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  • April 7, 2013


The Essential Guide to Designing Efficient Website Navigation

This is a simple explanation in Website Navigation, but it seems that even the basics are often overlooked.

Well organized on-site navigation is an essential part of website design and overall performance. Poor navigation is like buying someone a brand new car, showing them the exterior, and then giving them a blindfold. They will see the car you have bought but will fumble about trying to get in and will never fully appreciate the quality of the interior.

Site navigation should be foremost in your mind when a website is being designed, it should never be an afterthought. Pre-planning is everything. Trying to cram in various links you forgot after the site is completed spells disaster. Think about how visitors are going to traverse about your site and how you can make this journey as attractive and simplistic as possible.

Before discussing the 5 essential elements crucial to an efficient on-site navigation system, there is one all-empowering universal rule that you need to know:

The Navigation Golden Rule

THE 3-CLICK RULE: All pages on a website should be accessible within 3-clicks of the homepage.

No matter what page a reader wants to access on your website, the page should be no more than 3-clicks away from the site’s homepage. It is alleged that search engine crawlers will only index your website pages to a maximum of 3 links deep. So having a precise, efficient navigation system in place is essential.

The Top 5 Navigation Essentials

1. Leave a Breadcrumb Trail

A breadcrumb trail can often be seen on the better-optimized websites and is one of the most user-friendly navigational tools at your disposal. A breadcrumb trail allows visitors to see their exact location within your site and permits then to jump back to any point along the hierarchical navigational path that led to the page they are presently on.

Breadcrumb trails should be visible just below your top navigation panel and will look something like this:

Home>News>Today’s Stories>Weird Tales>Man Eaten by Mouse

If a reader is currently reading the “Man Eaten by Mouse” story, he or she instantly knows that this is part of the ‘Weird Tales’ section. This section belongs to ‘Today’s Stories’ which in turn is part of the ‘News’ category. All main categories should be visible from the homepage’s navigational links. At any point, a reader can click on any of the breadcrumb trail components and be taken to any of the sections listed within the trail.

This style of hierarchical linking is an essential part of an efficient navigational system.

2. Categorize and Compartmentalize

Segmenting website content into sub-categories and sections is crucial. A website that has all its content jumbled about under one generic heading is an organizational catastrophe. No visitors want to wade through pages of irrelevant content to discover what they are really searching for. To provide a user-friendly website you must provide clear categories and compartmentalize your content into easily searchable sections with clear navigational links.

Take the example in the breadcrumb trail. The homepage had a News category. This then had a Today’s Stories section, which was then broke down again into Weird Tales. The Weird Tales category held the ‘Man Eaten by Mouse’ story. One-click to News, two-clicks to Today’s Stories, and three- clicks led to Weird Tales and its ‘Man Eaten by Mouse’ content. The 3-click golden rule is still in force.

The homepage could easily have navigational links for: News; Products; Services; Contact Us; About Us etc. Any of these could then be broken into sub-categories. The News section had Weird Tales but could also have included: Media; Entertainment; Politics etc. The actual topics are not relevant here but the systematic approach to segmenting website content into easily searchable content is.

Break large topics into smaller categories, compartmentalize the additional content in those categories, and organize your site’s structural architecture to provide a clear navigational linking system that visitors can search and follow.

3. Instant Access to the Homepage

Every page of your website should have an instant link back to your homepage. This should always be clear. This can be achieved by various methods. You can include a ‘Home’ button in your main navigation section, either top or left (ideally you would have both). The Home link will also be visible and easily accessible to a visitor through your site’s breadcrumb trail.

Another valuable technique is to link your site logo or main header back to your homepage. Most search users now expect a logo or header to link back to the primary site page and will often use this as a shortcut to return, so it is advisable to implement this utility into your own site design.

4. Consistency

There is nothing worse than seeing a different navigational system on each page or section of a website. It screams unprofessional. Overall site consistency is an essential part of efficient web design. Visitors do not want to search about trying to figure out how to navigate around your website. Internal navigation should not only be simple, it needs to stay consistent.

If the News link is the second link on the homepage, it should be the second link on every other page. If you have a problem with maintaining a consistent navigation system while using HTML to code your site, try switching to CSS style sheets.

On-site navigation should be consistent with your overall site design and the various sections and categories it contains must always remain firmly seated in the exact same place throughout your site content.

5. Always Provide a Sitemap

Sitemaps are essential. Not only do they provide visitors with an instant overview of your entire site’s layout, they are used by search engine crawlers to assist in navigating and indexing your site’s content.

You may assume having a top and side navigation system, plus a breadcrumb trail, is more than adequate. This is a fatal mistake. Sitemaps are vital. It can be seriously detrimental to your site search engine rankings if you fail to include a sitemap.

Sitemaps are simple to create. If you don’t feel like going to the trouble manually there are many free websites and independent software programs that will do the task for you.

Here is a free website that will create a sitemap for you:

All you need to do is follow the simple instructions and be able to upload to your website’s “public_html/” folder.

Stop Hiding Your Site Content

If you have gone to all the trouble to create a glorious website full of quality content you would be insane to purposely hide it from visitors. Without clear, concise, efficient navigation this is basically what you will be doing.

A website needs a well-organized hierarchical structure to begin with. This makes navigational design simple. Plan the layout of your website and plot the route to each of your pages. Then create navigational links that visitors will understand. The best navigational system is one that is uncomplicated, direct, and consistent.

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