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7 Navigation Best Practices to Boost User Experience

A good website navigation and a good user experience go hand in hand.

Navigation dictates how a user moves around your website. The better they move around, the better the experience and they more likely they are to convert.

By following a few navigation best practices, you can create a more effective user experience.

First things first: what type of navigation do you choose?

Types of website navigation

  • Horizontal Text is probably the most common online. As the name would suggest, it’s a horizontal list of the pages on the website.
  • Vertical Text is common for a for sites that need a long list of pages. Usually (but not always) found on the left hand side.
  • Drop downs are often found in horizontal navs. They allow a user to jump between main and sub sections.
  • Sub menus sit below the main navigation and presents users with pages upfront. Though unconventional, they do show a user all the pages available.
  • Icon navigation uses graphics to help create a more intuitive browsing experience.

So what’s the importance of website navigation?

The structure of your website navigation and the labels you use in it can have a huge impact on the overall performance of your site. Particularly when it comes to UX, SEO and conversions.
Don’t see the importance of having a well thought out navigation?

Let’s say you were looking to buy a badass off-roading vehicle (and why wouldn’t you). Which site are you more likely to browse and buy from?

Site #1 – buyareeper.com

Or site #2 – arngren.net

I think I’ve made my point. Hopefully #1 is just a little bit easier to navigate.

A good website navigation affects two things all website owners want more of:

Traffic & conversions.

Websites with strong navigations that are easily read by users (and search engine crawlers), tend to rank higher.

Likewise, websites that are easy to navigate convert more users into customers, because they provide a better user experience

5 Website navigation best practices

When it comes to navigation best practices, there’s no rules set in stone.

Everything is going to depend on your audience and what they want from your site. Designing a good navigation is not actually that hard.

Just think what a user would want from your site (or ask them) and then design from there.

With that said, there are a few best practices to keep in mind:

1) Put users first

Your website navigation should meet a users needs first and foremost.

Sure, you can optimize your navigation for SEO, but you shouldn’t compromise the user experience.

The primary function of the navigation is to guide a user around a website. It should highlight the key pages you want them to browse.

So make your navigation easy to use.

Every element you change about your navigation should circle back to this:

Put users first.

2) Be descriptive

This sounds obvious, but it’s often overlooked.

Say what you mean. Having a descriptive navigation tells a user exactly what is on the page.

By listing your main products or services, you are communicating directly with potential customers. With just a glance, a user will be able to see what you do and do not offer.

Something as simple as this may be enough to stop them from bouncing.

Not only does it avoid confusion, but it helps SEO (and conversions). How? Because your navigation is one of the first places you can show (people and crawlers) about what you do.

Descriptive labels tell users and search engines about your pages. And since a nav appears on every page of your site, it helps to hammer home the topical relevance of your site content.

Don’t forget to user labels that reflect the keywords and phrases real people actually use. Never underestimate the power of doing some good keyword research.

3) Prioritise key pages

Ideally you want to prioritise main pages to be in the navigation.

These are pages that contain your most useful and important content for users. For an ecommerce it’s going to be product categories. For a blog it might be topic categories.

The aim is to get the most important pages into the nav to ensure they are at the highest level.

Not only will this mean users can navigate more efficiently, but Google gives more authority to higher level pages.

Just don’t be tempted to stuff as many as possible in there.

4) Put items in the right order

So you’ve prioritised your key pages, but what about everything else?

Essentially, a website navigation is a list. And like lists, the most effective items are at the beginning and the end. Why? Because attention and retention happens there.

Otherwise known as the serial position effect. The TLDR is; when shown a list of words, people tend to remember the first and last items but are more likely to forget the middle ones.

Therefore, you want your most important pages at the beginning and the end of your nav.

Organising your navigation in this manner aligns nicely with the first point:

Users come first.

You want to give users what they want, so put the most popular and important items at the start of your nav.

Not sure what the most important items are? Dig into your analytics to find out.

5) Limit your navigation items

The order of items matters, but so does the number of them.

In an ideal world, you will want to limit the number of links in your main navigation.

Without getting too deep into SEO theory and how search engines interpret authority being passed between pages, let’s just say: keep your navigation concise.

A concise and clear nav allows authority to pass to interior pages, increasing their potential to rank.

Fewer items in your navigation are good for users too. Cognitive psychologist George A. Miller concluded that the average number of objects a humans working memory can hold is 7 objects.

But what about if you have a huge website…

7) Use the right drop down

To drop down or not to drop down, that is the question.

Conventional wisdom says to avoid drop down menus as they can be annoying and confusing. But they are popular. Depending on how they are coded and structured really determines their effectiveness.

A poorly designed drop down can make it difficult for search engines to crawl.

But more importantly, they might annoy users. But then again they might not. Usability studies show conflicting advice here.

The best course of action here is to conduct a navigation stress test to see if users can navigate your website easily. Take that data and design your navigation accordingly.

6) Mobile friendly navigation

This almost goes without saying, but your nav should work on mobile devices.

Responsive web design has paved the way for the hamburger menu as a mobile navigation best practice.

Although you should also consider the less talked about link bar as navigation alternative for mobile browsing.

The point is, your website navigation should work just as effectively on mobile as it does on desktop.

Wrapping up

Whether you are starting a new site or improving an existing one, getting a user friendly navigation is key.

Keep in mind SEO and UX best practices, any future content you might add and build your navigation around that. A good navigation allows users and search engines to move around your site.

It all comes down to putting the user first.

If you remember this, your navigation (and the rest of your site optimisation) will have nothing to worry about.

Terry Godier

I'm the founder of UserInsights.com - a platform for getting real user feedback on, well, anything. I've been doing conversion rate optimization and internet marketing since 2002!

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