The Importance of Navigation

I have a confession to make. When I’m driving through cities, I tend to get lost. It doesn’t matter if I have driving directions printed out from Google Maps, Mapquest, Yahoo Maps, or some other map services to help guide me. I tend to miss signs that are hard to see, get distracted by pedestrians walking out in front of me, find myself in the middle of funeral processions, and often pull over in strange and sometimes not very safe looking places to find where I’m at, through the web on my phone. But, that’s not what I’m confessing to.

My confession is that I’m fixiated on navigation. I’m convinced that one of the solutions to high energy consumption in the United States could be fixed if the transportation offices of major cities were smarter about using signs to help drivers navigate through their roads. I think better signage could make metropolitan roads safer as well, and reduce congestion. Maybe I’ve looked at too many websites, and how the navigation on those pages can make it easier or harder to find what you’re looking for on a website. On a website though, if I have trouble finding what I’m looking for, I can easily find a way home. When I’m lost in the middle of Camden, New Jersey, it’s not as easy.

You would think that the many mapping and driving directions services on the Web would help. I wish they would.

Some recent experiences relying up services like Google Maps tell me otherwise.

I spent a couple of hours driving around on a recent trip to Annapolis, Maryland, to find the Maryland State Archives building. I probably drove past the building I was looking for 7-8 times, but never realized that I had. Google Maps told me to look for it on one side of a major road, when it was actually across the street. It didn’t help that it was a Saturday afternoon, and a Navy football game was about to start, with pedestrians and heavy street traffic everywhere. I finally found signs for the Annapolis Visitors’ center, and stopped by there to ask for directions. The people running the office conferred for about 20 minutes, and gave me a map with the location circled. It was then that I realized that Google had mislead me. Then again, the 6 or 7 people I tried to ask for directions before I got to the visitor’s center didn’t know where the building was either (so much for relying on social networks and the wisdom of crowds).

On my way back from Annapolis, my Google Maps directions for Washington DC told me to make a left turn on Sixth Street, and stay on it until Constitution Avenue.

5. Turn left to merge onto US-301 S/US-50 W toward I-97 Continue to follow US-50 W Entering District of Columbia 27.3 mi
6. Turn left at 6th St NW 0.8 mi
7. Turn right at US-50 W/Constitution Ave NW Continue to follow US-50 W

As I approached Sixth Street, I saw a “no left turn” sign. Undeterred, I drove past, and made the first right, followed by the next first right, and then another right onto Sixth Street. I worry a little when I see directions like that in Google Maps, and think about Google’s driverless cars.

Another navigation problem that disturbs me is the lack of numbers on buildings. Why do so many businesses fail to put their street numbers in a place that is easy to see from the road? When you’re driving along, looking for a specific address, and almost every building you drive past displays their name in bright neon or large golden arches, but fails to show their number, you end up doing a lot of u-turns. It’s really shameful to spend an hour driving to some place, and then another hour trying to find that place once you’re within a mile or two. I usually copy the phone number of places I’m trying to visit on my printout of driving directions so that I can call, and have them guide me the last mile or so once I feel suitably lost and frustrated. There are websites like that, where once you arrive, and it seems like they might have something you’re interested in, you can’t find it. This seems to happen to me a lot on government websites for some reason.

A problem I tend to experience more in rural settings are rustic street signs. Instead of the standard looking road signs that tell you which road your looking for, or passing, some communities thought it would be a good idea to draw attention to their unique charms by using unusual signs that are both hard to see, and hard to read. There’s a heavily wooded area around the border between North Western Delaware and Pennsylvania with narrow curving country roads where the street signs tend to be wooden plaques, painted hunter green, often twisted at unusual angles, so that if you’re lucky enough to see one amongst the tree leaves, you pretty much have to stop to read it. It’s a little like a link on a webpage that’s the same color as the text that surrounds it, and doesn’t have underlines or some other decoration that makes it stand out in any way.

The web is a collection of interconnected documents, and the links between pages deliver us from one place to another, sometimes blindly, and sometimes with great skill and forethought.

When a search engine displays search results, it shows us a combination of page title, snippet, and URL (and some additional information) for the pages it lists in results. A well written page title and persuasive snippet may make the difference between whether someone clicks on a result to visit, or chooses another page.

When you’re doing keyword research for a site, one of the things you should be thinking about when choosing keyword terms and phrases for specific pages is how appropriate and useful those terms might be when they appear in links to pages, either within navigation links, or in a link within the content of a page.

Does your site navigation, and the words you use in links help visitors to your site gain an idea of what they might find on the pages of that site? Do they help pinpoint the places that may be set aside specifically for them, and what they are looking for? Do they give browsers an idea of where they are, where they can go, and where they’ve been on your pages?

Do you include an HTML sitemap to provide visitors with an alternative way to find what they might be looking for? Or a site search?

Do you test the navigation of your site with people who aren’t very familiar with it, to see how easy or difficult it might be for them to find something on your pages, or to see if they can perform certain tasks on your pages?

I’m fixiated with navigation, which is probably a good thing since part of what I do as an SEO is work to help people find things on the Web.

Have a happy holidays, and if you’re doing any driving over the long weekend, I hope your journey is a good one.

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49 thoughts on “The Importance of Navigation”

  1. Great Post, Bill. Site navigation is something that far too few business websites do correctly. Like Steve Krug says, “Don’t Make Me Think.” If I find a website via google/ social media network/referral and I have to think about navigating around the website to find what I am looking for, I will click the “back” button on my browser and seek out a different website to find what I am looking for.

    I’m sure many others do the same.

    Happy Holidays!

    Ryan

  2. Google Maps are archaic like sundials, get a decent GPS Bill (JK)

    Bill, I hope you have a wonderful Christmas!

    Charles

  3. Proper navigation through a website or at least laying out the entire website through a more user friendly and navigation friendly setting definitely gives you an advantage. I have a lot of experience getting into websites that confuse me as to where the login is, which is which and where is where. I totally get uninterested once this happens, I feel like the developers did not plan their site map ahead.

  4. Good topic, Bill.
    Every now and then, I land on a very intricate site that requires several consecutive steps between points A & B, and it turns out to be such a painless experience that I’m struck with the excellent job done.
    Seems a shame that such is the exception rather than the rule. It gives me the urge to give them a gold star, when all they’ve really done is what should be the norm.

  5. But all joking aside, navigation is quite important although many people have seemingly lost sight of why. Myself, I have always marveled at how grocery stores design their floor-plans and shelf layouts and have tried to incorporate some of those mythologies into my own websites.

  6. I know what to buy to you for Christmas if I want a guest post on SEO by the SEA.

    Also, I didn’t know Google was going forward alternative transport means. I’ll be looking into that.

    Happy Christmas to you and your family!

  7. Hi Ryan,

    Thank you for the holiday wishes, and for your kind words about this post.

    I often recommend Steven Krug’s book to people I know and work with if they haven’t had a chance to read it before.

    People’s bookmarks and backbuttons are too easy for them to push to go about designing websites that are hard to find things on.

  8. Hi Mica,

    I know the feeling. Sometimes that happens because a site focuses more the features of products and services that they offer, than on the benefits of those services and goods to the audiences that might use them. Sometimes it happens because a site just wasn’t well planned out. Sometimes sites just get so large that it becomes difficult to organize well, especially if it’s grown to a great size over time.

  9. Hi Charles,

    Thought about a GPS. I don’t know why, but I just don’t feel comfortable with the idea. :(

    I hope your Christmas is a wonderful one as well. Thanks.

  10. Hi Charles,

    It’s no coincidence that one of my local grocery stores has an open bakery, where the smell of fresh baked breads and sweet drive the impulse to insert baked goods into my grocery cart. There’s a definite science as to why some products are near others, whether you’re in a convenience store or some high-end grocers. I have 5 grocery stores within a few short miles of me, and each one seems to have a slightly different approach to their organization, though some things are consistent from one to another, such as the produce being on the outer edges of the store. It is interesting to study something like that, and see if you can learn something from it to use on a website. Thanks for the thought.

  11. Hi Jeremy,

    Merry Christmas to you and yours as well.

    Google’s been looking at transportation and transit for a number of years, from driving directs that seem to be growing more human friendly (sometimes in very subtle ways, such as telling you the nearest cross streets to your destination), to providing information about public transportation (including on Google Place pages), providing biking routes, and more.

  12. What’s up Doc? (Charles put me up to that)

    One of my favorite articles that I’ve run across on the Web is the User Interface Engineering post Getting Confidence from Lincoln which describes how a designer can make those consecutive steps a pleasurable and engaging experience. A lot of it has to do with choosing the right words as anchor text in links so that visitors have a good sense of what they might find on the other side of those links.

  13. Bill, if you think about it there are lots of offline businesses that have poured boatloads of money into consumer research, product placement, isle structure etc. depending on your own business model you can almost always find a successful offline model to study. If I had a game site where retention was important I might study casinos, and maybe I would focus on branding and study florists if I wanted to grab more of the impulse buyer market, etc. The you have commercial marvels like sea world whereas you see a wonderful exhibit and have just one exit, that being via the gift shop, how powerful is that!

    I have to say that I am quite fascinated with the impulse buyer crowd, they have the most complex behavioral characteristics. Even though we opened the physical store 4 years after the ecommerce web the correlations between the two and how customers behave have been most interesting.

  14. So well put! I see way too many examples of poor navigational layout on websites making it harder for both people and bots to “navigate” through the content.

    I strongly recommend the so called “Cafe Test” where you ask real people without prior knowledge of the site to perform certain task like e.g. ordering a blue widget, filing a request for something and stuff like that. It is an eye opener!

    Merry Christmas!

  15. Hi Bill,

    My hubby & I travel all over for his business and if we relied on Google, Mapquest, etc for exact directions we would probably end up like the joke going around for people to Google directions to China (it involves lots of swimming :)

    I do agree with you, it does seem that people often try to make it difficult to find a road or address number… maybe they are channeling “Where’s Waldo”?

    As for navigation on websites: Don’t Make Me Think. It’s simple & to the point book. Make it easy on your website visitors.

    Have a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year & Festivus for the Seinfeld nuts :)

  16. what about the use of bread crumbs?
    i think you forgot to mantion it.
    in my opinion it’s one of the most importent navigation tools for visitors to the site

  17. Oh the smell of fresh baked bread, and movie theaters begin popping popcorn just before the round to attract visitors to the stand, since that is where they make their money. So can we plan out smell-o-vision for a webpage? Interesting about grocery stores. The design of keeping stock items along the edges to make the shopping experience for some to go faster, while letting others explore, and then throwing something unexpected into the mix along the edge to sell more of a guilty pleasure. However, I wonder if it is good to be a little archaic at times to encourage exploration (not keeping it simple)? I am talking most maps with a grain of salt, since I am finding many to be misleading. Have a good holiday season Bill.

  18. It’s all about accuracy and up-to-date maps. What we might be seeing is a shot taken weeks or months old. While it will take longer for a street or building to suddenly disappear overnight, in a few weeks or months something major might have changed, like a yellow building repainted to green. If the instructions said yellow-colored building when in fact it is now green, I would certainly be confused and lost.

  19. This is a very interesting post i have come accross since a while. though we have had the technology of gps and gis and the enav but still travelling has always been a headache for the non familiar driver in an area. Besides civil engineering is reaching new heights with complex road designs that overlap each other at various places and angle drivers tend to get lost.

    just consider the case in india.. the western express highways are like lotus shaped so you cant really decide which way to take just by looking at the signboards.
    engineering is reaching new heights but navigational science needs improvement.

  20. I think clear signage is the single most important factor in navigation. This is easy enough to implement in the real world – airports are good examples. The trick is translating this to how a potential user navigates through a web site.

  21. Our e-store is hosted by an e-commerce hosting service. They have default navigation. But I found it not enough, so I manually inserted bread crumbs to important categories for navigation. And even to some specific product pages that get a lot of visitors.

    My only concern is how to measure the effectiveness of your navigation. Is it by less time on your site? Does the increase in conversion is enough indication?

  22. Bill,

    Great article and you make some very good points. I completely agree with people taking the time to really think about the keywords they choose. This is a major component when it comes to search engine rankings. Another excellent point you made was the HTML Sitemap. May people over look it, but it is an effective way to pass along link juice!

  23. Thank you for the post Bill.

    The biggest challenge with CMS was the auto creation of title tags and I recommend customising each and every one.
    Too many people negate the importance of each menu item has on Google rank. Each one appears most of the time on all the pages of a site and form part of the link hierarchy on the website.

  24. Just wanted to say that I absolutely loved your analogy of those “green signs on a green background” with hidden links. That completely made my day :)

    Living in the UK, thankfully the signs are extremely good (probably among the best in the world). Google Navigation (on Android) is pretty amazing, but does sometimes struggle with the very last few hundred metres (80:20 rule here, where the last little bit is so much more work to get right). Thankfully, by then, I’d have had road signs to follow for a while.

  25. Navigation is just so key. When a site gets it wrong, it’s a headache to correct.
    In fact, one should strives to keep it stupid… stupid simple.
    When it is too complicated, there is most likely something really wrong with the architecture itself.

    Good analogy with the GPS, though.

    Happy New Year from France (Bonne Année)

  26. Hi Charles,

    My post just barely brushes the surface of the ideas that you’ve commented about, and I agree completely that there’s some very interesting offline business models and approaches that you could study and introduce elements of online.

    I’m not a gambler, but I’ve been fortunate enough to vist Las Vegas a few times in the past few years. One of the things I found fascinating there were the differences between older casinos, and the newer generation, and how they’ve been set up. In the old casinos, it was easy to find your way around and locate things like restaurants and restrooms and exits. The outside world was visible through big windows, and you could look up and sometimes see clocks. The new casinos are built more like corn mazes with slot machines and card tables. Navigation was purposefully confusing, finding a clock unlikely, and windows to the outside unimaginable.

    I’m curious about how much your ecommerce experience influenced how your physical storefront was set up.

  27. Hi Leah,

    Thank you for the holiday wishes. I hope that you and your husband and family are having great holidays.

    I gave a friend a copy of Steven Krug’s book, and as he started reading it, he told me, “Bill, this is all common sense.” I responded that it was, but how often did he find that much common sense all in one place. He conceeded to my point, and later told me how much he enjoyed it.

  28. Hi Rosenstand,

    Thanks. I’ve talked with a few people who have done the kind of Cafe test that you recommend, and they’ve all said positive things about it. I haven’t tried it out myself, but maybe I should.

    Christmas was great, except for the Blizzard I ended up stuck in. I hope your Christmas was a good one, too.

  29. Hi Ron,

    Thanks for bringing up breadcrumbs. Used right, they can be very helpful for users.

    I’ve seen them used in ways that confused search engines, by including products or pages in multiple categories, and including the categories in URLs for those pages, so that if a page was listed in more than one category, it would have more than one URL. For instance, having the same page available at the following URLs:

    “http://www.example.com/category1/page.htm”
    “http://www.example.com/category2/page.htm”
    “http://www.example.com/category3/page.htm”

  30. Hi Frank,

    I had a hard time passing through the bakery section at one of my local grocery stores last week. I hurried before I put something in my shopping cart that I really didn’t need.

    Sometimes introducing something interesting and unexpected can be a good thing on a website.

    Have you heard of the idea of using a “secret garden” on a personal website to reward visitors who spent more time exploring a site? See: Patterns for Personal Web Sites → Secret Garden

    I’ve wondered for a number of years how well something like that might go over on a commercial website.

    I’ve come to expect the same of maps as well.

    Hope that your holidays have been great.

  31. Hi Peder,

    I agree with you that it takes a lot of work to keep maps up to date, and that the world probably changes faster than we may be able to keep up with. I think one of the reasons that we haven’t seen more “human friendly” driving directions from services like Google is that people do paint buildings, detours happen, and old businesses replace new ones.

    I know I’ve been seeing some quiet enhancements to driving directions, like information about distances of businesses to crossroads.

    There are a lot of challenges to providing accurate and up-to-date directions, and its a massive undertaking. In many ways, a lot of the challenges that Google faces in using crawling programs to map the web are exaggerated when it comes to mapping the world.

  32. Hi Paresh,

    The lotus-shaped express highways sound a little intimidating. I’m not sure that I’ve seen sometime similar in the US, but we do have our own challenging roadways here as well. How well do navigation systems and driving directions handle the challenges that civil engineering throw at us? I’ll confess again that I’ve sometimes gotten a headache looking at some sets of driving directions that I’ve printed out, before I even started driving.

  33. Hi Eric,

    Clear signal is definitely one of the most important factors in navigation. Airports are a good example, and I’m a fan of many of the metro/subway maps that I’ve seen.

    I think before we even get to making signs effective, identifying the best way to set up a site is fairly important as well, and the two go hand-in-hand. A great information architecture is definitely a good start to making it easier for people visiting a site to find what they might want to locate.

  34. Hi Jack,

    Sometimes the tools you end up working with can set up roadblocks (please forgive the pun). The breadcrumbs sound like they were a good idea.

    Some metrics that you might find useful are bounce rates for pages where you’ve purposefully set up calls to action, and pathways to pages where you would like people to visit another page. On pages that are purely informational, a bounce rate may not be as useful a metric, because the purpose of the page is to provide information on just that page. But, when you’re trying to lead someone towards making a transaction, across more than one page, a bounce rate can be a helpful metric.

  35. Hi Bradon,

    Thank you. A good information architecture requires that the keywords that you choose are well thought out and considered.

    An HTML sitemap does makes it more likely that a search engine crawling program will visit pages that you want indexed, and unlike an XML sitemap, it will pass along link equity.

  36. Hi Evan,

    Thanks. Definitely – each page on a site should have a unique title that effectively describes the content of a page, as well as a single unique URL.

    The anchor text used in navigational links, from a primary havigation across a site, to a secondary set of navigational links seen only in different categories, and even a third level of different links in different subcategories can effectively give a search engine a roadmap of the topics and concepts covered by a website, and help the pages of a site rank better in search results.

    I agree that too many people underestimate the importance of an intelligent site structure and the choice of anchor text in navigational links. It’s often one of the first things that I look at.

  37. Hi Ian,

    Thanks. I wish I was making up the green signs on a green background, but they’re there, and they’ve often made me think of hidden links. :)

    I visited my aunt’s house last weekend, and the street signs in her neighborhood are white monoliths (shaped like the Washington Monument), with the names of streets on each side. Someone driving by stopped me to ask for directions, and I’m not sure if they even noticed the street signs (they were looking for a specific street). They looked pretty lost, and I don’t know the neighborhood well enough to have given them directions.

    As I mentioned above, I tend to struggle with the last few steps in Google’s directions as well. Better road signs would be nice. :)

  38. Hi Laurent,

    Simplicity can be so important. The easier you can make it for a visitor to find where he or she might want to go on a website, the more effective the site can be.

    Thank you for your kind words about my analogy, and for your new year’s best wishes.

    I hope your 2011 is very good to you.

  39. I was aware of the “secret garden” concept for home and garden design, I never thought about that idea in application with web design. The grocery store chain Central Market (part of HEB chain) creates a winding pattern through its store, which forces consumers to be confronted with something new. They use nooks as a secret garden. It might be fun to explore ways for this idea to carry over to a website. Has to be well planned though. Thank you for the link Bill.

  40. Bill, I totally agree that navigate is important and there are times in certain cities when especially at night I have trouble reading the street signs because they are not placed in locations where they are readable or there is no light to shine on them.

    Interestingly enough, a tour through a Costco warehouse really illustrates a different strategy in navigation. There are no signs to guide you because they want you to get lost so you’ll stumble upon items and buy them. Navigation has a lot to do with your plan for the visitor.

  41. Hi Frank,

    You’re welcome. The Secret Garden approach has intriqued me since the first time I ran into it a number of years ago. It’s a pattern that I’ve looked for in stores and shops and other places as well. One of the best implementations of it that I’ve seen was a local skateboard shop, where if you were one of the regular customers, there was an area of the shop that you could hang out in, and socialize with others. If you weren’t a regular, you might not have really enjoyed hanging out there.

    The Grocery Store example you mention sounds like another nice implementation of a secret garden.

  42. Hi Jim,

    Decisions regarding navigation and structure of a website are amongst the most important that you can make for your pages.

    Ikea makes you navigate through their stores, from entrance to exit, with little in the way of shortcuts (except sometimes for one very prominent shortcut that takes you past their cafeteria), so that you see everything that they offer. Very different from a typical shopping mall anchor store that provides multiple entrances/exits from the parking lots and a way into the mall itself.

  43. I agree that many website don’t have very good navigation. Many times I find myself going back to the “home” screen just to find something.

  44. Hi Genna

    Unfortunately for sites that are hard to navigate, I’m just as likely to return to a search engine, or hit a bookmark, or type a new address in my browser as I am returning to the home pages of those sites. Weak navigation on a page can mean that people abandon the site rather than use a search box or go to a home page.

  45. Hi Raymund,

    Having easy to use navigation may make it easier for people to find what they might hope or expect to on a site, and may lead to more clicks, but bounce rate isn’t always an essential or important metric for every site. Some site owners are completely satisfied if someone finds one of their pages, picks up a phone and calls a number found on that page. Others may aim at revisits, bookmarks, printing of pages and other things that may fit more into their objectives behind publishing content on the web than visits to other pages on their site.

    An effective navigation is one that helps a site owner achieve his or her objectives and helps visitors meet theirs as well.

  46. Your post actually made me aware of something important: Often I’m too focused on keywords (good traffic, low competition) – but those keywords are sometimes not very useful for the human visitor. They may even confuse them and prevent them from finding what they are looking for.

  47. Hi Robert,

    Ideally, you should be able to build navigation that helps visitors understand and have confidence in what they might see on the other side of a link, and also helps search engines see what might be on the target page as well. When I’m doing keyword research, one of the elements that I try to consider is “appropriateness” or how well a term or phrase selected as a keyword might work as anchor text or part of a title or heading or within the context of a page.

    It is usually better to build useful navigation first, and then worry about optimization, otherwise the pages being created are less likely to meet the objectives behind it once people find those pages.

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