website navigation

A Guide to Website Navigation: 16 Best Practices for Improving Usability

User-friendly website navigation is a big part of the user experience. With an intuitive website structure, you get better SEO and conversions – learn how to do it!

Usability” is a very broad term. Every pixel of a website impacts the user experience: colors, sizings, fonts, load speed, animations, navigation. Creating an amazing user experience is neither an easy nor fast process, yet it is worth it: it’s a win-win for you and your users. In this article, we’ll focus on the last item – website navigation – and how to improve it with an intuitive website structure.

Why usability is important

Short answer: users don’t like your page and Google knows it, so it will never rank high with weak user experience (UX) metrics.

Here is why it’s true. The whole point of Google’s search engine is to provide users with good and relevant content that fulfills their intentions. To make this happen, Google measures what users like and don’t like to improve the search results. One of the signals is if a user visits your page and goes back to the search results for something else: this means they haven’t found the answer on your page. This is a strong sign that your page is bad, so it won’t rank high. 

The most obvious and common reason for this is irrelevant content – users simply cannot find what they need. But the truth is that modern search algorithms can evaluate content quality pretty accurately, so if you are ranking in the top 10, the content might not be the main reason. Actually, content quality has very little sense if it isn’t delivered to users in a form they like, so having great UX is a must to take high positions in a SERP.

Another thing worth mentioning is the mobile experience since mobile traffic makes up for well over half of the whole internet traffic. In other words, every second user browses the web via smartphone. It’s a very different experience than using a desktop: no mouse, no keyboard, small screen. Websites should adjust to these conditions to provide great usability for all users.

Website navigation best practices

We’ve mentioned “intuitive” while describing website navigation, but what exactly does that mean? Intuitive website navigation means its elements are in places users are familiar with. These methods are time-tested for user-friendly website navigation.

Use standard navigation elements

Almost any modern website has the same set of navigation elements. That’s why it’s important to use familiar elements in order not to confuse users. Those elements are:

  • Horizontal navigation bar in the header. The best practice is to make it a single line. If there are sub-items, drop-down menus are the most optimal way to display them. If you have many children pages within a category, a mega menu is the way to go.
website navigation
  • Speaking of responsive design, the best practice here is to use a hamburger button that opens a vertical sidebar menu, since a horizontal layout doesn’t fit mobile devices very well.
website navigation

Another way of utilizing the hamburger menu is if your main menu is too big for a horizontal bar and drop-down mega menu.

website navigation
  • Last but not least is the footer menu. It’s a very flexible website navigation element: you can duplicate the main menu from the header here, include other important pages that don’t fit the main menu, place your contact/legal information – everything that should be accessed from any page of your website.
website navigation

For example, Amazon.com has a double-decker footer with other products, service pages (e.g. “Your Account”), and legal information (e.g. “Conditions of Use”).

Order pages correctly

Users browse pages from left to right, top to bottom: you should use the same pattern when ordering pages in the menu.

website navigation
  1. Order important categories and pages in the main menu starting from the top-priority ones.
  2. For dropdown menus follow the same pattern.
  3. Also, if you have some “service” pages (e.g. “Login”), you can separate them into different menus to divide users by intent: those who want to learn about the product and those who want to use it.

Name website navigation elements short and clearly

Simple rule: don’t write unnecessary words.

website navigation

In this example, there is no need to use the word “Parts” in the category names since the items are already in the “Parts” menu. Extra words don’t help users and distract from what’s important.

The same example contains items without the word “Parts” in it.

Use breadcrumbs

If you have pages with 2+ depth from the home page, breadcrumbs are a must. When actively browsing a site, sometimes it is difficult to remember where you are. Breadcrumbs not only visualize where you are at the moment but are also a very handy tool if you want to go up in the page hierarchy.

website navigation

In this case, the Desktop Processors category is just 1 click from you – no need to follow the path from the homepage. It executes the same role as the address bar in Windows Explorer.

website navigation

How to structure a website?

There are many ways to create a website architecture, and it greatly depends on what you have at the moment.

Create a structure from the semantic core

To promote a website in search results, you must have a semantic core – it’s a basement of your website’s content. Let’s look at the example of the non-existent online store with picnic apparel. The semantic core consists of picnic-related keywords with the search volume. From it, we can define the main categories and sub-categories.

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Since keywords have pre-defined priority (search volume), we can make the main menu based on them. Remember we were speaking of ordering? Note that Categories are sorted by volume, as well as the Sub-categories in them. This way we guide users by the most popular pages for the website. Also, note the naming: just “Tables” instead of “Picnic tables”, since all our categories are about picnic; just “Folding” instead of “Folding tables” or keyword-like “Folding picnic tables”. 

website navigation
website navigation

Compare those versions to see the difference: you may literally feel how much harder it becomes to process the information, which is no good for a user.

Validate your concepts for performance during the design stage with AI-generated attention analytics

Analytics-based structure

If you have your website running, a better way for you might be to use pages and metrics from Google Analytics or Google Search Console. The best practice once again is to order pages by priority. The best priority metric, in this case, is a page view regardless of the traffic source to aggregate all sessions from organic search, direct traffic, and referrals.

Consider the following: the main category page may not receive any pageviews. Instead, child items might be generating a lot of traffic, so you need to include the parent page in the website navigation. An easy way to do this is to create a category: based pivot table of child pages’ metrics:

website navigation
Make sure important pages are accessible

We were talking about ordering and categorizing pages, now let’s discuss other important objects for any website. Besides parent-child pages, there are always popular uncategorized pages (e.g. “Log in” page). Using page views as the main priority metric ensures those pages won’t be overlooked. To automatically verify if all important pages are included in the website navigation, run the website accessibility audit to check the internal links count and the crawl depth. Here is an example of an SE Rankings report: 

website navigation
  1. Depth means how many clicks a user needs to make to access the page. The homepage has a depth of 1, pages with links from the homepage have a depth of 2, and so on. You need to make sure that all of your important pages have a depth of 2, meaning users can access them from the home page.
  2. Inlinks are a count of internal pages that link to the destination page. The home page should have the biggest amount of those links. Make sure other important pages have a significant amount of internal links. For example, if the “Log in” page has only 5 inlinks, it means that it can be accessed from those 5 pages – for users logging in it would be quite challenging in that case.
  3.  

Analyze your competitors

Another way of creating a website structure is to examine your top competitors. If you see any common patterns, it’s a strong sign you need to implement those too. For example, the 3 top bike stores feature a mega menu for the “Bikes” category dropdown and bike-related pages/categories in the horizontal navigation menu.

website navigation
website navigation
website navigation

This means if you are thinking of creating navigation for a bike store, it should look something like this.

Regardless of the method you think fits you the most, the best option is to combine all these approaches together

More ways to improve UX

website navigation
Mobile traffic share from Statista

At the beginning we mentioned that navigation is one of the components of a user-friendly website, now let’s briefly talk about other improvements you can make.

Provide a responsive and mobile-friendly website

As we mentioned earlier, over half of the internet traffic comes from mobile devices. For you, it means that you must provide a smooth user experience for this segment.

Responsive web design means that all elements are accessible from any device: you can see and interact with them without any difficulties. This means all objects from the desktop version should be presented on the mobile page, be large enough to be seen without zoom, and can be interacted with using a finger.

Add internal search

If you have a big website with a lot of pages, you may want to consider adding a custom search. This feature won’t take much development time or interface space and will definitely save some users who didn’t find what they were looking for in the website navigation. 

The classic place for a search field or button is the header menu:

website navigation

Optimize page speed

Nobody likes to wait. Page load time impacts bounce rate more than you think: for approximately each second of loading time 10% of users exit the site.

website navigation

Here is how the bounce rate correlates with load time from Google.

Not only does the bounce rate decrease, but conversion rates are also lower for slow pages (appr. 2% per 1 loading second).

Keep a consistent page structure

It may sound obvious but it is worth mentioning. Main website navigation elements (menus in header, footer, and sidebar) should not change from page to page. It would be confusing if the main menu navigation on one page was a horizontal bar, and the next page you visited had a hamburger menu instead.

Exclude links to non-200 pages

Imagine following a link and seeing a 404 page – confusing, isn’t it? When this happens, it dramatically changes the user’s attitude toward the website as a whole. That’s why you need to keep track of page response codes on a regular basis.

Also, make the 4xx page template user-friendly: make it appear like everything is fine, and include some website navigation elements like a search or link to the homepage.

website navigation

The default 404 template is perceived like the site is broken completely – it’s a sure thing some of the users won’t go back and leave the site after they see something like this:

website navigation

For CTAs use buttons instead of links

If the page implies some action needs to be done, make sure it’s big, contrasting, and distinctive. Imagine an online store with a “Buy” button somewhere in the product description highlighted as a regular link. Not only does it destroy your conversion rate, but also confuses users who want to make an order.

Improve readability

If the text is hard to read, very few people will finish it. Fancy words, long complex sentences, unnecessary wordiness, poor formatting – all of this makes your text less attractive. You already know the result: poor conversions and high bounce rates.

Be careful with marketing elements

Let’s be honest: ads and popups are annoying. Yes, sometimes they are a necessary evil, just be careful with them. The best case is to measure the efficiency of these elements to completely exclude the lowest-performing ones. For all others make sure they don’t distract users too much. For example, advertisements should not cover the content the user came for and a banner should not pop up after just 10 seconds on a site.

Summary

Website navigation has a large impact on the overall user experience, which affects SEO, traffic, and conversions. It’s hard to calculate the exact impact it has, but you don’t need to. Taking care of customers is mandatory for any successful business. In terms of online business, you show your attitude toward users via usability. You can have the best content and marketing in the world that generates traffic, but if users feel frustrated browsing your site, chances are low that you’ll receive conversions. So start caring about users now, it’s a win-win opportunity.

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