The Complete Guide to Mastering Your Link and Navigation Structure

website structure hand

The biggest breakdown in website architecture is a navigation structure that prevents visitors from easily finding the information they need and blocks search engines from indexing your content. It doesn’t matter how perfectly your site is optimized if your site navigation fails to get searchers and search engines to your content. Ensuring your internal navigation structure and links are set up ensures proper search engine spidering and helps visitors find information they need quickly.

Most people think of their website’s navigation is little more than the main navigation bar that displays at the top or right side of each web page. That’s a significant part of it, but in truth, there is a lot to know about how every link on your site should work in order to maintain a structurally sound, search engine friendly, and user-optimized website. But the main navigation is a good place to start…

Build an Efficient Navigational Structure     

When it comes to navigation, what is “efficient” for one site may not be efficient for another. Each site is unique and will have unique navigational characteristics. Here are some points to consider:

  • Should your navigation be on the top, the side, or a combination of both?
  • Should you include only main categories or sub-categories as well?
  • Should you use drop down or fly out menus?
  • Do you have enough room to fit your key pages in the navigation?
  • If not, what should be moved “off” the main navigation?
  • What other information needs to be presented in the navigational area?

These are just a few key questions that will need to be answered before determining the best navigational set up for your site.

However you choose to layout your site navigation, there are some “essential” navigational items to consider:

Logo Image
You should always include your logo with a home link at the top of every webpage. This helps identify your site and provides continuity from page to page.

Home Link
Besides your logo image home link, you need a “home” link in the navigation bar. Not everyone knows logos link back to the home page, so including this obvious link ensures anyone can find their way there.

About Us Link
Don’t make it too difficult for people to learn more about you. Including a link to the About Us page in the main navigation helps build trust and credibility.

Contact Link
Provide a clear and obvious link to your Contact Us page so visitors don’t have to dig for it. Hidden contact information is a common frustration for visitors. While it might cut down on the “unnecessary” calls, it also cuts down on sales from visitors who won’t do business with someone they can’t easily communicate with.

Phone Number
Many businesses don’t post their phone number, instead they redirect visitors to web forms. This can reduce the need for manpower, but customers need to feel secure that if they have a problem, a real person can be reached. Forms and email are too impersonal for some people’s liking.

Search Bar
Giving visitors a way to search your site via in-site search allows them to bypass the “search by navigation” option and get directly to the information they are looking for. Every click eliminated increases your conversion rate exponentially.

Checkout/Basket Link
For e-commerce sites, having shopping cart/checkout/basket links helps keep visitors engaged in the shopping process, making it easier to convert them from browsers to customers.

Navigation Design Matters                          

The links on your navigation bar are only one aspect of building an effective navigational structure. How those elements all function together makes a big difference as well. Recently there has been a move by web designers to try to cram more and more links into their main navigation options, which reduces the number of clicks it takes to get to content. Reducing clicks is almost always a good thing, but sometimes the needs of the visitor can get in the way of the overall site performance.

There are two types of navigational menus that I’m not a very big fan of, typically because when incorrectly implemented, it can cause problems for both searchers and search engines.

Sitemap Menus
A sitemap menu is essentially a top-tier navigation menu that has way too many links (i.e. a link to almost every page of the website.) This is usually done via drop down or fly out menus. The problem with sitemap menus is that by linking to every page from every page there is virtually no page hierarchy. Sub-categories are determined to be on the same level as their parent category. Visually we see this, but the search engines don’t. This can pose problems when you want to use that hierarchy for good site architecture.

sitemap menu

Home Depot uses flyouts to provide a link to virtually every category and sub-category on their site.

Flyout Menus
The problem with flyout menus is they are often difficult to use. The most common frustration is with disappearing flyouts.  The visitor places their mouse over a category, then moves to the right where the sub-categories appeared. As they do, their mouse goes too high or too low the flyout closes. So frustrating! In the image example above, Home Depot fixed this usability issue by creating a delay for the flyout menu closure.

Minimize Footer Navigation Links

In the early days of web design, footer links were used to duplicate the main navigation in case the visitor had images turned off. Today, very few navigation menus use images so there is no need for this duplication. Unfortunately for many site developers, the practice still holds.

Recently the footer has been used as an alternative to having a sitemap navigation in the main menu. Instead, it’s just created in the footer navigation menu. Unfortunately, the problems are the same, regardless of where you do it.

sitemap footer

The Home Depot doesn’t have EVERY link in their footer, but it sure is a big list that could easily be truncated.

The best use for your footer navigation is to have a few key pages and links without interfering with the visitor’s primary shopping experience. It’s really a good place for “housekeeping links”. But again, no need to display them all, just get visitors to the main pages.

Institute Site-Wide Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs are a great navigational tool that helps both visitors and search engines easily navigate your site.

First, it provides visitors with visual indicators as to where they are on your site how to conveniently move back without returning to the main navigation. When you use appropriate keywords in your breadcrumbs, you also give visitors an idea of what a page is about. This allows you to use headings for more than just category titles, since the breadcrumb covers that for you. This gives you the freedom to make headings more compelling.

Using those keyword indicators in your breadcrumbs also helps your SEO. These breadcrumbs are keyword-rich on-page links to the page on your site that best represents those keywords. Outside of your main navigation, breadcrumbs give you some of your best internal linking opportunities.

In addition, breadcrumbs help build stronger search hierarchy of your category, sub-category, and product pages. This internal cross-linking helps the search engines understand the relationships between these pages to determine the importance, level, and value of each page.

Use Keyword-Rich Link Text

The keyword-in-link strategy needs to be used beyond your navigation and breadcrumb structure. It must also be used throughout your site whenever you link to other content or pages.

The image below shows an example of how many people link to other websites. The link text reads “click here” or “read more”. Or in this case, both! The problem with this type of linking is the words in the link don’t provide any indication as to what information the visitor will find. They have to read the content around the link to know for sure.

link no keywords

However, if you look at this next image, you’ll see that the links provide both the search engines and shoppers with a clear indication as to what information they’ll find on that link. This extra indication provides search relevance to Google’s algorithms and an additional tag of relevance.

link keywords

Adding in links to paragraph text, not just headings as used in the images above, you can employ the same strategy. For example, instead of:

Click here to learn more about preparing personal tax returns.

You can simply say:

Learn more about preparing personal tax returns.

Many people prefer to have a “click here” call to action. That leaves you with two alternatives:

Click here to learn more about preparing personal tax returns.

Stoney G deGeyter

Stoney G deGeyter

Stoney deGeyter is the author of The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period!, and President of Pole Position Marketing, a leading web presence optimization firm helping businesses grow since 1998. Follow him on Twitter: @StoneyD and @PolePositionMkg.
Stoney G deGeyter

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3 thoughts on “The Complete Guide to Mastering Your Link and Navigation Structure

  1. Website navigation and interlinking is the essential integral part for SEO as well as for users to easily navigate to the portion for which they are looking for. I truly believe that Breadcrumbs are good way to guide search engines as well as users for deep links. Also, here I would like to add that avoid footer links as much as you can or give nofollow attribute to footer links such as news, careers etc.

  2. My preference is to make footer non important footer links (such as privacy policy pages, news, carreer, etc.) to be completely non-spiderable. As long as there is a link to those in the sitemap, there is no need to lose the link value by having them on every page. I understand the nofollow prevents the links from passing value, but last time I checked, link value is still being lost.

  3. Yeah Stoney, having a footer links doesn’t give any SERP benefits anymore compare to past 2 years. People are making search engine purpose websites,in return, Google has to launched various updates to keep relevancy.