In the world of the web the navigation of a website is paramount to getting users to where they want and ultimately where you want them to be. Navigation is an essential tool in the arsenal of a Website Designer and Internet Marketer. Navigation is like a map, it directs people to pages of importance that you think they should see, for example a product category page. This of course means that Navigation is not a tool for your use, but for your users use - and it is very important to remember this. When designing a navigation system there is usually plenty of room for creativity, and far be it from me to halt that (god knows I love design) but it is vital to not forget the usability of the navigation, so keep it simple and easy to use. If you complicate things your user won't forgive, they will just go elsewhere.
To help you on the way to that perfect website navigation, I've devised 10 steps to success. If you follow them your website navigation will be one of the easiest sites to navigate on the web.
Step One: Planning
Planning a website navigation often starts earlier than most people think. It starts even before the designer gets involved. It's the conceptual stage, in most cases. It's where you say what content you need and where it will be on the website. From this you should be able to generate a sitemap (a version of this should later appear on your website), from this you will be able to see the main page, category pages and possibly sub categories and other pages ... this is your site structure, so keep it simple - the fewer paths to information the more likely someone is to find it.
Step Two: Consistency
Wherever your navigation is located on your website, it should always look the same, act in the same way and be in the same place. Most website will place their main menu at the top or on the left. Very few do otherwise, because of the "it's where you expect it" theorem of 'socks go in the top draw, knickers in the bottom, and the menu goes at the top of a web page'.
Step Three: Minimise Clicks
The aim of your menu should always be to get your end user from page A to page b in as little time as possible. So this means you should keep clicks to a minimum, you don't want an end user to spend 5 minutes going through 6 layers of navigation to get to a page. If you find a user is spending more than 30 seconds looking for something in your navigation before finding it, maybe there is something wrong. So keep your menu simple with as few layers of drop-downs as possible.
Step Four: Getting them Home
It sounds mad, your navigation is about getting people from page to page within the site, not taking them home. Well, you are right in one way, but if you think about it carefully lots of people like to "go home" after seeing a page or product. Maybe they want to find more detail elsewhere on the website and by instinct click "home" to start the search. So make getting home easy. Have a button which says home and make your logo link to home also.
Step Five: Add Search
Adding the functionality to search a website is an important part of any navigation. A visitor should be able to visit your website, search it and find the relevant information. This is especially true of larger websites or websites with great detail on each page. The search should pinpoint the exact information a person wants, quickly and easily, and then direct them there clearly. A great way to add a simple search engine to your site is to use Google Custom Search Engine.
Another use for search is to locate it on a 404 error page, such that a user can simply and quickly search for the information they want.
Step Six: Accurate Wording
You may think it's cool to break the mold and use something funny or whitty in your navigation text. But the truth is, it will not help your search rankings and some users may find it a turn off. So cool or cutting edge words should be kept to a minimum. You should always assume that the person visiting your website doesn't have a clue about your niche, so keep it simple! Not everyone talks like you, so keep your language simple and direct.
Step Seven: Read More
Many visitors will hate to read hundreds of lines of text, especially when they hit your homepage of a blog. So keep it as a snippet and put an Read More link to the full article. Remember the user maybe wanting to look for other information not your most recent blog post.
Step Eight: Breadcrumbs
Add these to all your content pages, they give your users information about where they are and how to get back. So for example breadcrumbs could be Home > Parent Cat > Sub Cat > ProductName ... it's nice and simple but allows a user to flow through your website to information they want and need.
Step Nine: Essentials Only
To many links can scare a user, so keep it to the essentials. In most cases this is simply the categories or sub-category level ... never ever go to product level on an ecommerce store, displaying hundreds of products in a drop down... is well stupid. Also in some cases you may find it useful to use icons to show what a category is, so maybe a blue and pink t-shirt for the mens and womens shirt categories.
Step Ten: Test!
At the end of the process of creating your navigation test it and improve it. Use google analytics A/B split testing feature, ask users for feedback and simply make sure it's usable and easy to navigate with. Also test it in all current browsers, make sure there are no little bugs to stop things working how you want them too.
Step Eleven: Evaluate & Renew
Oh a extra step, how lovely! This is where you look at your testing, look at other sites and make changes for the better. The easier and nicer your navigation the more users you will get, the more search engines will like your site and also the more profit you are likely to make.
Is your navigation the best it can be? show it off, leave a comment with a link :D