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How to Optimize Web Site Navigation

Key elements for a welcoming web site experience

Navigating the Web Superhighway
by: Alan Richardson

Make no mistake. the most impressive looking and product-rich web site will fail to convert visitors into paying customers if they are unable to more quickly and easily find what they are looking for. There's a lot of competition out there. Develop and design a web site that's easy to understand and use, and you'll attract more than your fair share of visitors - visitors that will return, and buy, again and again. Fail in this, and the only one's smiling will be your competitors.

How do we accomplish this? By utilizing intuitive navigation techniques. Use them in the development and design of your web site; then sit back as hordes of satisfied customers return to your internet business on a regular basis. And you'll find when marketing online, return business is your key to significant and effortless profits.

Ok, so what exactly is intuitive navigation - and how do we design it into our web site? I can tell you what it's not. It is not flashy, creative designs that entertain and distinguish you from the other 'dull' web sites out there. Simply defined, intuitive navigation implements a familiar and consistent look and feel across all the design elements of your web site. These elements include;

Menu:

Your website menu - the table of contents if you will - that directs visitors throughout the various pages of your site should be consistent, and included on every page. Websites that contain a menu on the home page only or certain select pages on the web site (and I've seen far too many of these), force visitors to use the Back button (or click on the logo to return to the home page). The common result, visitors do more clicking and visitors get lost. And visitors who get lost... well, 'get lost'.

And for Pete's sake, keep your menu style and placement consistent from page to page. Again, fancy and different equals confusion. Confusion equals frustration. And frustration equals 'no sale'.

Site map:

Another useful website element, and one that's missing in many business web sites, the site map is a web page that contains a hierarchical, top-down, organized list of all the sections, or pages, on your website. It's a road map through your web labyrinth, which can get you where you want to go more directly, that is, quicker (especially to access links). It can also make up for any design 'sins' on your menu. And for many left brainers, like myself, it is sometimes the preferred route.

Subtitle index:

For those large pages on your web site, which require page scrolling, it is preferable to include subtitles in your copy, for readability. Repeating these subtitles at the top of your page, linked to the subtitle in the copy, makes it easier for visitors to access or return to those sections of the copy that most interest them.

Back to top link:

Again, for large pages on your web site, having 'Back to top' links, between subtitles, or at the very least the bottom of your page's copy, allows visitors to return to the top of your web page with one click, without the need to scroll.

Text links:

Whether it's a menu item or other link throughout your web site, the use of simple and efficient text links is the preferred navigation method in most instances.

Yes, there's an overabundance of fancy and impressive buttons, graphics and rollovers available for navigating your web site. However, this is an area where it is mindful to employ the well-known K.I.S.S. method for keeping things simple. Text links are much faster loading than images. Now, for fast broadband internet access, the difference between text and image load may be negligible. However, there are still many potential customers out there still surfing on slow connections. For them, the difference can be significant. So, until we are all on the same connection page, you would do well to accommodate all visitors.

In addition, text navigation menus can contribute relevant text for the search engines, which image navigation bars cannot. And of course, text is often easier than an image for understanding the purpose of the link. Just remember - on the web, and for your internet business, it is always preferable to err on the side of efficiency over impressiveness.

Page footer menu:

Ok, we have our menu items at the top (or side) of all our web pages. So, why would we want to repeat them at the bottom of every page? Well, in addition to providing your visitors with just another, alternative, option for navigating your website, there are two instances when placing your menu on your page footer is more an essential, than a 'nice to have'.

(1) If you insist on using graphics for your main menu items, the inclusion of a text menu on the page footer aids both reader viewability and understanding, and ensures that search engine spiders can see you.

(2) Placing your menu on a frame is an easy way to ensure that your menu items stay fixed and in sight, even as you're scrolling through a long web page. However, although there are many advantages to using frames on your web site, there are disadvantages as well. Although more detail on the pros and cons is fodder for another article, let's just say there are many web sites that prefer not to use frames. In such instances, scrolling down a long page will also scroll your menu items, sometimes out of sight. A page footer menu provides a convenient way to access these items without the necessity for scrolling back up the page.

Containing an abundance of particulars, a context-rich web site can be a dense, confusing and intimidating jungle of information for internet visitors. However, by using time-tested intuitive navigation techniques, you can turn potential chaos (and lost customers) into a smooth and pleasant ride across the web superhighway.


About the Author: Alan Richardson is a well-known internet consultant and publisher with http://www.optimalwebservices.com - a Web resource firm in North Easton, Massachusetts, offering free advice and information for web-based small businesses and entrpreneurs.

To read other articles by Alan, click http://www.optimalwebservices.com/articles.

To signup for the free 'Optimal Web Services for Small Business' ezine, click http://www.optimalwebservices.com/subscribe




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