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SEO Newsletter - BACK TO BASICS: Avoiding Navigation Pitfalls

By Susan Esparza, May 15, 2008

Few pieces of a Web site have to serve as many masters as the site navigation. It has to work site-wide but still be page-level relevant. It should be search engine optimization friendly and user focused at the same time. With so many factors to take into account, navigation can be a tricky thing to get right. Most navigation is built into the template, meaning that changing one thing changes every page on your Web site. The impact of a minor wrong step in your navigation can mean big problems for your site. The available options for the look and feel of a site's navigation are nearly limitless. But there are a few principles that you need to keep in mind when embarking on your design.

Determine Structure

The first thing you must do is determine what your top level pages are. These pages are going to be linked to each other and every other page on your Web site so it is imperative that they are important, appropriate and clearly labeled. What pages will your users need? What pages should the search engines see as the most important on your site? Knowing the major silos of your Web site will help you identify which pages are going to be the most worthwhile for a navigation link and what the anchor text of those links should be.

Use Absolute Links

When you're writing the HTML for your site template, always use fully-qualified links. Fully-qualified links are links that include "http://" in the target URL. Relative links begin with a slash at the beginning such as /pagename.html, indicating where the page is in relation to the current page. While absolute links are preferred in general, it's especially imperative that your global navigation is always working with fully-qualified links.

Check for broken links

Make sure that the links in your global navigation go somewhere. A broken link from your navigation is just asking for zero user confidence, a high abandonment rate and confused search engines. Remember, that 404 error is now a link on every single page of your site. Check your navigation carefully and make sure to correct it anytime you move a page. If your event is time sensitive, like California's Strawberry Festival which takes place this weekend, test your Web site and have it ready weeks before the event, not days. Search engines and users both need time to get the information.

Avoid Overlinking

As important as knowing what should be in your global navigation is knowing what shouldn't be. Many site owners make the mistake of tossing items into the bottom navigation that have no business being there.

Things that don't require a link from your global navigation:

  • BBB membership, other professional memberships - Displaying your membership in various organizations is good for user confidence. Link to them on the home page but leave them out of the navigation or at least rel="no follow" the images. Don't waste valuable links on pages that won't help you or your visitors in the long run. Doing so can hurt your siloing and PageRank funneling efforts.
  • Links to your hosting company or Web designer - Though your hosting company might be the very best in the whole world, don't link to them from every single page of your site. Instead, consider writing them a testimonial grade link and putting it on an acknowledgements page under the About Us section. Referring people to your providers in a way that is cogent and targeted is far more useful than a link in the navigation.
  • Every page on your site - The object of your navigation is to give your visitors a path into your site, not give them a link to every page you've ever written. Site maps are there for documenting all your pages. Leave the global navigation simple and clean.
  • Home - A very common sight in global navigation is a link that simply says "Home" or "Index". While it is important to provide a way back to the beginning for your users, your navigation should use words that make sense for your site. Unless you're selling real estate, there's no good reason to use the word "Home" as your anchor text. Consider your site's main theme and link appropriately. If you sell used cars, make [used cars] the anchor. If you sell cowboy boots, use that. Wasting a global navigation link on something as non-descriptive as "Home" serves no purpose.

Keep It Consistent

Navigation that changes from page to page is confusing for users. If a visitor cannot determine from page to page how to move through the Web site, they will very likely abandon it with an unpleasant impression about your brand. If the look and feel is very different, the visitor may even assume they've been taken off-site without warning, and that will damage trust.

In the following screenshots you can see that the home page for the Strawberry Festival is markedly different than the interior pages, so much so that clicking through leads a visitor to wonder if they've reached the correct site or not.

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Even little differences like the formatting of your footer may raise eyebrows. If you're not using a global template, make sure that you have other ways in place to ensure continuity of design. Again using the Strawberry Festival Web site as an example, you can see that their footer changes size, fonts and links from page to page, offering a user confusion as to how to navigate the site and doubts to the authenticity of the information.

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Stop Drop-Down and Forms Abuse

Many sites use drop-downs and forms in their navigation, requiring the user to make a choice before they can proceed into the Web site. This can be a severe problem for the search engines which are not able to fill out forms or use drop-downs. The major search engines are working on solving this issue, with Google recently indicating that they've made some progress in that direction, but until there has been a firm statement that the problem is not merely being studied but has actually been solved, it is best to ensure that search engines have some other way to access the pages of your site.

Taking the time and care to properly form your navigation can aid your site's search engine optimization efforts while also helping your users. Even if your Web site has every answer that a searcher could want, if it has navigation that is confusing, irregular and broken, no visitor, whether human or search engine, will ever want to stay long enough to find out how much value the site holds.


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