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Usability: Building Proper Navigational Elements

Brian Rubin
Usability: Building Proper Navigational Elements

If you recall from my first article, the first bullet point I mentioned covered navigational elements. I’ve found that, for as important as these elements are, they can also be one of the most overlooked.

I mean it’s fine to have a simple menu system, but many folks either stop there, or go too far and have convoluted menus that overwhelm the user with too MUCH choice. Sure, while lots of choice is fantastic, you don’t want to overwhelm the user by putting too much in their face. So it’s not just efficiency that’s important, but conciseness.

While usability and the user experience are the foundation upon which a house is built, proper navigational elements are how you move through the house. I mean, every room needs at least one door, right? Some rooms might need more than one! We just moved to a new place, and in the old place, there was only one way to enter and exit the kitchen. The new kitchen has two entry points, and that one extra entry point makes a staggering amount of difference in how enjoyable our new home is as a whole.

So how do you make your virtual home inviting and easy to move through? There are a few ways, so let’s break down some of the best.


This seems obvious, but let me tell ya, I’ve seen so many poor menu implementations over the years. Most of them involve just putting too much information in the users’ face.

The menu is the basic tenet of just about everything we do in modern society, from using our smartphones to ordering food to purchasing products online. When working on my own sites, I have a few basic rules I like to keep to when designing or updating a menu system:

  • Keep Them Simple – You can have as many nested menus as you want, as long as you present them in a simple manner that helps steer the user toward exactly what they’re looking for quickly. For example, for your top-level menu, you don’t need every product or sub-category listed, the main categories will do. Then let the user go down the informational hierarchy one level at a time as they so choose. This not only helps keep a user focused, but still gives them plenty of choice as to where they move to next.
  • Keep Them Concise – It used to be pretty important to have keywords in these menu anchor texts, but now not so much. Yet you wouldn’t believe how many sites I see with spammy, repetitive anchor texts all over their menus, which is just overdoing it. If you sell chairs, just say “Chairs,” for example. If a user is looking for a type chair, they can find the specific chair they need going down through your menu or doing a search.
  • Keep Them Text-Based – It might be tempting to use pretty images to help guide users, or even use images to simulate a specific style of text, but both of these are far less effective for both users and search engines than simple text. Even as I say that, I see so many sites using images for their menus, which isn’t as effective because Google can’t read what’s in an image, and ALT text only weighs so much. Text-based menus are simpler and faster for users and easier to parse for search engines. It’s just that simple.

If you keep your menus focused on these key tenets, you should have a very simple, focused and usable menu system that visitors will enjoy using, and that search engines will have no problem parsing. This is just the first step, however, to an exceptional navigational system.

Other Navigational Elements to Consider

A solid site with an exceptional navigational system will have many methods to move around beyond the basic menu, and the best sites – such as one of my favorites in this regard, Amazon.com – give the user multiple methods to move around, such as:

  • Breadcrumbs – Honestly, this one is my favorite. If your site doesn’t have a breadcrumb system, I’m probably just going to leave. I mean sure, I could hit my back button, but I have a shoddy memory, I don’t even remember where that thing is GOING half the time. A clear breadcrumb system not only clearly lays out the route that a user took to get where they are, allowing them to easily backtrack if necessary, but also gives search engine spiders another way to parse your informational hierarchy. It’s truly a win-win.
  • Related Items/Articles – It’s amazing how many sites I see that DON’T have this implemented, yet would so easily benefit from it. One of the keys to a successful site is user “stickiness.” This basically means once a user arrives at your site, you want to do everything you can to keep them there. Related products or articles (depending on the type of site) are an excellent way to do that. If a user, for example, came to your site to research a wooden chair, and while they’re unsure about the specific one they’re looking at, they see one that’s even more appealing to them in the related products section, you’ll have a user moving forward more deeply into the site, rather than having them back out and looking somewhere else.
  • Recent Posts/Comments/Articles – Wait, you don’t have posts, or comments or articles? Bro, do you even blog? Seriously, any reputable site should have regular content updates, and having navigational elements that point to the most recent of these pieces of content – along with their associated comments and what not – is amazingly important for user retention.
  • Easy Access to Communities – Building upon that last point, an exceptional site isn’t simply a place on the web, but a community of individuals with similar interests. Communities are built through forums, blog comments, FAQs, testimonials and so on, and you want to give users as easy access to these interactive elements as possible. Amazon, again, is another great example of this because each individual product not only has its own reviews, but also FAQs and even forum threads, and all of these are super easy to get to. Building a community, and making it easy to get to, is insanely important as the web becomes an even larger part of our daily lives.

User Options are Key

The biggest takeaway I hope you gathered from all of that stuff above is that you want to give users as many options as possible when it comes to moving through your website. You might have the greatest products or the best content in the whole wide world, but if it’s not easy to get to, no one is going to bother finding it. This goes beyond the usual best practices of sitemaps, site search and so on. By giving users multiple ways to move around your site, they’ll have a more enjoyable an easier time interacting with it, keeping them on the site for longer. THAT is the ultimate goal, my friends, that stickiness.

Make your users sicky, my friends. Make them fans.

Thanks for reading this installment of my usability series folks, and I hope you’re having a lovely holiday season!

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Brian Rubin has been in the SEO field for a little over 10 years now. When he isn’t diagnosing site issues or auditing sites for Wpromote, he’s blogging about video games for his blog, Space Game Junkie. His last article for SEMrush was, "If Content is King, Can Usability be Queen?"
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