A site's navigation structure is extremely important in providing a rich, friendly user experience. Well designed and implemented navigation assists in the process of helping visitors identify sections and pages of the website that interest them and then in moving them in that direction. If you're able to implement a solidly developed navigation system on your site you'll also be providing strong visual cues to the depth of content you have available. This alone can be an immediate first-impression indicator of trust.

When a site's navigation is intelligent, focused and intuitive, visitors have to think less and are able to more immediately find what they are looking for with minimal guesswork or backtracking. This, in turn, will most often translate into better overall conversion rates.

Navigation usability issues

The single most important aspect of the navigation is that it is usable to the visitors. If it's convoluted, confusing or broken in various ways, your users will simply abandon your site having not been able to find what they came for.

Site wide navigation, including top, bottom and side navigation, should be as user-friendly as possible, ensuring that what is "expected" is implemented just as much as much what should be obvious. The navigational elements used should reflect a logical flow of topics, subtopics and subject matter within the site and enhance the users ability to find key areas.

  • Site indicators: Provide immediate indication as to what site the visitor is on (yours!). Typically, company logos are placed in the top left-hand corner of every page.

  • Logo link: Site logo should always link back to home page. Users routinely click the logo as a means to return to the site's starting page.

  • Nav bar location: Location of main navigation should be near the top and/or left side of the page. Avoid using right-side-only or bottom-only navigation.

  • Home Page link: Each page must contain an obvious (different from the logo) link back to the home page. Keep this in a consistent location.

  • Contact information: Access to a "contact us" page and/or specific contact information should be available in an obvious location on every page throughout the site.

  • Ease of use: Navigation must maintain simplicity of use. Avoid using hard to navigate drop-down or -out menus. If used, never allow navigation to go more than two sub-menus deep.

  • Page indication: Visitors should know what page they are on and where they are in relation to the rest of the site. Breadcrumbs and navigation highlights can provide these visual indicators.

  • Visited page indication: Let visitors know which pages they have visited recently. While this is more difficult to achieve with main site navigation blocks, it can easily be accomplished by using alternate coloring of visited text links.

  • Site access: Navigation must provide intuitive and obvious links to other main sections and areas of the website.

  • Site search function: For deep sites, search functions can assist with finding relevant information quickly. If used, the search box is best located top right of all site pages or in another consistent location.

  • Login access: Sites with shopping carts, accounts or member only access must provide a login link and/or page. This should be available on every page.

  • Logout access: Once logged in, user must be able to logout at any point. Maintain a logout link or button in an obvious location on every page one user has been logged in.

Navigation functionality issues

The functionality of your website navigation can make or break a site's overall performance. Fully and properly functioning navigation makes it easy for visitors to quickly find what areas of the site they came for while broken navigation quickly sends visitors scurrying for the exit.

Poorly implemented navigation structures cause confusion to site visitors and are prohibitive in getting them to the information they want and taking the action you desire. Expertly implemented navigation allows both users to find your sites information without having to "hunt" to the point of frustration. Good navigation will also help search engines travel from page to page to reach your most important information quickly and effectively.

  • Consistent navigation: Keeping your navigation consistent, both in form and in placement, decreases visitor confusion and increases ability to find relevant information more quickly.

  • Categorical divisions: Navigation must present clear navigational categories for important areas of the website. Main site sections should be separated visually from other areas/pages of the site.

  • Clickable links: All elements in navigation must be active clickable links. When using drop down menus the main category heading must also be linked.

  • Navigation accuracy: Visitors should have a general idea of what they should find before clicking any navigational link. Link text must accurately describe the corresponding page linked to.

  • Image alt text: Every navigational image links should contain accurate alt text. Text links verbiage must accurately describe corresponding page.

  • Search results: Search feature must adequately compensate for misspellings, similar products and related items. Never leave a search result as "no products found."

Navigation semantics

The words used in the navigation are important indicators to your site visitors and should correspond tightly to the topic of the page being linked to. When any navigation linked is clicked users must be taken to a page that fulfills their expectations. Cryptic or misleading navigation text confuses and annoys visitors, possibly to the point of site abandonment. Make sure all link verbiage, whether textual or in an image, accurately portrays the corresponding pages.

Navigational Testing

A good way to test the effectiveness of your site's navigation is to go to competitor's site and browse around. Take notes on what you like and don't like. Jot down any problems you run across as well as anything that stands out as being exceptional. Once you've done this, then go back to your site and perform the same navigation and note-taking process.

Once you've completed your navigation test runs compare notes between your site and your competitors'. I'm sure you'll find areas where your navigation is better than your competitors but most certainly you'll have uncovered areas where your navigation is inferior.

Don't rely solely on your own experience. Find some family, friends, or co-workers who are both familiar and unfamiliar with your industry and have them go through the same process above. If you need to save time, have them just navigate your site and take notes on that alone. Undoubtedly your users find issues that you hadn't even thought of. These notes will probably be a better indicator of your site's navigation success than your own, as they will better reflect your site's users.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

October 9, 2007

Stoney deGeyter is the President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading search engine optimization and marketing firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Stoney is a frequent speaker at website marketing conferences and has published hundreds of helpful SEO, SEM and small business articles.

If you'd like Stoney deGeyter to speak at your conference, seminar, workshop or provide in-house training to your team, contact him via his site or by phone at 866-685-3374.

Stoney pioneered the concept of Destination Search Engine Marketing which is the driving philosophy of how Pole Position Marketing helps clients expand their online presence and grow their businesses. Stoney is Associate Editor at Search Engine Guide and has written several SEO and SEM e-books including E-Marketing Performance; The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!; Keyword Research and Selection, Destination Search Engine Marketing, and more.

Stoney has five wonderful children and spends his free time reviewing restaurants and other things to do in Canton, Ohio.


Thank you for providing this basic and well thought information to guide us newbies. I have read info all over the net, and it's nice to find a source with a ton of good information in the same place. Thanks!

Ditto to what Steve posted...I'm no newbie, but it's a great checklist for putting together a new website or considering a redesign.

Great article to pass along to your web marketing new hires/trainees.

Do you have any recommendations on how checkout process needs to be structured in order to get better conversion rates?

You can check out these links:

8 Items Every Shopper Needs In Their Shopping Cart

12 Product Page Conversion Strategies That Shant Be Ignored

Hi Stoney,

Re-read your article, especially the part,

"Nav bar location: Location of main navigation should be near the top and/or left side of the page. Avoid using right-side-only or bottom-only navigation."

There is no navigation bar on this page.


Hi Colin,

Actually it's exactly where Stoney said it should be... up top.. Then we have the breadcrumb trail that starts right under our puppy and it's in the bone graphic.

Also keep in mind, Stoney isn't the developer of this site so the advice he provides is quite often advice we need to take for our site. Just want to be sure you aren't pinning Stoney for design shortcomings.

Now, the fact that you didn't see the nav makes me wonder if we need to increase the size of text or something.

Design/usability flunky. (but learning more each day)

Actually, Robert, those are breadcrumbs and they are different from navigation. Your main navigation is in the tabs across the top which is exactly where tabs are supposed to be. This isn't the type of site that needs left-side navigation at all, so all is well on the home front.

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