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The Best Website Navigation Practices

People always visit your website with a goal. But even then, many marketers have a very superficial understanding of website navigation. Here, we’ll help you easily understand what is website navigation – but also what it isn’t. You’ll learn how it affects conversions and even your visibility via SEO. Finally, we’ll share how to improve your website navigation.

What is website navigation?

In the simplest terms, it’s a collection of interactive elements that help users move from page to page. On a high level, these can be:

  • A navigation bar of any level
  • In-page navigation
  • A footer of any level

What should be in the navigation on a website?

We’re used to navigating websites using at least one primary navigation bar and a footer. These two components are present on most websites. Additionally, it’s rare to see a website without buttons or in-line links within the text body. The in-page navigation sometimes also includes other anchors, sometimes combining them into tables of content, an element known as breadcrumbs, and more.

We’ll explain all of the elements in more detail shortly, together with examples. But first, let’s learn how navigation actually works. This is fundamental to help you understand some of the following topics, including how navigation impacts SEO.

How does website navigation work?

Navigation elements use text and media hyperlinks to take users from one page or another. In some cases, developers are asked to include a hyperlink on a more abstract entity – a container. It’s an area of the web page that opens a link with a click. To make it more approachable, you can think of them all as buttons of different shapes, sizes and content.

Technically speaking, this screenshot from the HubSpot blog has 4 distinctive “buttons”, or linked areas, highlighted with red boxes:

On top of opening new internal and external pages, in-page navigation also opens up other possibilities. Hyperlinks on a website can be implemented to for example scroll to a specific section of a page or to open a popup.

Did you know…

In-page navigation helps with SEO

Traditionally navigation is what it says on the tin – it’s for the users to find their way around your website. But similarly, search engines use it to find their way around websites, too. The reason we’re focusing on in-page navigation is that search engines like Google can recognise the elements that repeat across multiple pages. When that happens, Google assigns lower value to internal links from reusable elements like the primary navigation bar and the footer. However, creating a network of internal links using distinct in-page navigation can be beneficial for the findability of your website.

Website navigation types & examples

Primary navigation best practices

Virtually every website has a primary navigation bar, which is often referred to as “the navigation” or “menu”. It’s a collection of links, usually text hyperlinks, but sometimes also media (company logo linking to the Home page) or container links (i.e. an icon and text wrapped inside a container).

On websites with a more complex structure and a large number of core pages, designers introduce hover over or click interaction to display more navigation elements without cluttering the screen. It shows just a single value while the menu is inactive. When a user hovers their mouse pointer over the item or clicks the item, a list of choices is displayed and they can choose a single option. Usually, the list includes only one or two columns/rows. We’ll cover larger hover over menus in the next paragraph.

Mega menus

Mega menus are a level up from dropdown menus. They usually use the same hover over interaction, or sometimes a click interaction, to display a much larger list of choices. A mega menu is usually a large, rectangular dropdown with several columns and rows, sometimes spanning the entire width of the screen.

Occasionally, mega menus include non-navigational elements, such as decorative images or a short blurb of text explaining the selection to the user. This helps ease people into navigating the more complex array of choices.

Responsive burger menus

Primary navigation takes different shapes to ensure responsiveness. It’s often folded until you click a button, commonly referred to as the burger navigation. It’s most popular on mobile devices, however, designers sometimes use it on desktop screens as well.

There’s a lot of controversion and debate around using burger menus on desktops. Generally, the hamburger menu on desktops puts your usability at risk. By using it, you introduce an unnecessary step (click) to the navigation process. Additionally, the discoverability of your pages decreases, as only 27% of people interact with hidden navigation on desktop, according to research by Nielsen Norman Group.

Mobile bottom bar primary navigation

On mobile phone resolutions, sometimes a bottom bar is used to put the navigation bar as close to the user’s fingertips as possible. This is a practice that is very common in mobile applications and is slowly being adopted by websites.

Highlighting the active page in the navigation bar

It’s a good practice to highlight the active page in the primary navigation bar. This reminds users where they currently are, and helps them avoid refreshing that page by accident. The highlight is used across all navigation types, including responsive navigation on mobile devices.

Secondary navigation bar

An additional navigation bar has several use cases, from websites of large organisations to content-orientated pages of SaaS applications. These secondary navigation bars often include options like search, login, accessibility settings, or even the increasingly popular dark mode.

Secondary navigation bars are usually simple and don’t have many interactions. They often allow you to access a different part of a website, and in some cases secondary navigation links to external pages – i.e. when an enterprise offers a variety of products under different brands, they might want to use it to link to those.

How to improve website navigation

Measuring the effectiveness of website navigation is complex, and it gets harder the more your site grows. But there are ways to easily test and improve website navigation. We’d like to introduce you to one of them, which can be done by anyone – the only pre-requisite is having Google Analytics installed on your website.

Find your way with breadcrumbs

Websites with complex structures, such as content-heavy blogs or e-commerce sites will often use breadcrumbs. The name is fairly self-explanatory – breadcrumbs show you the path you can take to get to the current page. It’s useful for quickly retracing your steps to browse for alternative content relevant to the current page.

Other types of anchor navigation

To some extent, website navigation is a free-for-all. We’ve seen the most creative (but not always usable) examples. However, there are a few more staples of anchor navigation:

  • In-line links exist on virtually every website, especially those that are content-heavy. Linking from one blog post to another is a great way to generate clusters of information for readers, and give them access to relevant articles.
  • In-page navigation bars are quite popular, too. At the lowest of levels, they’re just a formatted list of text hyperlinks. Visually, they can be similar to secondary or even primary navigation bar, but they only exist in the context of individual pages, not as a site-wide component.
  • “Local” navigaiton is another way to use hyperlinks. These often come in the form of tables of content, but can be used across any element. Instead of switching between pages, they usually allow you to scroll to a relevant section of the page. This behaviour is most common for various types of in-page navigation, but it’s also used in other navigation elements, i.e. on single-page websites.

Sitemap – a website navigation tree

We’ve mentioned various types of anchor navigation and text hyperlinks before. But a sitemap is a peculiar entity. It’s a collection of all relevant links on your website, which has several purposes:

  • Your team can use it to monitor and optimise the structure of the website, which is especially useful for larger sites
  • Users can easily refer to the sitemap to quickly find a page that might’ve been not as easily accessible otherwise
  • Search engines crawl websites by following HTML links, so having a website with all of them in one place can help them discover those links much faster. Yes,text sitemaps can be submitted to search engines but they are merely guidelines that lack context. An HTML sitemap can help search engines understand your site better, which will speed up the crawling of some URLs