All the search marketing in the world won't matter if the traffic you acquire arrives at a lousy web page/site. Traffic that matters is traffic that converts. You want people to do something when they get to your site; it might be buying a widget or joining a newsletter or downloading a white paper or something.
One of the barriers to converting is poor usability, and that often takes the form of hard-to-use navigation. This is especially true on small business sites, which are often created by someone on staff, or someone on staff's son or daughter; in other words, by a non-professional. If that describes your small business web site, here are some thoughts on fixing your site menu(s) to be more user-friendly and more search engine-friendly.
Too Many Links?
I've read studies suggesting you have no more than 5-7 main links in your site menu. I typically suggest no more than 8-10. Any more than that and you're probably risking confusion. Too many choices is generally a bad thing where site navigation is concerned. Work on your site architecture so that you don't have an overwhelming amount of links in your main site menu.
There are exceptions, of course. I've worked with one client with 7 links across the top of the site, and about 30 more (broken up into 5 sections) on the left side of the site. This works for them because the company has a broad catalog of products, and having links to deep product pages makes it easier for customers to find what they want. These prominent links to deep pages are also SE-friendly. But this approach isn't a good idea for everyone. Fewer links is a better rule, generally speaking.
Top? Side? Where?
The size of your menu and the layout of your site often determines whether the main menu should be placed on the top or the side of a page. If you only have a few links in your menu, and they can be phrased relatively briefly, a top menu may work fine. A top menu also frees up extra real estate for your main content window, which can be helpful for many sites. If your site menu has more options, you may have to use a side-based menu.
There's not really a "right" or "wrong" here. You have to consider the pros and cons of each location and choose which one is best for your site and your needs.
Graphics or Text?
I prefer text-based links for a couple reasons:
1.) I maintain a lot of client web sites, and it's always quicker and easier (and less expensive for the client) to redo text menus.
2.) Text links allow you to get good "anchor text" from your own site. Anchor text refers to the words used in a text link, and they're a big factor in most search engine algorithms. Internal linking is a factor in your SE positioning, and it makes sense to try to get that little extra juice from well-written internal anchor text.
The downside to using text links is that you lose a bit of control. Text is rendered differently from one browser to the next, and from PCs to Macs. Text generally appears about 20% larger on PCs than on Macs, for example. You can use CSS to minimize this, but even then you really need to test your site on different computers and browsers to make sure there's no word-wrapping going on, or anything else that can break your design. If you have a very limited space for your menu, it's best to use graphical buttons because you can control the design and size better.
Pick Your Words Wisely
Whether you use text links or graphical buttons for your menu, choose your words carefully. Keep the button names as simple and direct as possible — creative wording will only confuse visitors, and a confused visitor rarely turns into a customer.
Years ago when we first took over the web site of the local minor league baseball team, we were too creative with the wording on the menu buttons. Instead of "news", the button said "press box." Instead of "roster," it said "dugout." No one could find what they wanted without guessing what was behind each button. Keep it simple.
This is also important for search engine rankings if you're using text links. The names of your links should match your important keywords. If you sell red widgets, use "Red Widgets" as your text link instead of "Products".
Free bonus tip: Duplicate your main menu at the bottom of your site design. This will allow users to navigate your site conveniently without having to scroll back to the top after reading a page. If you're using graphical buttons for your main menu, the bottom menu should be text so you can take advantage of the anchor text ideas discussed above.
Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.
Matt McGee is SEO Manager at Marchex, a search and media company in Seattle, Washington. He's guided successful projects for clients of all sizes and budgets, with special emphasis on traffic acquisition via organic rankings. Matt is a speaker at the Search Engine Strategies conferences, and writes about online marketing at Small Business SEM. He's a frequent contributor to several SEO/SEM forums, and is a moderator for the Small Business Ideas Forum.
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