Navigating Your Way into Your Visitors` Hearts

I hate getting lost, whether it’s on the road or online. Guess what? So do your visitors. Just as we expect to see signs on the road to help us find our way, there exist “rules of the road” for web site navigation design. Break these at your peril.

This topic is slightly unusual, and not as widely discussed in SEO circles as other topics, so let me break things down by describing the elements of a web site, at least the way I see them. The first element is content, and it is the most important. The second element is the “frame” in which that content is placed, whether that’s a cookie-cutter template or something you’ve built especially for your site. (For purposes of this article, I mean both the visual appearance and the code behind that appearance). The third element is the site’s structure, or navigation, and that’s the focus of this article.

Why is your web site’s navigation important? It’s very simple: when your web site is easy for visitors to navigate, they can find what they’re looking for more quickly. When they can find what they want more quickly, they’re more likely to trust you and see you as a professional. That positive experience will make them want to return again and again. Happy visitors who think well of you are more likely to do what you want them to do: sign up for a newsletter, fill out a form, buy your products and so forth.

Does that sound a little far-fetched? It shouldn’t. Think about your own web surfing experiences. But if you need another reason to make your web site’s navigation user-friendly, consider this: it might improve your position on the search engine results pages. Don’t believe me? Okay, let me give you an example.

Say you have a web site that sells, among other things, digital cameras. You have a “digital cameras” main category, with subcategories for “point and shoot digital cameras,” “professional digital cameras,” or whatever terms a typical searcher would use to find those kinds of cameras (which you know because you did your keyword research). When Google’s spider comes along to index your site, it will see the main menu page and take note of the main categories and subcategories, along with the structure. Because you’ve made sure that your navigation is text-based rather than image-based, Google can read it, and assigns strong relevance to those pages for those particular words. This means you’re more likely to make a good showing in the SERPs, be seen by someone searching for those keywords, and attract more traffic.

The World Wide Web has been around long enough to evolve certain principles of site navigation. Visitors to your site expect certain things when they move through its structure because they’ve learned that most web sites are put together a certain way. It means more than just being able to click on certain links and going to another page in the site. It dictates where you should put your navigation, how you structure it, and how many options you give your visitors.

You should make your site navigation as usable as possible. Never allow your site navigation to break. Have you ever tried to follow a broken link? Those “404 Not Found” pages are pretty depressing, especially when you know your information is correct (as it should be if you’re coming from a site’s own navigation link). It’s like discovering the road to which your GPS directs you doesn’t exist, and there isn’t an alternate route. Your visitors will abandon your site when they can’t find what they’re looking for.

That includes finding the site navigation in the first place. Navigation bars these days have a “standard” location; they’re either on the left hand side of the site or near the top. Very often you’ll find navigation bars in both places. I’ve been working on a web site with a friend of mine who wanted to put the navigation on the right; when I tried to use it, it seemed awkward. I’m not saying you shouldn’t put navigation on the right or even on the bottom; just don’t use right-side-only or bottom-only navigation.

Here’s another thing users expect: an easy way back to the home page. Usually the home page is the easiest starting point for exploring any portion of a site, so visitors may return there regularly while checking out the other parts of your site. It’s a good idea, therefore, to have your logo on every page – traditionally in the upper left corner – and set it up to take visitors back to the home page whenever they click on it.

It’s also a good idea to have an additional link on every page that goes to the home page. It may sound redundant, but users won’t always think to click on the logo when they’re wondering “How do I get back to the home page?” As with your logo, place this link in a consistent location on every page of your site.

Breadcrumbs don’t work well for navigating through the woods, but they’re great for helping visitors pinpoint their location on a web site. In the real world we have signs and maps for that. Breadcrumbs should reflect the way your site is organized, and help show visitors what path they took to get to where they are. You can’t stay lost when you can always see where you are and where you’ve been.

You might think you’re being good to your visitors by providing them with lots of options – plenty of buttons to push to get to where they need to go. While options are usually a good thing, too many options can be overwhelming. Try not to include more than seven options in your primary navigation. If you need more than that, you may want to reconsider your site’s organization. Instead of creating separate full-fledged categories for “Pots and Pans,” “Small Appliances,” “Silverware” and “Dishes,” for example, you could lump all four under a larger category named “Kitchen.”

You can make very effective use of color changes as a visual cue to help your visitors. For example, on most web sites, when you’ve visited any particular page, the next time a link to that page shows up, it’s a different color. That signifies to the visitor that he or she has already seen that page. If you’re using tabs in your site’s navigation, you can set things up so that the tab (category) that a visitor is currently viewing is a different color, making it stand out from the others.

If this reminds you forcefully of the fact that the web is a VISUAL medium, let me add a word of caution before you get too artistically inspired. A beautiful web site is a fine thing – as long as it is readable. One blog listed among its “10 Commandments of Site Navigation” this one, which should go over the desk of web site designers everywhere: “Thou Shalt Not Use Fancy, Unreadable Fonts.” Graphics are a joy to behold – and they have no place whatsoever in site navigation.

If you still feel tempted to use graphics in your site navigation, remember that you have no control over what browser(s) your visitors will use to navigate their way to your site. If you don’t want to lose traffic, your site’s navigation must be usable by the lowest common denominator. If it isn’t, remember that your competitors’ sites are only a click or two away.

If that thought makes you balk, remember that search engine spiders will also stop by to index your site – and they can’t handle graphics. If you put graphics in your site’s navigation, you may be preventing the spiders from completely indexing your site – and thus sabotaging yourself when it comes to getting a good position on the search engine results pages.

Let’s talk a little more about what visitors expect from site navigation, and what will help them find their way. If you don’t yet have a site map, you should consider building one for your site — and if you already have a site map, you should make it easy for visitors to get to it from every page on your site. If you have a really complicated site, you might want to add a search engine to it. Like the site map, this should be accessible from all pages on your site; the “traditional” location for it is on the top right.

You might have a web site that requires users to log in. If you do, remember that logging in and logging out are functions that any user will want to accomplish quickly. Therefore, you should put a login link on every page in a set location; ditto for a logout button. You could even set things up so that the two alternate smoothly (displaying the login link only for users who aren’t logged in yet, and the logout button only for users who are logged in). While there doesn’t seem to be a hard-and-fast rule as to where this function is located, I’ve seen it most commonly near the top of the web page, somewhat to the right of center.

Users may want to contact a company for any number of reasons: ask a question, register a complaint, buy a product, check on the status of an order, etc. Company web sites should have a “Contact Us” page that, like the home page, can be reached from any page on the web site. Whatever contact information you put on that page, make sure that you can respond promptly.

Once you finish sorting out your site’s navigation, try using it to find your way through your web site. Then have some friends and family try it out. Watch them while they’re going through the site; ask them for suggestions, and take notes, but do not try to explain or defend your choices. You won’t be there to defend it when visitors come to your site and use your navigation, and they have the ultimate refutation to that kind of defense anyway – the back button.

Take your notes and use them to improve your site’s navigation. Then test out your site’s navigation again. Strive to make it smooth and intuitive. Remember the old saw “if you build it, they will come”? If you build it right, they’ll not only come, they’ll stay – and keep coming back. Good luck!

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