In many ways, website navigation is the unsung hero of the digital experience. If you employ exceptional navigation features throughout your site, then your customers will most likely never even notice them as they complete their journey from homepage to purchase.
Your users may not notice the machinery behind the scenes, but there are so many facets that go into creating the ideal navigational experience, some of which most marketers are even unaware of. In order to make it easy for users to navigate through your website, and therefore increase the performance of your digital platform (including conversion rates, SEO and customer satisfaction), you need to combine elements of effective design, intuitive search, logical internal linking and more.
Maximizing the value of the navigation bar
As you contemplate the configuration of your navigation bar, it helps to consider what its specific purposes are. The navigation bar isn’t just an attractive design element that draws users in, or a way to establish your brand image as soon as your page loads. It is both of those things too, of course, but at its essence, the navigation bar needs to act as an intuitive roadmap for the user that will guide them through their entire experience.
When you think about it logically, it makes perfect sense that your overall navigational structure is tied directly to the hierarchy of your site. Your most important pages need to be as shallowly-located as possible so that traffic is ideally funneled to them as much as possible. There’s nowhere more shallow than your header navigation bar, which is exactly why those pages should be prominently laid out for the user from the beginning.
When it comes to organizing the placement of the pages on the navigation bar, it’s important to think carefully about lead generation best practices. The user is going to read from left to right or top to bottom, so it makes sense to position links to pages with broad, high-level information on the top left, and move to the more detailed product specifications as you move right or down. It wouldn’t be logical to put the “contact us” link on the left side of the bar, because you want them to have a better understanding of what you do before your CTAs come into play.
Your main navigation bar can appear at the top of the page, or at the side, depending upon stylistic preferences and brand standards. Dropdown menus that display on the side may be preferable for smaller screens on mobile devices. What you should never do is employ a navigation bar only at the bottom of your page. You can include one to complement your top-of-the-page navigation bar (although it isn’t necessary if you use a fixed scrolling bar at the top), and if you do it should feature the exact same layout as the main navigation bar.
Making your search functions intuitive
Search is an increasingly important component of user-friendly web design. When users are looking for a specific piece of information they want to be able to find it quickly, and without having to wade through dozens of pieces of content which have questionable relevance to the topic at hand. Additionally, most established companies have had working websites for well over a decade, and the amount of information housed within the sitemap is compounding all the time. There is just too much content out there for the average person to go through without the aid of an effective search function.
When it comes to designing the ideal search function for your website, there are several things that you need to keep in mind. Most importantly, the search box should be located in a prominent position on every page on the site, so that users can quickly access it when a query strikes them. Also, the default search should return results that are sorted by relevance, but there should be options for the user to change the sort order as they see fit.
As a corollary to the sorting issue, you also need to include filters that make it easy for customers to refine their results with just a few clicks. This is especially crucial for ecommerce companies who sell a wide array of products scattered across numerous categories and at various price points. Finally, you need to inspect the search results and ensure that your algorithm is returning high-quality results for your users. This means that the information needs to be accurate, presented in a readable format, and results should include high-quality images when applicable.
Merging internal linking practices with SEO
The navigation bar is a vital component of your site’s navigation, but it is far from the only factor at play. Your internal linking structure is going to be doing a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of sending your customers to the right pages at the right time.
When it comes to your content marketing, your navigation bar really only needs to send users to the high-level pages that will kick off their journey of discovery. After that, they should be able to use your internal links to move logically through the buying funnel, until they finally arrive on the specific product page where they are ready to add something to their cart.
This kind of strategy accomplishes a couple of different goals. First, it keeps your users active within your company’s digital ecosystem, giving them exactly the right kids of information that they need at the appropriate times. Also, maintaining a well-designed internal linking structure dramatically improves your SEO performance. This shows why the principles of navigation are important throughout the user’s entire website experience, not only when they initially reach your site and look at the header for guidance.
Incorporating responsive design elements
Imagine that you’ve created a desktop site that utilizes near-perfect navigation elements at every step of the way. The experience is logical and seamless for your users from step one through the checkout process, and they are able to find instant and accurate search results whenever they need them.
Now think about what would happen if a user had to interrupt their browsing session and pick it up again from a mobile device. All of a sudden, the entire navigation is out-of-whack. Menu options are cut off on the navigation bar, search filters are unusable on the smaller screen, and finding a specific piece of content requires seemingly endless scrolling. You would be hard-pressed to blame the user for finding the whole process too frustrating to continue.
But, without responsive design elements incorporated into your platform, this exact scenario is a definite possibility.
Responsive design ensures that your webpages will always be optimally-formatted for the screen that is used. Your site will be just as easy to navigate on a small smartphone as it is on a full-size desktop monitor. This versatility is paramount, because you never know when and how a customer is going to use your site, and any interruption due to a lack of functionality could be cause for them to end their relationship with your company. Designers once talked about how creating mobile-friendly web design was the future of the industry, but we’re at the point now where it’s the present. If your navigation doesn’t stand up to the mobile experience, you are going to be left behind immediately.
Using A/B testing to optimize the user-experience
Website design and navigation can be frustrating for analytical-minded people, because there are often many elements that are qualitative by nature. Which is why leaders need to embrace the concept of A/B testing for their website navigation, because it offers the promise of unambiguous answers and proven results.
The optimization of your website navigation is a perfect candidate for A/B testing, because there are so many different elements involved that can impact the overall experience. In A/B testing you simply look at the design elements in question, make a list of possible choices that can be made, and test their performance one by one.
Any one (or a combination of) these disparate elements could be impeding your customers’ progress in navigating your site, but without A/B testing it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to locate the problem without blind luck. And A/B testing isn’t just a way to resolve design problems, you can even use it to tweak functions that are otherwise effective until you have a solution that performs even better. With the proper A/B testing, you can eventually create a navigational experience where each function is optimized for both user-friendliness and marketing/sales performance.