You may not have realized this, but your website navigation is the path to success on your website.
From how well you perform in search optimization and how user-friendly your website is to how likely visitors are to convert, there’s hardly any website function that well-planned web navigation can’t improve.
With all this in mind, it’s essential that you always follow the most up-to-date navigation best practices when you’re designing your website’s navigation structure.
In this guide, we’ll introduce you to the fundamentals of website navigation, explain why it’s so important and influential, and help you understand the best way to lay out your own website structure.
What is a website’s navigation?
In simple terms, website navigation just refers to how users are able to move from one page to another on your website.
This is achieved by providing them with links in various formats to follow until they find the desired content.
However, once you start designing a website of your own, you’ll discover that there is a fair amount of artistry that goes into designing navigation in a way that makes sense.
It may be that you want to make it as easy as possible for users to find a specific page, or you may want to guide them to content you’d like them to interact with. Either way, you need to use the right kind of navigation to keep them on track.
Later in this guide, we’ll introduce you to some tips to ensure that your navigation is optimized and advise you on some of the most common navigation errors to avoid.
Why is good website navigation important?
Let’s break down the three key areas where navigation is most important for your website.
Good website navigation helps users quickly and easily locate and access the information they’re looking for on your website.
When you start thinking about your user experience, navigation should be at the core of how you think about their needs. Make popular pages easy to find, and make all pages accessible through browsing or search.
Search engine optimization
Human visitors aren’t the only ones checking out your website navigation architecture. Search engines send bots, or little strings of code, to explore your website and check out your content.
When you optimize your website structure for search engines, you make it easy for them to not only find all your content in logical places but also to understand what’s behind each link.
This makes it easier for them to index your website and to send you the right kind of traffic.
Poor navigation won’t only confuse visitors and bots but can also hurt your bottom line. If you aim to encourage your visitors to convert, your navigation structure should push them towards your converting pages.
Websites optimized for conversions funnel users towards conversions, never leaving any deadends or distractions to take them off course.
Types of website navigation
Most websites will give users the option to navigate through their pages in a number of different ways.
Below, you’ll find brief descriptions of some of the most common and standard navigation elements you’ll encounter on websites.
When designing your own website, you should have a good idea of the options available to you for creating a navigation system and understand which are the most appropriate navigation tools for your needs.
The most common layout for navigation menus on websites is the horizontal navigation bar in the header of each page.
These bars offer navigation links to the most important pages on the website and present them side by side for users to select. You can think of them like a horizontal table of contents for your website.
It’s common for the links in the navigation bar to remain the same on each page of a website, making it easier for users to quickly navigate to key pages.
As the name suggests, dropdown menus are a form of navigation menu in which links are revealed in a list that drops down when you click or hover over an area of a page.
While not recommended for regular navigation, drop downs are a good solution if you have a lot of content on your website, and want to help users find the information they need without cluttering the page with navigation links.
The way a dropdown menu generally works is by listing top-level categories as the main menu, then having sub-categories and links to content below.
Footer menus are navigation menus that are located at the bottom of a web page. If a navigation bar does not include a link a user is looking for.
Footer menus tend to be used for function links — such as terms and conditions or
Footer menus will generally list a greater number of menu items than its navigation bar counterpart. This is due to the fact that, since it’s situated at the bottom of the page, web designers don’t worry about the links disrupting the user-friendly design.
A sidebar is similar to a horizontal navigation bar, but is located vertically on the side of a page with each menu item stacked above the next.
Being a less typical choice for navigation, which users are less used to, using a sidebar as your main menu is a striking choice.
Sidebars allow for more menu items to be presented, and give a unique aesthetic to pages.
Some sidebars will expand across the page to reveal more options for users.
Breadcrumbs, or breadcrumb navigation, is a way of helping users visually understand their location on your website, and the path they have taken to that point.
A reference to the classic fairytale Hansel and Gretel, a breadcrumb layout allows users to retrace their steps, to travel back and forth through your pages and subpages with ease.
The layout of breadcrumbs usually sees the higher-level pages on the left (the top-level page at the furthest left), with lower-level pages to the right, with greater than (>) symbols separating them.
Users can quickly navigate back to previous pages using the links at the top of the page.
Internal linking (in-content)
Linking from content within your pages is an important, if not less formalized, navigation tool.
Instead of having links in a menu, they are scattered around content, highlighting words or phrases that have associated content elsewhere on your website, and directing users to that content.
As well as making it easy for users to find more information on a given topic, content links give the impression that all the content on your website is interconnected.
Best practices that make good website navigation and UX
Now that you’ve got a good understanding of what website navigation is and its features, let’s look to the important website navigation best practices which you should follow when designing your own website.
While each of the navigation elements that we explored before have their own associated best practices, below we explore the website navigation best practices that can generally be applied to all websites.
Keeping these in mind when designing the web navigation for your own website will help improve your user experience, help your website perform better with search engines, and help you keep track of your pages and content.
Make sure to take note of each of them, and incorporate them whenever appropriate.
1. Don’t reinvent the wheel
While it’s true that good website design is about being creative, and trying to give website visitors a unique experience they’ll remember you for, there’s a lot to be said for sticking to established norms when creating your own web pages.
If all other websites are using a hamburger menu for navigation on mobile devices, then this is what visitors are going to expect when they visit your website on a smartphone.
If you throw in an arrow or some other unusual feature, you’re asking visitors to spend an extra couple of milliseconds trying to figure out where they need to click.
Remember that the goal of web design is to make your website navigation structure as easy for visitors to understand as possible. Throwing in curveballs is a surefire way to lose visitors and as a result lose out on conversions.
2. Make navigation elements clear and distinct
This might sound like some of the most obvious advice you will receive on the subject of website navigation, but it’s worth pointing out nevertheless: you should be sure that all the elements related to navigation are clear to see.
There’s no point creating a well-structured navigation menu if all you’re going to do is hide it from visitors. First and foremost, you should try and place menus, links, buttons, and other navigation elements prominently on your pages.
Put yourself in the mind of a user. Think about where you’d want to navigate and where you’d expect to find navigation options on each page.
If you’re not sure whether your links, buttons, and menus are positioned correctly and clear, you might try using a heatmap tool to see whether they’ll catch visitors’ attention.
You should also make sure that text links are in a contrast color to the rest of your content.
3. Make menus responsive
Since many visitors to your website will be using mobile devices, if you haven’t immersed yourself in responsive web design yet, then you really need to start thinking seriously about it.
Responsivity refers to your website’s ability to present every page and its content in an appropriate layout on any sized screen.
Many websites will make use of the hamburger menu approach to help make their navigation menu design responsive. Using a drop down hamburger menu as primary navigation on a mobile device helps keep the screen clear for content.
Remember, even if your target audience mostly uses desktop, responsive design isn’t just about user experience. The bots sent by search engines to crawl your website will also base your rankings on how mobile friendly your website is.
4. Be consistent
Similarly to making sure that your website’s navigation design doesn’t stray too far from that on other websites, you should also be sure that you are using a consistent navigation design language throughout your own website.
For instance, if you start with a hamburger menu on the top right of the screen on your home page, then visitors will reasonably expect to find it on the top right corner of every page.
Or if a link to your product pages can be found in the header navigation menu on one page, then don’t suddenly put it in the footer of another page.
Websites that work well for users generally keep their navigation style simple. They introduce visitors to the means to navigate around their pages as they arrive, and keep this consistent during their visit.
It’s all about ensuring that there are no surprises.
5. Be descriptive
On the topic of no surprises, you should also make a point of ensuring that each website navigation element you use clearly expresses the content on the page that your visitors are navigating to.
Visitors to your website will likely be suspicious of any links to which they don’t know the destination. They should be confident that they know where they’ll end up when they click any link.
There’s also an SEO advantage associated with making your navigation elements descriptive: by making it easier for search engines to index your website, it’s easier for visitors to find you.
If you’re unsure how you can make website navigation descriptive, you might think about including one of the following in each link or button:
- The title of the page linked to
- A summary of the contents on the page linked to
- A brief description of what visitors can do on the page linked to
6. Differentiate between navigation and calls to action
A call to action is a link, usually in the form of a button or banner, which invites visitors to take a certain action (usually to convert).
They are distinct from other elements of website navigation in that they are not simply designed to make it easy for visitors to find content they were already looking for, but takes them in a new direction.
Because of this, they should be clearly differentiated from other primary navigation elements.
Your home page, for example, may have a primary navigation menu at the top, a footer with navigation links, and then a number of other links within its content.
However, if you have a specific page you really want visitors to navigate to, then you should use a call to action to direct their behavior.
Consider using banners or buttons in contrasting colors to help them stand out.
7. Minimize clicks
While it’s nice to have plenty of navigation elements available to visitors, you should try and keep the need to click down to a minimum.
It helps to think of website navigation as a pathway. After landing on your website, there should be the fewest number of clicks possible between your visitors and the information or action they want to find.
This is why it’s so important to put links to popular or important content in your primary navigation menus.
You can use tools like Google Analytics to find out which your highest traffic pages are, and what your visitors are hoping to find on your website. You can then place links to these pages in prominent places on other pages and in your main website navigation menu.
You might also include search navigation options, to help visitors jump directly to the content they desire.
What is bad navigation? What to avoid when designing a site’s navigation?
Generic anchor text
Remember when we were saying that one most important things your navigation elements should be is descriptive? Well, one of the most common sins committed by website owners is to use overly generic text for links.
Not only will generic text make it hard for users to understand what’s behind a link they’re clicking, it can also make your website rank lower on search engine results.
Whatever you do, avoid using these or similar phrases when creating a link:
- Click here
- Find out more
- More information
Try and use the space you have to accurately describe the link destination.
Overcrowded navigation bars
There’s nothing that ruins the user-friendliness and sleek design of a navigation bar quite as much as too many navigation items.
The idea behind a header navigation bar is that you present the most important or common links that you want visitors to follow in an easy to find location.
By adding too many items, users will spend longer trying to locate their required links, and the overall appearance of your page design will suffer.
If you find you have too many links, consider relocating some of the less important ones to the footer menu.
Sprawling drop down menus
While they’re useful for web designers to hide loads of links, users regularly report that drop down menus are annoying.
Moreover, if there is too much content hiding in drop downs, they simply become unhelpful for visitors to use.
If you must use a drop down menu, be sure to keep them relatively short and simple. Don’t include too many sub-menus, and only use them when absolutely necessary.
Broken or mislabeled links
Have you ever tried navigating around a website only to discover that the link you’re clicking is taking you to the wrong page, or isn’t even taking you away from the page you’re on?
Well, then you’ve experienced broken or mislabeled links.
These occur when the person creating a website is does not take enough care to ensure that the links they are adding take users where they’re intended to, or else move pages around or delete them without removing links.
This can be avoided in a number of ways:
- Double check whenever adding a link that it works and takes users to the correct page
- Regularly check links on your website using a link checker tool
- Be mindful of removing links every time you remove a page
We’ve talked a lot about how you can present links in various kinds of menus, but we have not spoken yet much about which links to include there.
The links in the most prominent positions in navigation bars and menus should be those that users are most likely to be searching for.
One common mistake is to either make incorrect assumptions about what users want, or simply put undesired links in main navigation areas.
Not only will this mean users are less likely to click on those links, but they’ll spend longer looking for the links they actually want.
This can be an ongoing process. Keep track of which are the most commonly visited pages on your website and move links to those pages into prominent positions in your navigation menus.
In designing an attractive and effective website, consistency is key. As we mentioned before, users should be able to quickly understand the layout of your website, and not fall into any surprises.
This is why one of the most common mistakes is for website creators to deviate from their own rules when adding navigation around their website.
Foremost among the issues here is the tendency to change which links are available in the top navigation bar from one page to another. This may lead to users clicking links they did not mean to follow, or being unable to find the page they’re looking for.
This is one of the most simple mistakes to avoid. Simply make sure you are consistent in the design and layout of your navigation links throughout your website.