When performing a site architectural review, one of the first things I look at is the site’s main navigation elements. This includes top, side and footer navigation. Together, they all play an important role in both the ability of the search engines to properly spider your website, as well as allowing your visitors to find important areas and information quickly and efficiently.
Site navigation can come in many different flavors. There isn’t just ONE way to do it correctly. If there were then every site would have navigation that looked exactly the same. So while navigation can vary greatly between sites and industries, there are certain navigational elements that should be implemented to ensure solid usability and effective website architecture.
Your top navigation should always display your logo and tagline (if you have one) clearly and not amongst a bunch of clutter. If the visitor cannot identify your site within a millisecond of them landing on the page then you may need to consider re-designing your top banner/navigation.
Your logo should always link to your site’s home page. Yes, even if the visitor is on the home page. Many people will look first to click the logo to navigate to the home page before looking for a “home” link, or even to look if they are on the home page already. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have a Home link in your navigation–and make it fairly obvious, but be sure the logo links as well. No sense forcing logo-clickers to look around for the “correct” way to get back to the home page. To them, the logo is the correct way.
The header is a good place to put other important links and information. Things such as a link to the shopping basket, site search and contact information are commonly found near the top of the page. Placing this information where typical visitors expect to find them makes it easier for them to navigate through your site finding what they need more quickly.
Your primary navigation should be located at the top or side of the page and should link to your most important sections and pages. Categorization here is pretty important as it allows visitors to quickly eyeball the areas they are interested in. Be careful that you don’t overload your navigation with links to every page. In many ways, simple is better, though it’s important to be pretty inclusive at the same time.
Drop down and fly out lists are a good way to provide additional links to sub-pages, but you want to be careful in your implementation. Personally I think drop down menus are easier to use than fly-outs, but either way you don’t want to have too many fly-out/drop-down layers. One should be the max. Any more than that risks losing the additional menus if you accidentally move your mouse in the wrong place.
The important thing for your navigation is to hit what is most important and leave out what is not. Too many options can confuse people, but the better categorization you do, the more options you can provide.
The footer is a great place to provide additional links that might be relevant to your visitors once they hit the bottom of the page. Links frequently found in the footer are policy pages, shipping info, sitemaps, and, of course, another link to the home page. You can also place a repeat of your core site navigation, and links to important deeper pages that you had to leave out of the main navigation in the top or side.
You can also use your footer for linking to just a few primary sections of your site or even as a mini sitemap for a quick access to any page.
Any site larger than twenty or so pages could likely benefit from adding a breadcrumb trail for their visitors. And of course, breadcrumb navigation is a must-have for large sites with lots of products, categories, etc.
Breadcrumbs are a great way to provide quick visual cues to the visitor. It tells them where they are in the site, how to navigate back to any previous main sections, and/or the home page. While most visitors may not ever click on the navigation links in the breadcrumb, they are important to have for those that rely on them. The ease of site navigation it provides is invaluable to many shoppers.
Navigation done well can make the difference between a satisfied customer and a frustrated shopper that leaves for another site. Implementing a well-constructed navigation allows visitors to move through the site with ease, quickly finding what they need. Just as importantly, good navigation lets the search engines know the levels of importance for certain pages. It helps them determine categorical relevance for sections and pages, which, in turn can help improve search engine rankings.