Walk into any grocery store in America, and chances are you can find the produce, or the milk, or the bread pretty darn fast, without ever consulting a store directory. The reason isn’t your superior powers of navigation, but rather the fact that store layouts are fairly standard. Finding your way around becomes intuitive.
If, on the other hand, you entered a store where the produce was in the middle aisle, the milk by the front door, and rows of hard goods alternated with rows of food products, you’d find it terribly disorienting. If you stayed at all, chances are you’d purchase much less than usual.
So it goes with website navigation. When visiting a new site, people expect to find certain things in certain places. When that doesn’t happen, frustration can result quickly. To help people find their way around your web store, keep your navigation intuitive, clear and consistent.
Make It Intuitive. The most common navigation scheme has navigational links horizontally across the top of the page, down the left side, and along the bottom.
Use the top navigation to highlight your main product categories. That way, people will have a logical starting point as soon as they reach your site, no scrolling required. Also keep any actions you want people to take – such as request a catalog, search for products, subscribe to an enewsletter – in the top navigation area.
Use the left column to repeat your major product categories and expand on them. Don’t lump everything in one long list, but create logical groups, divided visually, and alphabetize subcategories beneath each. Try to limit the number of subcategories to somewhere between 4 and 12.
Also on the left side, include any information that will help visitors make a buying decision, such as testimonials, plant selection guides, or a guarantee.
The bottom navigation is typically much less prominent than the top and side navigation bars. It serves two purposes. For one, it’s where housekeeping items like privacy policies and site maps are generally found. Second, it’s a good idea to repeat major links found in the top navigation to help reduce the amount of scrolling needed to get around the site.
Make It Clear. One common cause of navigational confusion is a long laundry list of product categories, in no discernable order. That forces visitors to read the entire list to find what they’re looking for. Instead, divide your products into broad categories, keep the list of subcategories reasonably short, alphabetize each list of subcategories, and separate each section visually.
Another common cause of navigational confusion is the names of the links themselves. Never name a link something so obscure that it’s not obvious where it will lead. (Where will “Garden Gossip” take me?) And always keep link names as short as possible. (For instance, replace “Not sure which rose to choose?” with “Selection Guide.”)
Be wary of starting your subcategory names with an adjective. For instance, people are more likely to look for pruners under “T” for “Tools, Hand” than they are under “H” for “Hand Tools.”
Make It Consistent. Keep the navigation the same on every page. Don’t change it just for variety, and never, ever have a page without any navigation. Remember that many people don’t enter your website from the Home page. Make it easy for every visitor to find their way around, no matter which door they use to enter the store.
Test It! Once you think you’ve perfected your navigation, see if your customers agree. Remember, what you, your webmaster and your staff think doesn’t really matter. What your customers and prospects think is the only thing that counts. If they can’t find what they’re looking for quickly and easily, go back to the drawing board and keep simplifying until they can. The success of your site depends on it.