What kind of navigation is best?


2007_02230018.JPGCertainly, you should have the navigation that works best for you. But testing navigation is not as easy as testing, say, what titles you should have on pages, or what prices you should offer your products at (Well, that one can be hard, too). Most companies want to decide on their navigation before they design their sites, and then they just live with their misery until the next redesign. (I learned that lesson the hard way.) So let’s just discuss the opportunities and downfalls.

Top horizontal vs. left vertical navigation vs. both.

Top horizontal navigation has the advantage of all being above the fold, and gets presented in a nice neat package up there with your logo. Furthermore, it doesn’t hoard much of your precious real estate, the way that left navigation does. After all, even if your left navigation only has seven or eight options, your designer will probably keep you from wrapping text around it (and thereby prevent you from using the white space below it. Although, you could use the space for surveys or testimonials or news or snippets from your blog.) Top horizontal has another advantage — you can add a blog much easier to your site. Blogs tend to have a side horizontal nav bar already. You could still do them on opposite sides of the page, especially if you don’t have to design for 800×600.

On the other hand, it is much harder to extend horizontal navigation – it can only get as wide as your customers’ browsers .

So I will make sweeping generalizations, if everyone who reads recognizes that the only “good” navigation is the one that is good for you. If you are a small lead generation website that wants to have Services, Products, Partners, About Us and Contact Us in your navigation (I really hate those, but more later), then go ahead and do the horizontal thing. If you are a large website, especially an e-commerce website with lots of products, you probably have to do the vertical navigation. If you are Amazon, you probably have so many products that you need to do both. And if you are a content site, like CNN (don’t you hate their newest redesign?) your whole site is really one big piece of navigation, because everywhere you turn, you are linking to another story.

Having said that, we are a small b-to-b website, and I just hate our horizontal navigation. I just wish I could extend it.

Text vs. words in pictures.

Oh, this one is easy. If your navigation includes important keywords, then do your navigation in text. That way, you get credit for those keywords in the search engines. On the other hand, if you have one of those Services – Products – Partners – About Us -Contact Us kinds of navigation, go ahead and write it any way you want. And you can always put your important links as end-links on the bottom of the page in real text, which will help your SEO some.

Javascript pulldowns and flyouts.

The issue here, besides any search engine issues, is about usability – it’s so hard to get your mouse to navigate to exactly the right place (and to then yet another layer of javascript. Think about your own experience: you mouse over something, a menu comes up, you move your mouse over to where you want to be, and then you have a third set, and you can’t get your mouse to hold on the right spot? You hate it, right? So keep this one simple. As part of that, make sure that the first level of navigation is mousable. For example, if you had a music website, and one category was Jazz, and under that, you had all sorts of jazz bands — you should still allow the visitor to click on Jazz, the highest level, so that s/he can see the category page.

What words should you use in your navigation?

This is a great opportunity for some quick user testing. Write down the topics of your top hundred or two hundred pages, and ask users to sort them into piles that make sense. AndCMU - Oldthen ask the people who are sorting to give each pile a descriptive name.

My favorite example of bad naming is from the old Carnegie Mellon website. Here is a screenshot.

Notice that one of the categories is Faculty Visitors. I can’t tell you how many times I have been to that link. After all, when I go to the CMU website, I am usually pretending to be my spouse, dealing with benefits. Visiting their website. That made me a faculty visitor. Right? But always, I came away disappointed, because that’s where visitors from other universities were supposed to go….

You also have the opportunity to say just about nothing and use Services – Products – Partners – About Us -Contact Us, thereby ensuring that visitors cannot understand what your company does by reading your navigation.

Breadcrumbs, and where am I, anyway?

Not everything is on the navigation. After all, it just can’t be when you have a million-page website. But you still need to get visitors to their information, so you’ll have to rely on excellent on-site search, a great sitemap (but not everything will be there either, will it?), very strong scent, and linking from page to page.

Should you have breadcrumbs? You know, those little (sometimes clickable) links that showed you went from Outerwear to Sweatshirts to Hoodies? I think that the jury is out on that one.

Jared Spool claimed to me (this was in March ’06 when I was at their road show) that his studies show, no one uses breadcrumbs. I countered that I use them all the time in Google AdWords, but that is more of a web application than a website (and I use them to click on and get back where I want to be. Plus, AW has a strong hierarchy, keywords inside adgroups inside campaigns, so where you are really matters.) If you do use breadcrumbs, be careful not to create a real trail in text (lest you really mess yourself up in the search engines.) You can create either a relative, “hard coded” trail (so, for example, even if I land directly on Hoodies from the search engines, my trail already says Outerwear > Sweatshirts > Hoodies.) Or, you can create a real trail, but wrap it in javascript so that the search engines can’t read it.

Endnotes: Many thanks to Internetrix, for being the only GAAC to submit to the GA contest. (I should have winner announcements this week.) Congrats to Conversion Rate Experts for becoming a Website Optimizer Authorized Consultant. (You guys are probably the only four page website to achieve that accolade.)  Thanks to Kevin from the T-shirt company, who requested this post. And many thanks to Taylor Pratt from LunaMetrics, whose vacation I interrupted just to ask an SEO question (and thereby finish this post. Finally.)

Our founder, Robbin Steif, started LunaMetrics in 2004. She is a graduate of Harvard College and the Harvard Business School, and has served on the Board of Directors for the Digital Analytics Association. Robbin is a winner of a BusinessWomen First award, as well as a Diamond Award for business leadership. In 2017, Robbin sold her company to HS2 Solutions and has since retired from LunaMetrics.

  • Robbin,

    Jakob Nielsen argues that breadcrumbs are increasingly beneficial to users. I tend to agree. You might want to take a look.



  • Jakob Nielsen argues that breadcrumbs are increasingly beneficial to users. I tend to agree. You might want to take a look.

    Yeah, he’s wrong. 🙂

    There’s a cost associated with developing and maintaining breadcrumbs.

    Why spend that resource if it’s not going to solve any problems that anyone has?


  • Except in the cases when it is solving the problems that people have. 😉


  • I’ve seen two extremes in users behaviors with breadcrumbs.

    Either they really like them, and use them frequently, or they don’t understand them at all, and wonder what they are. I’ve only done limited testing with users, so Jared and Benjamin may have more experience to share than I do.

  • Hmm… why do you hate the simple navigations of products, services and about us? any insight into that. I get the point that it is hard to know… just from navigation what the site is about… but wouldn’t having a tag line cover that part… plus I find it the best way to navigate a site… as I don’t have to guess on a B2B site where to find the products and prices (if they are ever listed).

    For breadcrumbs… I did a quick GA segmentation and found that only 2500 users from 300K plus ever used them on of our sites… may be it was due to how tiny they are…

  • Thanks Umer, for that segmentation. You have a nice large sample size….

    As far as the simple products/services etc. Most tag lines are just terrible to start with (I should do a whole post on that one topic.) OK, look at ours, turning browsers into buyers. So that is about conversion, but doesn’t handle some of the other stuff we do that leads to conversion, like MVT or Web Analytics. And for sure doesn’t deal with Google AdWords or SEO. If our navigation (which could be better) said “products, services, about us” you would look at it and say, huh?

    On top of that, even if you already know what a company does, you look at that and still feel like it is meaningless. I don’t mean you, after all, you work with the web all the time. The people who spent an hour a day on the internet and don’t user test sites or MVT them — they don’t get it. They layout of products and services (and contact us, hidden behind a link) just doesn’t make sense to them. And if it weren’t time to go to work, I would write more…

  • Pauline Smith

    Jared VS Jakob

    The battle continues!

  • Roy

    You’re totally wrong about breadcrumbs. Not just a little bit, and you can call it your opinion if you’d like but either way you are wrong.

  • gargi

    Is it possible to find complete path of visitor through google analytics.

    I don’t want to use Navigation or Entrance path which are only 1 or 2 level deep.

  • Gargi — it is not possible. The best you get is navigation or entrance paths OR if you can create a defined path yourself (like a shopping cart), you can make it into a funnel.

  • I’ve been using both horizontal and vertical navigation, but want to switch to horizontal only so that I can use the sidebar for ad space. My only concern is that this will confuse my readers since my sit is rather larger. Right now have a javascript style drop-down menu with a lot of articles.

  • Robbin

    Adam, I think that if you do a test page and go to usertesting.com and spend $150 to get 4-5 testers and learn whether they are confused or not, you are way ahead of the game. Start with one user tester and learn whether you are asking the right questions.

  • Thanks for the response Robbin! I’ll have to check usertesting.com out, I’ve never heard of it but it looks very useful. In situations like this there is really no way to get a definite answer unless you actually see what visitors are doing.

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