information scent
n. The visual and linguistic cues that enable a searcher to determine whether a source, particularly a website, has the information they seek, as well as to navigate to the desired data.
In an information space like the Web, the goal is to get from one place to another, from here to there. The Web is vast, however, and spatial notions of up and down, right and left do not apply. About the only movements possible on the Web are from general to specific (when browsing through a website hierarchy), from one website to another following a link, or direct access using a search engine. In all these cases, but especially when browsing, visual and verbal cues are required to let us know that we are on the right path to the desired information. These cues are the pieces of information scent that we are following, and we choose the cues with the best likelihood (the strongest scent) of getting us to the desired destination.
—Jason Withrow, “Do your links stink?,” American Society for Information Science Bulletin, June 01, 2002
2000 (earliest)
We propose that the notion of information scent, developed in information foraging theory can be used to predict the circumstances under which the attentional spotlight will be affected by the density of information in a visualization. Information scent is provided by the proximal cues perceived by the user that indicate the value, cost of access, and location of distal information content. In the context of foraging for information on the World Wide Web, for example, information scent is often provided by the snippets of text and graphics that surround links to other pages. The proximal cues provided by these snippets give indications of the value, cost, and location of the distal content on the linked page. Computational modeling of human information foraging suggests that users' browsing choices are based on the evaluation of information scent.
—Peter Pirolli, “The Effect of Information Scent on Searching Information: Visualizations of Large Tree Structures,” Advanced Visual Interfaces, May 01, 2000
Information scent is a component of information foraging. When animals are foraging for food, they often use scent to determine whether a particular area is worth investigating. Hunters, for example, will sniff around for evidence that prey has been in the area.

Web searchers do something similar. When they first arrive at a site, they examine the images and text to determine whether the site has what they're looking for. Someone looking for device drivers, for example, will hunt for a link labeled "Downloads" or, even better, "Device Drivers." Labels such as "Products" and "Purchase" aren't as promising — that is, they don't give off a good information scent.
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