A growing trend in website design is for pages to have greater vertical depth – placing more information on each page, but requiring users to scroll more too.

In some cases, the entire website is on a single page, with virtual ‘pages’ separated visually and accessed only by scrolling.

For those of us with long memories, there was a time when great effort went into the opposite: ensuring that all related content could be seen without the user scrolling at all. This never made sense to me – it’s a unique benefit of Web pages (unlike printed pages) that there’s no limit to their depth. They can contain as much content as needed.

Cramming everything into a Web page that doesn’t scroll, or shoehorning too much content ‘above the fold’, is as daft as buying a TV and then using it with the picture turned off – as though it were a radio.

The trend towards deeper pages embraces the unique paradigm of the Web – but is it simply a passing fashion, as fleeting as trying to design to a ‘screen-full’? Is it ergonomically better or worse? What does it do for search optimisation? Why is it so popular now?

As device sizes have diversified, the notion of designing to a screen size just isn’t in any way practical. This has seen a move towards ‘responsive’ design (pages which adapt themselves to the width of the display so that they work on desktops, laptops, tablets and phones equally well but – importantly – display the same information in different ways). When a design adapts to a different width, there’s only really one way that the content itself can flex: vertically. So, the same information takes up greater depth on a phone than on a tablet; in doing so, it requires a greater number of scrolls. It’s mathematically inescapable.

This is one factor that’s driven website designers to consider page depth in a different way.

Another is ergonomics. In a world dominated by smartphones and tablets, a vertical swipe is a very natural gesture to reach more information. It makes more sense than scrolling back up for a menu.

Clearly there’s a law of diminishing returns. You can’t put a dictionary on one page – your arm would fall off before you’d got to K, let alone Z. Vertical websites can’t always obviate the need for a menu.

It’s not all about the depth, either. Vertical websites also tend to break down messages into clear panels. This is a good thing in any kind of website. Usability studies show that visitors to websites tend to visually scan pages, looking for the information most relevant to them. Breaking down the structure of the page visually helps people to find what they’re looking for, regardless of the depth of the page.

Whether this kind of page design will work for your website depends on several things – such as the nature of your business and the amount of information you need to convey. A large product catalogue is unlikely to work so well.

There’s no reason why the vertical approach can’t be mixed with the hierarchical. Some pages can be vertically designed but others could have nested content. I often ask customers to think about finding goods in a department store. If, upon entering the store, you were presented with every single product, it would be overwhelming. That’s the role of the menu – to divide down the store into logical departments. The visitor drills down to what’s wanted easily – it’s intuitive and not onerous.

The vertical equivalent of a department store would be to put every product on one long shelf, in one long corridor. For a certain number of products, it’s an exploratory experience. One of discovery. If there are too many products, it soon gets old. We’d need to reintroduce hierarchy to make it efficient.

As always with website design, it’s about the context – working out, from the information which needs to be presented, what’s the best approach.

What about search optimisation? Are vertical pages good or bad?

Again, it’s about the context. On the one hand, concentrating relevant topics (and therefore keywords) onto a smaller number of pages means that search engine love is (theoretically) more concentrated. You may have fewer pages, but these should rank better. On the other hand, the more content you throw at these pages, the more that keyword density gets watered down – and the weaker the search engine love. There’s no rule for what’s right and what’s wrong – the content itself will dictate that.

And that’s where we get back down to the deciding factor. As always, it’s the user. Information should always be architected around the needs of the user; this automatically means that it is likely to make most sense to search engines too. If it’s information overload for users, it will be saturation for Google, too – splitting it down into different pages won’t dilute your search engine love, it will simply focus it.

Whether you adopt a vertical page design isn’t down to fashion, fad or SEO (though SEO always needs considering), it’s deciding what’s the best way to present your specific information to your users. As always, the user comes first.