The debate over the merits of continuous, infinite scrolling versus pagination rages on among website designers. The problem with contrasting these two options lies in assuming that choosing one or the other represents a coin toss between two equals.

If that’s all they represent to you, you’ve missed the real question, which is this: “Which types of websites make the best use of infinite scrolling or pagination?” This isn’t an arbitrary selection, like whether to have cereal or toast at breakfast. If you view it as such, you run the risk of creating websites that yield a frustrating visitor experience.

Infinite Scrolling: Movement Without End

Infinite scrolling abounds on sites that present an equally infinite “roll” of content, especially those that assemble more results and add them to the page as you scroll through an initial batch of material. It’s like a bottomless cup of coffee, endlessly refilled regardless of whether you want more.

Visitors’ first clue that they’ve landed on a website that uses infinite scrolling comes when they don’t see a conventional scroll bar, or one that behaves conventionally. Scroll bars serve a second purpose beyond the act of navigating through page content, sending an important signal to the visitor: If there’s more content here than you see when the page loads, the length of the scroll bar tells you so. Infinite scrolling violates this cardinal rule of online experience.

Pagination: Bite-Sized Morsels

Some website visitors assume that pagination always represents a site owner’s attempts to add more advertising or score more clicks, but sometimes, it simply offers the best way to present large amounts of information and organize it in chapter-style segments. Pagination can make website visitors happy because it signals how much information a page contains. Land on a paginated site, and its scroll bar gives you immediate feedback about what’s ahead. If you’ve reached a search results page to look for specific information, pagination tells you whether you’ll need to keep scrolling or load another page, even before you see a next-page link.

One-Size-Fits-All Solutions Don’t Exist

Before you add infinite scrolling to your website, think about the type of content you present and decide how best to present it. If you offer an endless smorgasbord of “but wait, there’s more,” then infinite scrolling may make sense for you in a Twitter-like stream of updates. If your content provides a great way to fritter away idle time reading a simple chronology or unhierarchical presentation, infinite scrolling keeps visitors moving along without the buzz kill of a “Next Page” button. These visitors show up because they’re willing to discover something unexpected and new, to explore a series of equally important items in search of something that’s important to them. Infinite scrolling helps keep them reading.

Opt for pagination, however, and you aid conversion. Users find what they want and click on it, leading them to a product page and a purchase rather than another half hour of scrolling. Yes, retaining visitors has its value, too, in enhancing engagement with your site, but that engagement isn’t the behavior you want all the time.

Specific Pluses and Minuses

If you run an e-commerce site, presenting product search results on an infinitely scrolling page interferes with the ability to sort, filter, and triage items based on feature options, reviews, or availability. When you present reader comments on an article, pagination may turn visitors away because they don’t want to click a link to see more, and paginated results force them to confront the sheer volume of responses on an article that prompts many comments.

Do your visitors return to your site multiple times to obtain the same result or find the same information? Infinite scrolling impedes their ability to locate an item they’ve seen before, one they could find easily if you gave them page numbers to remember. Does your site present instructions, tutorials, or other how-to content? Pagination makes it difficult to complete a lesson because parts of it become invisible on a prior page.

Infinite scrolling irritates visitors who feel as if they have landed in a bottomless pit of information instead of one with groupings, segments, and sections. Pagination’s frustrations typically stem from the loss of information and context that occurs when visitors switch pages. How many teaspoons of sugar does the recipe contain? To what question on page 3 does the answer on the top of page 4 correspond?

You may think scroll bars have become too old school for your brand of modernism, but remember the valued cues those same bars provide. Without them, the encounter with your content mimics a conversation with someone who never stops talking.

The Bottom Line

For sites that present long swaths of user-generated material, sequences of visual results, or both, infinite scrolling makes infinite sense. Think Twitter and Facebook: These sites go on as long as their content can reach. Infinite scrolling also helps you achieve load balancing, keeping tabs on the amount of content you serve up.

If you present the answers to questions–the pot of gold at the end of the researcher’s quest– pagination makes results digestible for goal-oriented visitors. Look online to read the frustrations of people who want to turn off infinite scrolling on search results.

When analyzing your content doesn’t resolve the choice between infinite scrolling and pagination, put on your visitor hat and look at your website from the user’s perspective. After all, your site exists to attract people, not just to occupy Web space. Both presentation methods offer advantages and disadvantages. The trick lies in matching your choice to the site it serves.