Imagine how chaotic road travel would be if there were no signs to tell you road names, directions and what maneuvers are permitted in what areas. Aside from the mass confusion and inevitable accidents, most commuters would never reach their destinations and the entire highway infrastructure would be reduced to worthlessness. Similarly, an unclear navigational hierarchy on a website confuses users and leads them to abandon the site having not found the information sought.
Today, most web users do not go directly to a website’s home page and navigate through the site in a systematic manner. In fact, one study shows that in 2008, only 25% of web users begin at a site’s home page and move on to other pages, as compared to 40% starting on the home page in 2004. Web users today expect to find exactly what they want as quickly as possible, and that usually means using a search engine to find a shortcut to a specific page containing the desired information.
The lesson online business owners should take from this evolution in search behavior is that each page of a website should serve as a standalone resource in addition to playing its part in the site as a whole. To pull its own weight, each page of your site should contain appropriate content pertinent to the purpose of the page and provide a clear depiction of how the page fits into the website as a whole.
Communicating to users how a page fits into the site overall can be fairly simple, but is often overlooked as site owners mistakenly assume that brand new visitors are able to navigate the site as easily as the person who designed it can. This is like assuming that drivers can navigate unfamiliar roads with no signs telling them what road they are on, what direction they are headed or the names of anything around them. It is certain to result in mass confusion and few people successfully reaching their destinations.
Clearly, navigation is important to the usability of a website. Online marketing efforts are futile if the site itself is confusing to visitors, so how can you ensure that your site navigation is up to par? Here are a few pointers:
Keep navigation consistent. A uniform look and feel throughout all pages of a site gives it a coherent, professional appearance, and makes for easier navigation. For usability purposes, the main navigation should appear in the same area on each page throughout the site.
When you are driving along an unfamiliar interstate, you can find where you are going because you know to glance to your right and overhead for signs telling you what interstate you are on, what direction you are headed and what roads and cities lay ahead. You know where to look for those signs because they are consistently placed on interstates all over the country. Users have similar expectations for website navigation.
Bear in mind that on most sites, the main navigation controls appear across the top and/or down the left side of each page, so most visitors will look to those areas first. Consistent navigation throughout your site makes users more comfortable, an important factor in closing more sales.
Use breadcrumb trails. A breadcrumb trail is a tool that shows users exactly where the current page lies within a website, and gives them the option of visiting certain other pages with one click. You have likely seen this type of navigation even if you were unfamiliar with its name. If you were looking at a product page for diamond necklaces, the breadcrumb trail would show what levels of navigation you would go through to get to that page, for example:
Home > Jewelry > Necklaces > Diamond Necklaces
The example above tells the user where he or she is – on the ‘Diamond Necklaces’ page – and gives the option of returning to the Necklaces category page, the Jewelry category page or the Home page with one click. Breadcrumb trails can appear with various formatting, and are occasionally vertically oriented.
Provide a shortcut home from anywhere. Getting to a site’s home page should be exceptionally easy from anywhere within the site. Including a link to the home page in the same location across all pages of the site is good practice. Most sites have a home page link in the upper left corner that corresponds with the company name or logo. While a link to the home page can technically appear anywhere, placing it in the upper left corner is consistent with most users’ expectations and will make for ease of navigation. Having consistently placed links to your Contact page visible at all times is also good for retention.
Let users search for what they want. Providing your visitors the ability to search expands their options for finding what they are seeking on your site quickly, thus reducing the chance that they will give up and look elsewhere. A user may not know how to locate certain information using the menus, or may not want to waste time clicking around the site. Search boxes have become increasingly common to the point that many users expect search functionality on all sites they visit.
Covering these navigational basics on an ecommerce site will pave the way for a quality user experience and increased conversions.
-Pam Westbrook, Ecommerce Marketing/Copywriting