What's the Right Way to Build a Website Navigation Menu?

Justin Harrison
Posted by Justin Harrison on June 22, 2018

How-to-Plan-Effective-Link-Order-for-a-Website-Navigation-Menu.jpgOne of the most important areas of your website is the main header navigation. Why? Because it's present on almost all of your site's pages (though it should usually be excluded from landing pages to optimize conversion rates). In short, it's the main tool new visitors will use to look for information about your company, and that means it's the fundamental conversion tool in your inbound marketing arsenal.

When looking to redesign your website, make improvements, or simply optimize your overall conversion rate on your website, you should take ample time to consider what role your main navigation menu will play. In general, we follow the theory that main navigation should guide users based on where they are in the buyer's journey. In other words, there should be a clear link for users who don't yet know you and your company, a pathway for visitors who are somewhat familiar with what you offer, and also links for targeting and appealing to key audiences.

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That said, there isn't one perfect way to do it. Different industries and websites have audiences with different needs, situations and goals, and the best path for navigation can vary from the suggestions below. Before you dive in and make any changes to your site, always seek out the advice of an experienced web-design pro, and do what's best for your audience. 

Learning from the Weidert Group: What does our navigation say about our strategy?

The main navigation is the part of the menu that breaks down your website into distinct sections. For many companies, these sections should appeal to different kinds of visitors you're looking to target. For us, we try to be really transparent in our main menu design:

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We direct our site visitors in six different directions:

  • The first link, "Expertise," is for those visitors considering the services of an inbound marketing agency. This area of the website is designed for visitors seeking marketing help and looking to learn more about us, our capabilities and what we specialize in.
  • "About Us" is the most ubiquitous link across companies' navigation bars. That's because "About Us" has a straightforward purpose: it's for visitors looking to learn more about Weidert Group as a company, including potential hires, clients and anyone who just wants to learn more about who we are. 
  • "Are We A Fit" allows prospects to dive into whether a partnership with us is what they are looking for. It's designed for visitors who are a bit farther along in the buyer's journey who are closer to making a decision about hiring an agency partner.
  • "Resources" is a catch-all link for visitors at any stage of the buyer's journey. Whether they're just becoming aware of inbound marketing or they're close to making a final decision, our "Resources" tab has something for anyone who wants to learn more about inbound marketing, and includes eBooks, tip sheets, pillar pages, case studies and more.
  • For companies looking to take an inbound approach to their marketing, putting "Blog" on the main navigation is meant to drive new visitors to your main area of learning and awareness-building. Likewise, since many visitors may come to your site specifically for your blog, you want to give them an easy path so they can find and consume your most valuable content.
  • Last but not least, our "Request Free Consultation" call-to-action provides another intriguing option for visitors who are close to making a final decision. It's an easy-to-find, noticeable target, and if someone is highly interested in working with us, all they have to do is click that button to get started.

Notice the underlined words above: "Considering," "Decision," "Awareness-building." Each of these reflects a stage in an inbound visitor's buyer journey. The awareness stage is the stage visitors start in, looking for solutions to their problems and frustrations. The consideration stage is the next stage, where a visitor has learned a few answers and is considering solutions. Finally, the decision stage is the stage when a lead begins to make a decision about a purchase opportunity. In more than one way, our navigation menu is optimized to guide visitors based on where they are in that journey. Let's take a deeper look.

Analyzing Link Order Based on Buyer's Journey

Notice the consideration-stage link, "Expertise," comes first. Why is that? Well, if a visitor visits our web page as their first page in a session, do you really think they're new? More often than not, a visitor who comes straight to your Home page is already somewhat familiar with what you're offering, or at least your brand. Thus, starting your link order with consideration is a very strategic approach to link order.

You'll also see that "Blog" comes last in the link order before the "Request a Consultation" CTA. That's because, typically, the last link is the second-most clicked-on item, and we want visitors seeking to learn more to go straight to where the company's best advice is: our blogs.

The 4 Steps to Planning an Effective Main Navigation

Now that we've taken a look at our navigation as an example, let's dive into the steps you should take to craft an well-optimized main navigation that will turn visitors into leads.

1. Solve for the buyer's journey

If you follow our example, it's not a bad idea to guide visitors to consideration-level content first (first link) and awareness-level content second (last link). That's smart inbound strategy. 

If using a simple, 5-section navigation, one could envision a contract manufacturer to OEMs with a navigation like this:

  1. "Markets"
  2. "About"
  3. "Services/Capabilities"
  4. "Quotes"
  5. "Blog"

However, there are more navigation types than just a 5-link setup. Often you see sub-menus for some of (or all) the links. We include a courtesy link menu above the main navigation. Still others have fly-out menus for each and every section.

2. No matter what, keep it simple

No matter what setup you choose, your main navigation should be simple. The fewer elements you have the better, because that gives each link more guiding power over where your visitors move. You want to help your visitorsespecially new onesunderstand what you do, but if you throw everything at them all at once, they'll be overwhelmed. For larger companies with several divisions, this is a particularly difficult and demanding task.

To help, you can review your website's Google Analytics visitor flows to see how users navigate your current site, and see which areas you can improve. No matter what links you use, however, keeping your main navigation menu items to 7 or less is a good rule of thumb. 

3. Keep Important Items on the End

Are you familiar with the primacy and recency effect? They're cognitive biases that affect how individuals recall information. For marketers, it helps explain why the most important navigation link is the first link, and he second most important link is the last link. Keep your two most important items on either end, and don't stray from that strategy.

4. No more than 3 courtesy links

Courtesy links are the smaller links above the main navigation. If a website has a sticky menu that scrolls with you as you scroll down a page, they usually disappear. They are not as important as the primary menu but still play a very important roll in your website's navigation. Your navigation's main focus should be on new users, whereas your courtesy links are usually for returning users. Because they are smaller and closer to the top, they do not stand out as much.

So what would you put in your courtesy links? 

  1. Customer Login / Portals - Focus on what returning visitors would be interested in. If you have a client portal or login area, this is a great location so your returning visitors can get quick access to those pages. Unless, of course, your primary service is accessed through this portal. Then, this should be a navigation item that really stands out.
  2. External Pages - This is a great location for pages that lead off of your website. You never want your main navigation to lead away from your website, but many companies have other online resources that are available off site, such as a user forum.
  3. Careers - Though the main purpose of your website is to convert potential customers into contacts, you don't want to overlook the importance of converting new hire prospects as well. While it isn't a priority, it's still an important aspect of your company and website, and the courtesy menu is a great way to include it in your navigation.

Should You Have a Call-to-Action?

One last area of the main navigation you should consider is adding a call-to-action. CTAs can be placed in either the main menu or up higher in the courtesy links. Using a CTA can help call out a very specific menu item that you want your visitors to select, such as signing up for your service or requesting a consultation.

A well laid out menu will help your website visitors understand what you do quickly and bring them to where they want to go easily. 

Checklist: how to prepare your website for inbound marketing

Topics: Website Design

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