Over the years I have visited and evaluated thousands of websites. In fact, in one month alone back in late 2013, I remember reviewing more than 500 websites as part of a website report I created.
And I can tell you that I have seen a LOT of websites destroyed by completely confusing website structures, or otherwise hard-to-use websites that are doing the exact opposite of helping potential clients become customers.
What is navigation?
When I talk about navigation, I’m largely referring to your website’s menu, which serves to help visitors to your website get around your site, as they learn about who you are, what you do, and how you can help them with their needs.
Essentially your navigation is a map that works to guide people to where they want to go on your website.
But unlike in the real world (where if you have a cruddy map, you’re probably just going to be stuck), in the online world, if someone is lost and overwhelmed, they’re not stuck.
They’re just going to leave your website altogether.
Given the amount of effort that so many of you are likely putting into building your website traffic and getting those eyeballs onto your website in the first place, it’s a bit of a kick in the teeth to lose them due to confusion on your website.
How do you know if you’ve got a solid map?
Good navigation on your website is going to feel completely intuitive for your users, which means that they won’t have to struggle to find the content that they’re looking for.
Why? Because you’ve made it so clear and easy for them to know where to find what they’re after.
Your navigation structure should allow someone to land on any page of your website and find what they need within three clicks. Also, keep in mind that not everyone will start on your homepage.
Create a Sitemap
The first thing you can do is to create a sitemap before you start building your next website. It can be extremely helpful to create a visual representation of all the pages on your website and their relationship with each other.
I have talked in past videos about the importance of getting clear on what the goals are of your website before you start designing or building anything, and creating a sitemap will go a long way to helping you ensure that your site is organized to reinforce your goals.
Neil Patel has a great blog post about Why You Should Build A Sitemap Before Designing Your Site but I wanted to highlight one of the points he makes because this is something I see happen all too often.
In that post he says:
All too often companies start with a “business card” website and later “Frankenstein” together functionality based off impulsive decision making. Instead, take a step back before the first company site is launched and determine the goals of the website. This can save an enormous amount of time, money, energy and resources.
This is so on point.
Website Needs & Goals
In How to Determine Your Website Needs, I talked about not only considering the goals of your website but also your short-term and longer-term needs.
If you’re building a new house, you’re not going to just design the blueprints with your immediate needs in mind.
When you know you’ll need a fourth bedroom in a couple of years, you design with that fourth bedroom in mind, even if you don’t need it right away.
If you don’t, you’ll find yourself trying to figure out how to make it work with the original plans at a later date — it might work, but it may not.
And like Neil said, you end up with a Frankenstein that simply doesn’t serve your website goals effectively.
Now, there are online tools you can use to help you with this, but to be honest, I’m a big fan of using good old-fashioned pen and paper when it comes to the initial planning of how a website’s content will be organized.
You can also use post-it notes to plan out your website hierarchy.
What’s most important is finding a medium that works best for you to get your thoughts down into a coherent, organized form.
Curb the Clutter
While you’re creating your sitemap, ensure that you curb any sort of clutter.
There is definitely such a thing as providing too much information when it comes to navigation, and if you’ve got eight or more options in your menu, your navigation is probably becoming too cluttered.
For most small businesses, I would say that six to eight primary menu items are plenty. If you’ve got more than six to eight menu items, your navigation will start to feel a bit cluttered, which adds to a feeling of overwhelm on the part of your website users.
Take advantage of sub-navigation like drop downs, to let your website visitors know what other content they can find on your website.
To ensure you can easily use drop downs, you’ll want to make sure your primary menu names are general enough to allow expansion of your content in the future, while still being descriptive about what users will find in that area of your website.
For example, having a menu option called “About” is going to allow a broader range of page content to be listed underneath it, as opposed to just “Team”. In fact, “Team” could easily go underneath “About”, along with other content about who your business is and who you serve.
Provide an Easy Way to Get Home
You can help create a more user-friendly navigation by ensuring you provide an easy way for visitors to get back to your homepage.
That doesn’t mean you have to have a “Home” link on your menu, as long as you have a logo that links back to the homepage, which is what your website visitors will most likely expect your logo to do.
That said, there are mixed opinions on whether you should have a “Home” link in your menu. Some marketers are adamant that you need it, while others say it’s a very outdated notion.
The case for having a “Home” button is often that it can reassure and confirm to your visitors that they can explore your website with the confidence that they can easily get back to the starting point of your website, which provides an overview of what you can do to help them.
Your homepage is often the doorway to your website for your visitors, but it isn’t always, so you want to make sure it’s easy for your users to get home. If someone is feeling at all lost on your website in terms of finding what they’re looking for, they’ll often head back home to get their bearings.
For example, if a visitor enters your website via a specific blog post, the chances are good that if they want to learn more about you, they’ll move from the blog post to your homepage, as a starting point.
The easier you can make this process for them, the happier the website visitor.
While I don’t believe that having a “Home” button is a deal-breaker, I do often like to have one in the menu for the reasons I just outlined. Essentially, it reduces friction for your website visitors, and friction very often leads to a frustrated user.
That said, there’s a lot to be said for reducing the number of options in your website’s menu and creating a cleaner, simpler navigation for your web visitors. If adding a “Home” button to your menu is going to contribute to a more cluttered feeling website, then you may need to make a judgment call about whether you need to have it.
However, you must absolutely make sure that your header logo in the menu area is always linking to your homepage. This is a must-have for creating a user-friendly website, in order to make it easier for your users to navigate your website.
Consistency is the name of the game
I’m not going to spend too much time on this item because I anticipate that most of you will not be making mistakes in this area, but I do want to mention it because there are still some business owners who miss the mark on this item.
It should not take a crystal ball to figure out how to get around your website.
Part of creating intuitive navigation is ensuring that your navigation is consistent from page to page within your website.
This means that it should be in the same location, it should look the same, and it should offer the same navigation options. Doing so will help your website visitors become comfortable with browsing your website and know what to expect in terms of navigation.
If you change it up, you throw them off.
Infusing personality into your website is important to attract your ideal client.
But I cannot emphasize this enough – your menu names are not the place to get cute or clever. Cute can be confusing.
Save your personality for your design and your content.
If you want your website visitors to be able to easily find what they’re looking for on your website, and consequently be more likely to convert into clients, then you need to label the items on your navigation bar as clearly and intuitively as possible.
Don’t be vague.
Don’t sacrifice clarity for cleverness.
I have seen menu names like “Stories” or “Inspiration” or yes even “Miscellaneous” and “More”.
If I’m a first-time visitor to your website, I am going to have absolutely no idea what to find on those pages.
Don’t make it difficult for me.
Menu names like “Inspiration” may mean something to you as the business owner, but it’s not necessarily going to mean anything to first-time visitors to your website.
As a rule of thumb, your website visitor should immediately know what to expect just by reading the page name.
If you’ve got a blog, just call it “Blog.” Don’t call it “Deep Thoughts.”
Treat your visitors like their time is important
Ultimately the goal of providing intuitive, easy-to-use navigation is to treat visitors to your website like their time is valuable… because it is.
You want to get them to where they want to go as quickly as possible so that they have more time to look at the important stuff that will interest them and lead to converting into a customer.