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.


Author: Bill Slawski

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