One of the biggest breakdowns I see most often in website architecture is sites with poor navigation.
On a pure usability level, navigation has one job: help visitors find the information they need. But in reality, there is a lot more going on under the hood that makes a site navigation succeed (or fail).
Navigation plays a role in usability, findability, search indexing, internal link optimization, and content optimization.
All told, navigation provides a framework for a site’s structure and contributes to both user- and search-friendliness.
Get your navigation wrong, and you’ll find an otherwise stellar-looking website performing poorly on a number of key success metrics.
Get it right, and you have the foundation for building a high-performance website on all levels.
Building an Efficient Navigational Structure
When it comes to navigation, what is “efficient” for one site may not be efficient for another. Each site is unique and will have unique navigational characteristics.
Here are some things to consider:
- Where should your navigation be on the page?
- What information needs to be presented in the global navigation?
- How many categories / sub-categories should you include?
- Should you use drop down (or fly out) menus?
- If space is limited, what navigation items do you include or exclude?
How these questions get answered often starts with understanding the two types of navigation links. Links that are:
Every site has both. Sometimes they are grouped together into a single navigation bar and sometimes they are separated visually.
While I have a preference (separate), both are essential because they serve two distinct purposes.
If you care at all about sales and conversions, you need to prioritize your navigation on what your customers want.
Unfortunately, most sites focus on the company navigation items and the customers get the short straw. This is exactly opposite of what your navigation should be.
One of the first questions I ask when performing a website audit is if the visitor saw nothing more than the navigation portion of the website, would they know if the site will satisfy their need?
If your products or services are hidden under a single link item labeled “shop” or “services”, then the answer is likely “no.”
Take a look at the two navigations below. Which one tells you immediately what the company offers?
Both companies are manufacturers, but only one makes that clear through their navigation. And the visitor doesn’t have to search, read content, or click to know it!
You can make the argument that the visitor should already know if they typed in your URL or clicked the link from Google, but why assume?
Why keep your visitors guessing when you can provide the information (and the links) for what they want without forcing them to hunt for it?
But what about Contact Us and About Us Links? Those are important too, right?
Yes, absolutely. But not as important.
Visitors are only interested in looking at those (or other company-focused pages) once they get further into the buying process. Those pages assist with the sale, but you have to show them that you have what they want first.
The second navigational focus is to provide links that point visitors to information about your company.
As I said above, these navigational elements are important but are secondary to the customer navigation items.
As such, they should be segmented visually as well. This can be done my making these less prominent (or hidden behind a hamburger menu), but still easily accessible.
You can see in the KTC example above that they have their company focused navigation above the customer. Now, that’s still too loud for my liking, but the segmentation still works.
Here is another site that puts the customer nav first but offers the company nav in a less obtrusive way:
All the important items are there and easily findable, but secondary to the products that visitors want. This allows visitors to easily find and click those pages when they want them, but they are out of the way until the visitor is ready for them.
While your company-focused links might vary, here are some pretty much universal navigation links that should be visible:
- Logo link – You can add a separate “home” link if you like but always be sure the logo links to the home page.
- About Us – This can be an important page for those deciding who they want to do business with.
- Contact Link – Don’t make visitors hunt for a way to get in touch with you.
- Phone Number – While phone calls are often not preferred by the business, sometimes they are preferred by the customer. Without it, you risk losing them.
- Search Bar – Provide a way to search for your products or information.
- Checkout/Cart – Much like a contact link, you want visitors to be able to get to their cart and check out easily.
There are some exceptions to these options above and those typically fall into the lines of the size of your business.
Certain well-known brands don’t necessarily need About Us links and don’t necessarily want (or need) people to be able to contact them easily.
When you pretty much have more business than you know what to do with, you can afford to move those links to your footer, or even remove them altogether.
But when you’re looking for every new customer you can get, consider carefully before you do.
Ecommerce Navigation Issues
The challenges for ecommerce websites magnify the importance of establishing a clear and proper navigation for your website.
Your navigation is not only for the purposes of helping your visitors get the content they need, but ensuring the search engines can better find and index pages so they can be found in search.
While the top level navigation is important in ecommerce sites, other navigational options can be equally, if not more important overall.
One of the best opportunities to get additional products in front of your audience is by adding links to products related to the one a customer is viewing. These can be in the form of:
- “Similar” products.
- Add-ons or accessories.
- Popular items.
- Recently viewed products.
Any (or all) of these options offer a way for you to increase the average visitor order, while also throwing additional link equity toward other pages.
Amazon does a great job of offering additional products. In my search for 12 Monkeys (the single greatest sci-fi show in existence!), Amazon offers additional products that customers viewed and bought: