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You Don’t Sell “Products.” Fully-Descriptive Nav for Better SEO and UX

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You Don’t Sell “Products.” Fully-Descriptive Nav for Better SEO and UX

Ian Lurie
You Don’t Sell “Products.” Fully-Descriptive Nav for Better SEO and UX

Last Friday I was driving my daughter home from aerial yoga (yes, it is a thing) and we saw a guy with one of those big arrow signs you see people wave around trying to get you to a particular store. 

This guy was a master. He flipped the sign. He spun it. He wielded it. He did somersaults over it. He loved his work. He was selling weed, by the way.

The sign read “CANNABIS.” I live in Seattle—it is legal. The performance grabbed our attention. But if his sign had just read “products,” that is all we would remember: The performance. We wouldn’t remember the store or the product.

My rambling proves that someone who runs a Seattle weed shop is a better marketer than 90% of us web nerds. 

Fully Descriptive Navigation Sells

What does this company sell?

what-do-they-buy.pngNice helmet. But what do you sell?

The typography is decent. That’s a gorgeous helmet, too. I know this company sells helmets. But what else do they sell? Just helmets? Helmets and broccoli? Helmets and surfboards? Helmets and socks? I have no freaking idea. Whatever it is, I can customize it. But I don’t know what ‘it’ is.

If I Google “Helmets” and land on this home page, I know the company sells helmets. What if they sell gloves, too? If I search for “gloves” and somehow land on this home page, I will assume I am in the wrong place, or that gloves are second priority.

Even worse, if I search for “Helmets” and land on another page that lacks a helmet photo, I will be completely lost. I will hesitate. That hesitation shrinks the likelihood that I will convert.

What if the designer used this navigation instead:

Helmets and gloves! That makes more senseHelmets and gloves! That makes more sense

Oohhhh. Now I get it. They sell helmets and gloves. I want my gloves or my helmet (or both). “Gloves” in the navigation tells me that I am in the right place. It is also one less task for my already over-saturated brain: I want gloves. I click gloves.

It’s as if a guy is standing out front a store waving an arrow-shaped sign that reads “Helmets and Gloves.”

The Rankings Secret Weapon

But you are on the SEMrush website right now, so you are probably more worried about rankings and organic traffic...

A fully descriptive navigation is an SEO’s secret weapon.

Search engine algorithms favor sites with fully descriptive navigation. Search engines look at link text. Not just offsite link text—all link text. Replace “products” with “[product keyword]” in your top navigation, and you just created a quality, UX-boosting link with the best possible anchor text on every page of your site. All those links point to the most relevant page. 

So here, the word “Helmets” creates a link with the anchor text “Helmets” on every page of the site. Every link points at the most-relevant “helmets” page. That is a lot of SEO oomph:

A keyword-rich link from every page? Sign me upA legit, keyword-rich link from every page? Sign me up

What You Don’t Do

Don’t manipulate or try to stuff keywords into the footer of every page on your site (like adding an extra link at the bottom every page that reads “helmets”). 

Here, it’s OK to add “Cycling” to the “Gloves” nav item. Customers may use the helmet for other sports, but the gloves are just for cycling. And it reads just fine:

Adding Cycling works fine, if you do it like thisAdding Cycling works fine, if you do it like this

Create links that improve the user experience. Create links that look good. Notice I didn’t create navigation that reads “Cycling Helmets,” Then “Cycling Gloves,” then maybe “Customize & Buy Your Cycling Helmet and Gloves.” That kind of spam might help you rank. A little. For now. 

But it’s a crap user experience. And eventually, it will bite you on the behind. Google and Bing don’t like over-optimization. The rule: If you have to justify the link to yourself, or even feel like you might have to justify it, you are about to create a manipulative link. Stop.

But I Have Lots of Products/Services

If you have a diverse product set one nav item won’t do. For example, if you sell all kinds of bicycles, skateboard and cycling helmets, gloves, and apparel for ten different sports, you can’t create fully descriptive navigation for all of them.

Consider splitting your navigation, grouping relevant products under separate, fully descriptive labels. In the example above, maybe “Bicycles,” “Helmets,” and “Apparel.”

Then create sub-navigation under each. If I click on “Helmets,” show me a second set of links pointing to “Cycling” and “Skateboarding.”

You don’t want more than 6 top navigation items. If it starts to get crowded, move things like “About Us” to secondary navigation. Think about how you can consolidate products into categories. 

I have never seen a business that couldn’t create a useful, fully descriptive navigation. Sometimes internal politics don’t allow it - I can’t help you with that one. You have to weigh the risks and benefits of the change.

It Works!

We’ve made this change on ten or so sites over the years. It always improves rankings and bounce rate. The bigger the site, the better the SEO result, because you have many more links to that one core page. The user experience as measured by click thru always improves, too. More people make that second click.

We have had clients move from page two to page one within a few days of the change, and seen bounce rates drop 10% or lower.

Be like the weed guy: Switch to fully descriptive navigation. You will see better rankings and user engagement.

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Marketer. Nerd. Search guy. Geek. Writer. Nerd. D&D Player. Ner... Redundant at this point, really.
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Liked the article but now worried that my recent changes to the home page nav. is "wrong". Would appreciate any comments [link removed by moderator]
Marciela Ross
Thanks Ian for the great article. For our site [link removed by moderator] - do you think we could do category groupings? Since we are a marketplace we want users to be able to easily navigate to Buy and Sell their gently used mobile devices. There are so many brands and device types groupings may be difficult, but I'd love to hear any suggestions.
Ian Lurie
Marciela Ross
Given the number of categories, etc., you might want to stick with what you have. Otherwise I'd go with "Buy smartphones," and "Sell smartphones," but you buy and sell a LOT more than that.
Marciela Ross
Ian Lurie
Thanks so much!
The weed at the store used as an example must have been good, making the guy roll over around his sign.
Ian Lurie
He WAS pretty mellow about it all.
Justin Staples
Thanks Ian. Pretty timely post. In fact only last week did I revise my business site's core navigation to be more descriptive. Your post reinforces that the right decision was made. What's also critical, is that in efforts to improve ranking, a conscious awareness needs to be made for the site's accessibility and usability. So as you mentioned, avoid spammy descriptions, but also consider hierarchy in retrievable content that's most relevant to your users . What should be most accessible, what's secondary and so forth. Don't just revise the navigation to pursue ranking.
Ian Lurie
Justin Staples
Good point. I'd hate to see someone read this and start creating keyword-stuffed navigation that makes sense only to search engines. Which will only hurt rankings, anyway.
Thanks Ian, this is timely as I'm making some changes to my business and website. Btw, were you driving down Sodo going south where you saw the magificient performance?
Ian Lurie
David Engstrom
YES. I was. Actually, driving across from 4th to 1st. The guy was amazing.
Max Sokolov
Thank you for this article, Ian. You say that improving the navigation helps to improve rankings and bounce rate, which sounds obvious. The question is - to what extent? Is it worth the effort? Could you provide some exact data (even without mentioning your clients brands)?
Ian Lurie
Max Sokolov
Hi Max - As you can imagine, exact data is impossible to come by. Too many other factors involved, since we never ONLY change the nav.

I never tell anyone that any one thing is the silver bullet. Nor do I try to quantify the impact. SEO is about the sum of many small changes. But navigation is one of the few places where you can change the entire link profile of a site. It's one of the most impactful changes you can make.

I can say this, though: In the last 2 years, two clients in extremely competitive spaces (fashion and SAAS) went from unranked or below page 2 to top 5 after we updated the nav.

On the other hand, sites where we did everything but the nav didn't do as well.

Hope this helps!
Great points! I see way too many websites today that still have confusing navigations. I am not sure why that is, with all the SEO information that is out there. Sadly, I can say I see in the text as well. Sometimes I have no idea what the website even does looking at the content of the home page alone.

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