to house them on multiple pages.
(Amazon’s inventory is so large it makes sense to separate its product listings across many pages.)
Things to Keep in Mind With Pagination
When implemented correctly, pagination is a useful classification method for webpages. However, problems can arise if you don’t take certain precautions. Take the below circumstances for example.
Duplicate Content - If your site features a “View All” option as well as an incorrect rel=canonical, duplicate content issues may become a problem. Proper pagination, however, won’t create any harm, even if things like the H1 are the same across the board. Since the main content is different, it’s not interpreted as repeat content. Just keep SEO in mind when you set up your pagination and you won’t have a problem.
Search Engine Journal goes into more detail on this potential pagination slip up.
Thin Content - If a page lacks a substantial amount of content, Google may deem it unworthy of indexation and the content will live on practically unseen. Pagination may lead to a thin content issue with something like a multimedia slideshow, where each page houses only one image. If you can guarantee the page has enough content to be user friendly, this should not be an issue. After all, when the user is happy, Google is happy.
Crawling Issues - It is possible that Googlebot can crawl and index every page of a paginated series as its own separate document, which demolishes your crawl budget – not to mention it makes those pages that should be working together actually compete against each other for prevalence in the SERP. Avoid this with the proper robot.txt files to prevent a crawl from occurring on certain pages, which will save your crawl budget and allow your important pages to be crawled.
Access to a Footer - One absolute benefit of pagination is the access to a footer to assist with site navigation. Footers are an incredibly valuable resource where users can find important calls to action, secondary resources, social pages and contact information. With infinite scroll, however, locating the footer is a long march to nowhere.
What is Infinite Scroll?
While pagination spreads chunks of content across a series of webpages, infinite scrolling allows you to browse through the content in its entirety from just one single webpage. Once the scroll bar reaches the bottom of the page, new content will populate automatically.
This is especially important for users who use mobile devices, where scrolling is more intuitive for the device. A pagination number bar is simply too small to properly click on a mobile device.
Also consider social media feeds – infinite scroll is a popular technique for social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and gallery websites like Pinterest and Instagram. These websites typically choose infinite scroll because it compliments how they want their users to interact with their content. It displays continuous content as a way of providing more opportunities for the browsing user to find something worthwhile. Many social media news feeds are designed like the image below, which indicates infinite scroll.
(Social media sites tend to have infinite scroll to accommodate mobile usability.)
The Advantages of Infinite Scroll
Users Like to Scroll - It has been proven time and time again that users have an easier time scrolling than they do clicking. In today’s world – where you can scroll with the mouse, trackpad, arrow keys or on mobile – it’s simply more intuitive. The speed and responsiveness of scrolling enhances the overall user experience, resulting in a substantial increase of content visibility and increased engagement.
Increased Engagement - Since infinite scrolling is endless, a user is able to continually engage with content without interruption so long as they continue to scroll. With no stopping points to break the flow of concentration, users are likely to spend more time visiting your webpage and in effect view a larger sampling of its content.
Built for Discovery - Infinite scrolling is also a helpful tool for users that wish to discover something rather than search for something. Not every user turns to the internet with a clearly defined end goal in mind. Some just want to go on a journey and explore content within a certain topic to give them inspiration, support an idea or just keep them entertained. Since the discovery process is so subjective, users need quick access to the widest sampling of ideas possible so they can increase the odds of finding something that is relevant to them. Enter infinite scroll. Keep in mind that this advantage is dependent on the kind of site you operate – not every site should be designed for casual discovery.
Mobile Friendly - Simply put, scrolling and mobile phones are a match made in heaven. Since mobile screens are substantially smaller than desktop screens, they can only display a fraction of the content at a time. To work around this, the scroll bars on mobile sites are made much longer so every scrap of content remains accessible.
The Disadvantages of Infinite Scroll
Problems with Crawling - Even Google has its limitations. As smart and intuitive as Googlebot is, it still cannot quite emulate the browsing behavior of a human user. Googlebot won’t stop and wait for new content to load outside of its snapshot. As a result, anything outside of this range will not be crawled – and this is never good for an SEO.
Hard to Find Information - Since infinite scroll houses all content on one page – and under one URL – it can be hard to locate information or remember where it was previously found. For example, if a user was a few scrolls down an infinite scroll webpage and left the site only to return later, the page would refresh and once again load the top content. To get to the previous position, a lot of scrolling could be required. With pagination, page content is able to be found easily because individual pages, and therefore their respective content, are able to be bookmarked.
Slow Page Speed - Since a large chunk of content is housed on a single page with more loading as the user scrolls, it will take a long time for the page to load. This is particularly true on mobile devices since the mobile browser doesn’t get a chance to “breathe” as the user so quickly scrolls to reveal more and more content with the swipe of a finger. Think of the accelerated swipe you use to reach the bottom of a page as quickly as possible – it can be counterproductive if the page has no chance to load. Slow page loading can significantly hurt SEO performance.
No Access to a Footer - Footers house important information like contact information and social media links, but with infinite scroll it’s impossible to access. A user can scroll to the bottom of the page time and time again, only to have it reveal more content and push the footer down.
Which is Better for SEO?
While you can see that each method has its respective strengths depending on the kind of website you operate, pagination remains the better solution from an SEO perspective. It bears repeating that one of infinite scroll’s major shortcomings is that Google crawlers are unable to crawl content that lays outside of their snapshot. Whatever Google doesn’t see, it doesn’t index, which means that ranking potential is wasted for a large portion of your content. While infinite scroll is great for offering users a more comprehensive “gallery” experience, pagination is still the technique to beat when it comes to helping users and crawlers find exactly what they’re looking for.
Still Want to Use Infinite Scroll?
Hey, I get it. Sometimes it’s about a better user experience and scrolling is the better solution. If a user is just exploring a site with no definitive goal in mind, they often enjoy the concept of infinite scroll. It allows them to “wander” the site to find what interests them and to discover content in a leisurely manner.
It all comes down to whichever technique best serves your content and your users. However, if you do choose to incorporate infinite scrolling within your domain, I would strongly recommend including component pages.
Component pages are a paginated series you can build out to present in tandem with your infinite scroll. The primary purpose of them is to group your content into pages on the backend so Google recognizes it as an indexable series.
Google's Webmaster Blog goes into more detail about search-friendly recommendations for infinite scroll that will allow web spiders to crawl your webpages, even when infinite scroll is implemented.
So now, even if you use infinite scroll, Google gets what it wants. And when Google wins, we all win!