What is Website Navigation?
Simple. It’s how site visitors get from here to there on your web site.
Web site navigation includes:
- a main navigation menu, usually at the top of the page
- a menu column (usually on the right or left side of the page)
- dropdown and fly-out menus (that appear when the visitor clicks on a navigation tab)
- embedded text links (usually in blue text)
- links from one web site page to another
There are lots of ways for people to navigate a web site and most of us have become familiar with the conventions used by web site designers. However, if your site’s navigation is confusing or ambiguous, site visitors aren’t going to show a lot of patience. They bounce to the next site and you just lost a sale.
A clear, simple, straightforward navigation that anyone can understand keeps visitors exploring your web site. It also keeps them on site longer – long enough to perform the most desired action – like place an order or pick up the telephone and call you.
Site navigation requires a little intuition. Where do you think a visitor will go? What words should you use on your navigation bar? What happens if the visitor ends up on the wrong page? When designing site navigation, think like a site visitor thinks.
When testing the site before launch, intentionally make mistakes because at least some site visitors will make the same mistakes.
Then, use a little common sense to design web site navigation that actually delivers the visitors to the exact pages they’re looking for.
1. Create a navigation bar.
This is the most common, and therefore, most familiar form of navigation – a bar or row of links that take visitors to the information they’re looking for – from the “About Us” page to a specific page of products.
The navigation bar should always appear in the same place on every page of the site. It’s what visitors expect.
2. Choose navigation tab labels carefully.
If you have an “About Us” page link as part of your navigation bar, any visitor who clicks on that link is expecting some information about you or the company. If, instead, they see another long-form sales letter, they won’t be happy. In fact, they might be a little confused since they thought they were going to learn something about the company, services, products and principals, NOT more sales copy.
Another consideration: if you saw a navigation tab that labeled “SIPs” would you click on it? Well, unless you knew that SIPs are Structured Insulated Panels used in home construction, probably not.
Don’t assume that the individual visiting your site understands the terms and jargon of your industry. Your visitor may be the CFO who wouldn’t know an SIP if it fell in her lap. Keep labeling simple so that ANYONE can understand it.
3. Don’t overload the navigation bar.
If your site employs dozens of zones requiring dozens of links, use a column approach to navigation. Give up one-quarter of each page to create a list of links. This eliminates the need to stuff a bunch of tabs on a bar at the top of the page.
4. Use mouse-overs.
Mouse-overs change the color of a tab when the visitor rolls the mouse cursor over the link. This tells the visitor that the link is active and, to access that particular page, just click.
In general, guide the visitor every step of the way with visual cues like mouse-overs to help them on their journey through your web site.
5. Use embedded text links.
The objective of a well-optimized site is to pull site visitors deeper and deeper into the site. Visitors who stop by the home page and click off are called bounces. They don’t buy anything and they never perform the most desired action.
Embedded text links are usually displayed in blue text and they signal the site visitor that, by clicking on that link, they’ll be taken to another page – another page with more information about that blue text.
Embedded text links provide links in “context,” that is, the site visitor reads the site text and, in context, comes across a link that will (hopefully) provide more information about the topic of the link.
6. Avoid dead-ends or you’re dead.
Always give site visitors the means to get back to the beginning – to the home page, in case they want to start over a search. The worst mistake you can make is to send a visitor down a dead-end link – a link that requires the user to click the back button on his browser.
First, a lot of web surfers don’t even know there IS a back button on their browsers. The popular browser, Firefox, requires users to manually install a back button, so never assume that a visitor can always back out of a dead end link.
Second, there are millions of web users who don’t even know what a browser is. So, if they use Internet Explorer, Google’s Chrome, Firefox or some other browser, they won’t understand how to set preferences so all browser functions remain in default mode.
7. Never provide a web site navigation link that takes visitors off your web site.
You see this all the time. One web site that sells a book actually sends visitors to Amazon to place a book order. Well, for all you know, site visitors may never come back to your web site. They may spend an hour browsing the Amazon site.
Make sure your site provides ALL of the information and tools required to perform the most desired action on the web site itself. It takes a lot of time, effort and money to get a visitor to land on your site. Why in the world would you ever send them to another site knowing they may never return – or only return by hitting the back button on their browsers? (See #6)
8. Keep all navigation consistent throughout the site.
If you use a navigation bar on the home page, make sure you use the same navigation bar on every page. Same with a menu column. Keep labels the same and placement of the navigation tool in the same place so visitors don’t have to look for the link that takes them where they want to go.
9. Keep it really simple.
One web site (that shall remain nameless) offers 19 different links off the home page. It looks like a circus carnival!
Again, your objective is to pull visitors deeper in to the site so keep the navigation simple. Use dropdown and fly-out menus to enable visitors to access specific pages of your site, pulling them deeper into the site.
10. Create a site map.
This saves times and eliminates navigation issues.
A site map shows how different web pages are connected. An important content page may be accessible through several different links. That’s okay if the information is critical to the visitor. You WANT visitors to find that information.
Draw a diagram of the different pages of your intended web site. Then add the connectors showing how visitors will get from here to there.
It’s a lot easier to discover and fix a dead end link at this stage then after the site has been built.
If you’re building your own web site, all you’ve done is waste some time. But, if you’re paying to have that web site built and optimized, a fix like that is going to mean extra out-of-pocket expense – something you can’t afford with a start-up.
Finally, one bonus tip that applies to site navigation, site text and everything else about web site design: it’s better to be clear than clever. Think about that.
You may have a very clever label for a navigation tab – an industry-insider pun, for example. Well, those who work within the industry may get a chuckle at how clever you are but the rest of your site visitors won’t get the joke and may, in fact, be confused.
Web Site Navigation
Your web site navigation should be simple, straightforward and 100% functional. Labels should be clearly understood by any site visitor. Assume no knowledge on the part of the people who visit your on-line business site.
They may not have any knowledge of your business.