In the last post in this series, “What Makes a Good Website”, we talked about the importance of design. I want to revisit this sentence…

Navigating a website is a process that is rarely linear in nature.

This is so important to understand. No single user will navigate through your website the same way. Users do not enter your website on the same page every time and they don’t exit from the same page every time.

When talking about site navigation, we are referring to how the user clicks to find information.

Website navigation used to be pretty straight forward, just a bunch of links in a list. Then came dropdown menus and the urge to link to every page of the site. While this seems to make life easier for the user, it really makes your site much harder. It gives them too many options and distractions.

Website navigation serves very specific purposes. To better understand effective website navigation, let’s break it down a bit…

  1. The Must-Haves – the navigational elements that need to appear on every page (or close to it)
  2. The Tour Guides – the main links that keep the user heading in the right direction
  3. The Heavies – elements like callouts and calls to action

Let’s take a closer look at each of these…

The Must-Haves – Website Navigation Needed on Every Page

If you went through the exercises in our first post on design – namely identifying buyer personas, content strategies and website goals – then you should have a good breakdown of the informational sections of your website.

In every website there will be links that simply need to appear on every page (or just about every page). These are usually housekeeping items like “login”, “contact” or “support”. To identify these you will need to know your target user(s) and what their needs are.

Once you have determined what these links need to be you will then want to figure out where they should go. Since they will be on every page, you want to place them in an area where they can work universally. For example, this is a site with a public and private section…

Health Fairs Plus Top Website Navigation Example

This is a large site with lots of information segmented by user account type. So, to make things easier for the users, a login, contact, account access and site search option needed to appear at the top right of every page throughout the site.

The Tour Guide – The Key Navigational Elements that Drive Conversion

Once you’ve dealt with the various housekeeping items, take some time and review your list of goals for the website. What do you want the users to do while on the site? What does success look like?

Instead of thinking about navigation solely as a way of listing the pages on the site, think of it more like the site’s tour guide. Construct your navigation in such a way that the user is lead along a path as opposed to being left to their own devices to uncover the information they seek.

The Tour Guide type of navigation generally appears as a list along the top or side of the page. These are the main categories of information contained within the site.

Cetrom Website Navigation

As you select one of these links you will usually be presented with additional options specific to the section you are in, also known as sub navigation…

Cetrom Website Sub-Navigation

This is done on purpose. Instead of allowing the user to drill through a series of rollover type menus to jump to a specific page, sometimes it is better to lead them there. They might think they need to go to one page when in fact they really need to get somewhere else. Lead them there.

The Heavies – The Callouts and Calls to Action

We discussed these a bit in the last post on design. You’ve establish the more permanent links in your site-wide navigation system with the Must-Haves and the Tour Guides.

The Heavies are the standouts, the links that really drive conversion. Every page should ultimately have a goal. When a visitor lands on a page, what do you want them to do?

As the user navigates through the site seeking information from you, sometimes you need to do something a little more extraordinary to catch their eye. Navigational elements like callouts and calls to action like a targeted link, form, social share, etc are very important because they alert the distracted user of an action that needs to be taken.

Have you ever stood in a classroom of 3rd graders and observed a teacher try to get their attention? The good teachers are the ones that know what works, and use it most effectively. Maybe it’s a phrase that the students know and respond to. Whatever it is, when you need to get the attention of a group of distracted people, you need something bold and effective.

The good teacher did not always know what worked. They tried various methods of getting the students attention before discovering the one that really did the trick. Your calls to action are the same way.

Virginia Green Grocer Website Callouts

You need to test and retest with these. You can test with color, placement, language, frequency and so forth. Eventually you will find callouts and calls to action that are more effective than others because you see the conversion numbers increase.

So What? What Does Effective Website Navigation Do?

Increasing the usage of the successful callouts and eliminating the ineffective ones, the conversion rate for your website will dramatically increase.

Simply throwing up a list of links is no longer a viable option if you expect to succeed online. Users expect an intuitive and rewarding website experience whether they realize it or not. With mobile this is especially true. The decisions you make for your website might not be the best courses of action for your mobile presence. For more on that I suggest our post on Responsive Web Design.

What does the user want and how can you give it to them? Answer this and you are well on your way…

  • Do your research
  • Identify buyer personas
  • List goals
  • Implement, test, rinse and repeat

Are you rethinking your website’s navigation? Let us know.

The Rest of the Series – What Makes a Good Website

  1. What Makes a Good Website – Part One – Design
  2. What Makes a Good Website – Part Three – Usability
  3. What Makes a Good Website – Part Four – SEO
  4. What Makes a Good Website – Part Five – Conversion

Jon-Mikel Bailey - Before co-founding Wood Street in 2002, Jon worked in sales, marketing and business development for technology and marketing firms. A popular speaker, he gives seminars on marketing, internet marketing, branding and web design to chambers of commerce, trade associations and colleges. He has a BFA in Photography from Frostburg State University and still shoots photos for Wood Street clients.