It takes up just a few pixels, but your main navigation is arguably the most essential and ever-present aspect of your website. What to include as part of your main navigation can be a hotly contested topic inside your organization, and it could mean the difference between a website conversion and a bounce.
The good news is, when making navigation decisions, there are a lot of tools at your disposal to help you make the right call.
What should be included in it?
With all of the pages on your website it can be hard to determine which are important enough to be part of the universal navigation. For the sake of SEO and user experience, Orbit Media recommends keeping your navigation limited to seven items at most.
Card-sorting is a simple user-experience technique that helps you get into the minds of your website visitors and design the navigation from their standpoint. The good news is, you don't have to have any UX experience to run this exercise. Invite people from outside of your organization in for a simple 20 minute exercise. Lay out a stack of index cards on the table, each representing a major page on your site. Then ask the participant to organize the cards any way they see fit. Look for trends in how your participants group the pages on your site, and ask them how they would name each category. The resulting organization can help build the backbone of your site navigation.
A shot from a card-sorting exercise here at HubSpot Headquarters
If your marketing analytics software provides it, a conversion assists report is perfect for deciding what should go into your main navigation. An assists report flips the funnel on its head and asks: "What were the most commonly viewed pages among people who ended up becoming customers?" Below you can see an example of the conversion assists report for HubSpot. While some of our content offers garner a lot of traffic, the most common pages viewed by people who ended up buying HubSpot software were the products page, pricing, about-us page, case studies and partners. If you take a look at our homepage, you'll see that the navigation reflects this finding and prioritizes those critical pages.
If you don't have a conversion assist report, you can still get a sense of which pages are important on your site though the Visitors' Flow report in Google Analytics. While this report doesn't differentiate standard traffic from customers, it does highlight how people seem to navigate their experience on your site. In Google's words: "Visitors Flow is a graphical representation of the paths visitors took through your site, from the source, through the various pages, and where along their paths they exited your site." You can find it in any Google Analytics report, under the content menu.
How should I order my navigation items?
Order matters in website navigation. Cognitive studies provide evidence that webpage viewers tend to remember links on either end of the navigation most vividly. Often referred to as the primacy and recency effects, they speak to the phenomena that words presented either first or last in a list tend to pull more heavily on the attention span of viewers. So for your website, you'll want to be very intentional about what items you place in these spots. Think about what is most important for your typical visitor. In a great post about navigation best practices, web strategist Andy Crestodina suggests:
"Put your most important items at the beginning of the navigation and the least important items in the middle. “Contact” should be the last item on the list, putting it at the far right in top-level horizontal navigation, a standard location."
How should I phrase my navigation options?
How you phrase your navigation options depends on the type of business or organization you are. From the highly creative to the straight-forward and easy, options abound. In choosing the words to use in your main navigation links, think first about the terms your customers would use to describe those pages and secondly, think of search engine optimization.
Arguably the most clear-cut option for websites is object-based navigation. Object-based navigation places content under concrete (typically noun-only) categories. HubSpot.com is an example of object-based navigation, as is Savvy Panda's site below. This type of organization treats the navigation as a table of contents and groups pages into the topics or categories that best fit. Object-based navigation is also useful for search purposes, which I'll describe in more detail below.
Sites that are highly transactional may be better served by action-oriented navigations. To know when this is appropriate, ask your audience whether they primarily come to your website to learn about something, or to take an specific action. In the example below from Bank of America, visitors are clearly coming with an action in mind. You don't visit a bank site to read the "about" page like you might for a different type of company -- you come to bank, borrow, invest, and so forth.
For companies that have multiple audiences with clear lines, you may want to consider an audience-based navigation or sub-navigation as in the example below. This only works, however, if a visitor can easily classify themselves. For example, you wouldn't want to use small vs. medium size company, or marketing vs. advertising agency, since those lines are often blurred and may leave your audience confused as to where to go first.
In the example below, Boston College does a nice job of using an audience based approach in combination with an object-based navigation.
Search Engine Optimized
In addition to matching the way your audience instinctually organizes your site, you'll want to think of how to best optimize your navigation terms for search. SEO and web development agency Distilled has a good detailed post on the role your site's main navigation plays in search engine optimization. In it, SEO strategist Kristina Kledzik advises using Google Analytics and Google's Keywords tool to identify the search terms that are most commonly bringing people to your site, and use variations on those words as the guide for your website navigation. (If you have HubSpot, Keywords tools are already built into your account.)
Are there navigation benchmarks we should shoot for?
There isn't a lot of shared data out there to help you set benchmarks for your own navigation performance, so I thought I'd share a sample of the clickthrough rate (CTR) on HubSpot.com (Transparency is a value after all). I share this not as an apple-to-apple comparison for your site, but rather so you can get a sense of the range in clickthrough rate you might see for your various navigation items.
For example, despite the seemingly low clickthrough on the case-studies and partners page, we know through the conversion assists report that these pages rank as highly important for the segment of website visitors who end up buying HubSpot. So it's critical that you have multiple points of data for your navigation decisions.
Even if industry data were more readily available, the wisest choice would still be to set your own benchmarks. Take a read of your navigation CTR one month before and one month after any change to see how your choices have affected clickthroughs. Couple that data with data on the total traffic to your subpages and any conversion data you may have to give you a more complete picture.
The bottom line in navigation choices is to ground your decisions in data and customer interviews. Make sure you're prioritizing the items, order, and word-choice that makes the most sense for your website visitors, and track any decisions you make over time to watch their effects on your marketing funnel.