Best Practices

Navigation - A fundamental part of any website - The How to guide.

31. 03. 2014

When your company decides to redesign or refresh your website, one of the first things that must be addressed is the navigation.  As a fundamental piece of a website's structure.  A properly built navigation will make finding information easier for your users, can improve conversions and as well help search engines understand your site to rank it appropriately.

A common but misguided strategy that many businesses pursue is building their navigation with SEO as the first priority. This results in keyword-heavy navigation that is not as helpful to users as it could be. As a side effect, keywords get stuffed into pages that don’t belong, leaving the site looking spammy or simply unprofessional.

Our research into visitor flow and conversion optimization suggests this basic strategy: navigation should be built with brand and user in mind first; then make sure it's search engine-friendly.

A Real World Example

To put it in a non-technical perspective, think of Home Depot.

If you were to drive to Home Depot, the first thing you would see is their sign. This is the brand, and is the most prominent element of the storefront. You don't see 'Home Depot - garden supplies, gardening supplies, gardening tools, etc'. That would look ridiculous, and in fact, would waterdown the brand.

However, once you enter the store, everything is laid out in a simple, easy-to-understand pattern. Sections or aisles of the store are dedicated to different areas such as plumbing or electrical. As you traverse the aisles, they are further segmented by product, such as PVC pipe, copper pipe, etc.

Although the online and off-line worlds are very different, you can see the point I'm trying to make here.

What to Do

Start with your content. Collect all the materials you would like to have on the website.  Organize it into similar themes or topics. Then think about how it should flow, meaning at what point of the visitors’ journey each topic should be presented.

Most websites will have two main navigations: primary and secondary.  The primary navigation is the topics that are most important and what most users are interested in.  This may include services, portfolio, price and contact information. Primary navigation will often have a secondary menu that further breaks down the primary topic.  Secondary navigation is the less important topics to primary, but still need focus. Depending on the purpose of the website, these may include advertising, FAQ, company history, etc.

Some sites have another navigation for logged in users that is even more specific to the type of user who is logged in.

Keep your navigation simple and user-centric. Start with your brand as the base, then spread out into your different categories. From there, branch into specific products or product categories. Your industry’s way of organizing this content may be different then a visitor’s expectations or understanding so it’s crucial to take the time to analyze this.  You may purposely want to force a visitor to take a certain path and/or provide different ways to accomplish the same goal. 

We often describe an optimized architecture as an upside-down tree.

On a technical level, the folder (or rewrite) structure should follow the navigation of your site. This means if you have product such Men’s > Shirts > Hawaiian, the URL structure should reflect that. 

The main point though is not to let search engine marketing (SEM) concerns force the way you build the navigation. This is because the navigation is the architecture of your site and affects the interface. A good navigation should be legible, succinct and make sense to your visitor.

Best Practices

Take a minute to imagine an average prospect, someone who may not have heard of your company, and they’ve just landed on your home page. This visitor has a mission. The purpose of the navigation is to help the visitor accomplish his/her mission.   For a restaurant, this may be as simple as the hours you are open and how to reserve a table.  For a large online retailer, it may be something completely different.

If you are redesigning your website, it's useful to use Analytics to understand the traffic patterns of your current website to help create your upcoming navigation. Take a look at the most visited pages as well as the visitor flow to decide what needs to be the most prominent navigation items, and which areas you can cut or improve upon.

A common approach is to organize your navigation so it mirrors your typical prospect’s buying process.

Tone and Language

One overlooked aspect of navigation is the wording and tone. Businesses generally take a utilitarian approach to this aspect which can work in many circumstances. It should be noted though that the wording of navigation could help improve your brand throughout your site.

The type of  wording changes such as replacing 'contact us' with 'contact' or 'get in touch' could change the way people feel about your branding and could also affect the conversion rate of your overall website. Even simple wording changes such as the difference between 'about us' and 'company' should be considered from a tone and branding perspective.

Spelling is also important.  If you are a Canadian company who sell to the U.S., which English spelling will you use?

What To Do With The Typical Pages

As noted above, navigation needs to be simple and easy to understand. This means giving prominence to the most important facets of your website up front and having other levels of navigation for less important items.

Understanding the different audiences that will use the website, their needs and how to achieve your business objectives will help decide how much prominence to give each section of content.  For example, some business are required to place privacy policies, legal terms and other compliance notices up front whereas others can give them a lot less attention.  Some businesses don't want to give attention to contact information or support information.

Regardless of importance, we suggest having a sitemap that provides links to all the pages on the website as a key navigation tool.

How Does This Affect SEO?

The architecture of your website has a direct impact on how Google understands your site. What all search engines really want is for you to optimize individual pages for their appropriate keywords, instead of trying to rank all of your keywords on the homepage. This is akin to Home Depot trying to fit all of their product categories into the sign on their storefront.

One of the biggest SEO factors related to navigation is how HTML title tags are set up. This is a serious topic, and therefore merits its own article!

Trends In Navigation

Common trends being used today in website navigation:

  1. In the past, there was typically a 'home' navigation button that helped people get back to the main page of a website. Instead, websites are now using the logo as the home button.
  2. Social network links are being separated from any other navigation.  They are being given their own focus.
  3. Fancier font styles are also being used. With recent advances in browsers, many fonts no longer need to be images, which in the past have  caused issues around flexibility and search engine compatibility.

Hope you found this article useful. If you would like us to help with your site architecture or navigation, contact us.

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