User-Friendly Website Navigation: How to Ensure Visitors Don’t Get Lost

Road Sign

Creating a well-organized, structured navigation system is essential for any website. Without an understandable, pragmatic system for instructing visitors what your website has to offer, and how they can reach it, your site is at a serious disadvantage.

Establishing a sensible navigational path is not difficult if you remember to pre-plan and take the necessary steps highlighted in this guide. Here are 8 essential principles you should take into consideration when designing a navigation system for your website:

1. Preparation

Navigation should be part of the website design process, not something added in after the main design has been completed. In order to provide an efficient and systematic navigation system, you must visualize how a visitor will access your website and move around all its various pages. Once you have constructed a user-friendly hierarchically linked navigational system, the next step is to consider the simplest way to explain your system to visitors.

2. Clarity and Brevity

Navigation should always be as simple as possible. The route to any point within your website should be as direct as you can make it. Many people still try to adhere to the old navigation guideline “No page should be more than 3-clicks away from the homepage”. While this guide has website navigation best interests at heart, it has become outdated. Websites are now far more complex and it is often necessary for visitors to use more than 3-clicks to reach their desired destination. There is no punishment for breaking the 3-click guide. But the aim of good navigation is to allow visitors to find what they are looking for in as few clicks as possible, without getting lost. Implementing a breadcrumb Trail system (covered in section 4) will help to address this problem.

The naming of navigational links should also be kept clear and concise. There is no need for ‘Homepage’ or ‘Main Page’ when a simple ‘Home’ will suffice.

3. Simplicity

It may be tempting to use flashy graphical menu buttons to make a website look more appealing but this can create issues. The problem does not lie with visitor confusion, it stems from page load speed. Graphics take longer to load than text. This is bad practice for two very good reasons.

Firstly, nobody enjoys waiting for a website that is struggling to display what it has to offer. Secondly, Google has openly stated that load speed is now a ranking factor. A complicated graphical navigation menu will probably affect page load speed and your site could suffer for it.

4. Website GPS

A website that cares about navigation should always include a breadcrumb trail. Usually located just below the top navigational menu, a breadcrumb trail allows visitors to see where they are and travel directly to any point along their current path. A typical breadcrumb trail could look like this:

Home>Products>Mobile Phones>iPhone

Anyone seeing this instantly knows they are in the iPhone section and they can just click the Mobile Phones link within the breadcrumb trail to go one category level above. Breadcrumb trails are a terrific navigational aid.

Another reason for always including a breadcrumb trail is that visitors may land on one of your website’s sub-pages via a search engine query. They may not know what category that page comes under unless they can see the hierarchical path in the form of a breadcrumb trail. Think of it as an essential guide rope that visitors will be very grateful for.

5. Sitemap

A sitemap is an essential for every website. Not only does it give a clear overview of your entire site, it is often used by search engine spiders to efficiently crawl a website. If you want to have a useful site-wide navigational map and have your website indexed successfully, you will need a sitemap.

6. No Place Like Home

There must be a clear link back to your website’s homepage from every other page. This could be in the form of a ‘HOME’ navigational tab, or a simple textual link at the bottom of each page. Whatever the format, a website should always offer visitors a direct route straight back to its primary page.

A common way to achieve this is to link your websites header graphic, title, or logo to the homepage. This is fairly standard now and most visitors will expect to be able to click one or all of these and be returned to a homepage.

7. Consistency

The navigation for any website should remain the same no matter where a visitor lands. It looks unprofessional and proves inefficient to have different navigational options on different pages. The navigational system you choose should be obvious enough to be easily visible to visitors but subtle enough to meld in with your website’s overall design.

8. Instantly Accessible

A visitor should not have to scroll down to see a navigation menu. Anyone landing on a site must be able to see the options available to them without excessive searching. It is good practice to include a top navigation bar that includes your main categories at the very least. This needs to be in the top-third of the page.

Good navigational systems will also have a bottom navigational menu, or footer. This allows anyone who reaches the bottom of page content access to navigational links with no need to scroll up unnecessarily.

You should spend time and effort creating a great looking website. You will need to fill it full of quality, relevant content and remember to update this regularly. Then you have to work on search engine rankings to capture those organic visitors. But all of this is pointless if the people visiting your site then have trouble discovering what the site has to offer.

Prepare and implement a simplistic, efficient, reliable navigation system and help visitors and search engines travel and locate every piece of content your site contains.

About the author: Roko Nastic is editor at WebmasterFormat, a useful resource for those wanting to learn how to build better and more profitable websites and how to find best web hosting companies.

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