Having a great-looking website is only part of the online battle; your website also has to be well-designed and, most importantly, easy to navigate for your site visitors. Bad navigation and long load times are two of the biggest consumer complaints regarding business websites, and the last thing you want is for your site to have a reputation for being unfriendly.

But what does good website navigation entail? And how can you get it? Here are the top seven ways to improve your site’s navigation and keep consumers coming back.

1. Optimize Your Menu Bar

This should be a no-brainer. Your menu bar will be your users’ main navigational tool, so be sure it’s simple to use and stands out from the rest of the page.

To do this, place the bar at the top, and use colors, borders and bold text to distinguish it and its content from whatever’s below. Instead of using a long list of options for your users to choose from, have them select from a small number of specific topics that open up drop-down menus for further navigation; this will keep them from getting overwhelmed by a bevy of options while still allowing them to navigate to exactly where they hope to go.

While the points above are general design tips, much of the following advice can also be applied to your menu bar in order to improve both its functionality and your site’s overall navigation.

2. Make Sure Your Search Function Works

Considering the ubiquity of Google and Bing, it’s no surprise that people love to conduct online searches. Due to sound algorithms, these searches often pull the top results we’re looking for with very little legwork on the consumer’s part. As a result, your website’s search function must be top-notch. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

Most website hosts offer plug-ins for Google, Bing and Yahoo to give you the best chance for a good search experience; however, search engine functionality really begins with the building and design of your website. You want to pay special attention to the way your content is indexed, including graphics and copy, how your links are built, and how your subpages are defined and tagged, including title tags and meta tags.

Make sure your search bar stands out from the rest of the content on your page to encourage its use. Place it at the top left or center of your header, and use colors and borders to highlight it. Also, allow users to filter your results; this makes the search function much more useful and allows your users to omit superfluous content to find what they truly need, which will further encourage their use of your search bar. Before you start developing your site’s search function, research industry leaders to see how their search operates. Econsultancy.com has a very useful guide that shows examples of effective and ineffective search bars and offers tips to improve your site’s search function.

3. Specificity Is Key

It’s true that most websites have very similar content groups: Who We Are or About Us, Products or Services, Locations, Contact Us, etc. However, it’s important to make sure that you label your navigation links as specifically as possible to make it even easier for consumers to find what they need. This also includes using sub-navigation that gives users the chance to drill down further into a particular topic when searching for the information they need.

For example, everyone has an “About Us” page, so change it up to something like “How [your brand] Got Started,” and have subtopics about your company’s different stages. If you sell products and/or services, don’t simply label the button on your toolbar as “Products and Services”: Be as specific as possible (i.e. “Women’s Shoes,” “SEO Consultation,” etc.).

This also goes for the content on your site’s web pages. Page headers and titles should clearly reflect the content that’s on the webpage. Links should be accompanied by anchor text that displays exactly what the source offers; users might be hesitant to click mislabeled, generic or unlabeled links, and they may flock to another site that seems more trustworthy with clearer redirects. Alt tags should also accompany all images and be specific to what’s displayed. These tips will not only make your site easier to navigate; they could also give a boost to its SEO.

You don’t have to be particularly creative when designing navigational text, but it’s best to take a moment to really examine the content you’re redirecting to and determine if a more specific descriptor might be appropriate.

4. Consistency Is Even More Important

When designing your website or working with a graphic designer, you’ll want to be sure to stress how important consistency is for your website’s look and feel. This will not only help with branding and the overall aesthetic, but it’ll make it easier for users to navigate your website.

For example, if a selection of your headings is linked to other content or pages on the site, then all of your headings should be linked in the same way. Additionally, if one hyperlink turns red when a user scrolls over it with a mouse, then all of the hyperlinked headings should do the same. Most web users are highly savvy when it comes to website design and navigation, and there are certain “design promises” they will expect from the sites they visit. This type of consistency in look, color and feel will make it easier for them to interpret and navigate your site.

A good tip is to establish and implement a brand style guide for both your design and copy. This will cut down on time wasted explaining the style to new workers and will keep your site’s navigation, message and image consistent throughout its communications.

5. Avoid Flash

While having interactive graphics can look cool, it can also affect your website’s load time as well as the look of your page. Also, if you happen to use Flash to display your hyperlinks, users without the Flash functionality on their browsers will be unable to find the links to the information they want. Additionally, since Apple iOS devices still do not enable Flash, your website will not display properly if someone is viewing it from an iPad or an iPhone.

6. Use Responsive Design

Just as Flash might discourage mobile users from going to your site, not having responsive design will likewise cause them to leave for other sites that are more mobile-friendly. Responsive design detects the device used to access your site; it then adjusts the layout of the site accordingly to make it a more practical viewing experience.

Without responsive design, mobile users are tasked with zooming in and using precision to click relatively tiny links. This makes navigating your site a grueling task, and many mobile users will undoubtedly bounce from your page to one that’s optimized for mobile.

There are many companies that offer services for mobile site development; use our article on building a mobile site to help guide the process.

7. Keep It Simple

It’s the golden rule of design, service and just about everything else: Keep it simple. Simplicity breeds familiarity and understanding as well as a level of comfort with the user. The simpler you make the navigation, the easier it will be for consumers to find what they need. Also, don’t think about designing your website or your site’s navigation for some nebulous “customer”; think about your customers specifically, and ask yourself some very basic questions:

What value are they looking to get out of your site?
What will they be most eager to find when visiting your site?
What do you want them to be able to find easily?
And consider your own online behaviors. When you visit a website:

What do you look for first?
What do you expect to see?
What do you wish the website did better?
By asking some fundamental questions and developing an overall plan for your site in both content and navigation, you’ll be able to keep your customers happy.

The importance of website navigation cannot be overlooked. Making it easy and painless for site visitors to find what they want in a timely manner will breed satisfaction with not only your website but also your company. And good karma is a precious commodity in today’s crowded online marketplace.

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