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Tips to Better Site Navigation

Too many site designers give too little thought to site navigation. Put a navigation bar at the top of the screen, a couple of drop down screens for further direction and there you have the site's navigation system. And it may work for some smaller sites that don't sell any products or services and don't want to get the site's message out there. But if you want your site to be successful, here are ten tips (actually think of them as rules for success) that'll truly enhance the visitor's on-site experience.

1. It's not about the buttons. Site navigation is much more than buttons, navigation bars, text links and a site map. All of those are neutral, passive means to direct visitors. Good site navigation actually directs the visitor through the purchase process and through the checkout quickly, confidently and securely. A good example: Amazon.

com. 2. Top-tier navigation takes plenty of planning. A well constructed system of roads doesn't just happen.

Somebody sat down and planned everything from which roads to build to how they'd be connected to how they'd be identified with exit ramps and street signs. The same is true of site navigation. It's not just putting together a flow-chart site map. That's just the starting point. That site map must then be analyzed for effectiveness and efficiency using a variety of visitors of varying degrees of computer literacy! Let's face it, some of us can bang through a site a 60 seconds while others fumble around, back-click and eventually leave befuddled. A-1 navigation is a critical component of site success.

Take the time to plan for that success. 3. Too much information is just as bad as too little. If the site is littered with links to other pages, flyouts or popups that provide step-by-step directions to nowhere and navigation conventions (buttons, tabs, etc.

), many visitors will become confused and/or distracted. The amount of navigation should be enough to get visitors to where they want to go but not so much that the don't know where they want to go. 4. Don't assume that the home page will be the first page visitors see. Sometimes it is, sometimes visitors will be linked in the SERPs to an interior zone page based on the relevancy to the user's key words.

So what does this mean? Navigation must be as clear and unambiguous on a third-level drill down page as it is on the home page. The last thing you want is confused visitors wondering why they're on your web site looking at the information on this page. 5. Visitors must be able to return to the home page from anywhere on the site.

When you get lost in some of these labyrinthine web sites, what do you look for? A link to the home page, right? The place you can start over your search and this time avoid getting lost. And what do you do when you don't see that large, clearly labeled home page link? Well, if you're like most users, you click the back button on the browser or you close it down altogether. The home page is a security blanket for visitors and you'll keep some visitors on site longer if the home page is always only one click away. 6. The more clicks the fewer sales. The "One-Click Checkout" used on some larger retail sites is a marvel to behold.

It makes buying (and buying more) that much easier. Buyers enter all of their personal information one time. Then, when they've loaded their shopping carts, they click on the "Once-Click Checkout" and they're done. If visitors have to click three, four or five times to find the product description, the service terms or the particular piece of information they're looking for, the site conversion rate will ultimately suffer. 7. Navigation must be consistent throughout the site.

Visitors, especially web-savvy visitors, quickly pick up on the visual cues provided by well-design site navigation. If you can provide color-coded links, and maybe even add identifying icons, visitors will pick up on it intuitively. With this done, don't change the rules mid-way through the visitor's journey through your site. Be consistent. 8.

Site navigation isn't just for eyeballs. The presentation layer (the site skin) should be designed for human sensibilities and intelligence. However, it shouldn't be lost on webmasters and site owners that search engine spiders also use site navigation to spider a site. Spiders follow links from page to page so consider spiders when setting up your site's layout. 9.

Tweak your way to site success. Even the best site designers can't prepare for all contingencies. It takes metrics analysis of visitor behaviors to determine which navigation is working and which is being under utilized or ignored altogether. After the site launch, start tracking visitor behaviors to isolate and remedy navigation issues. 10.

If it can go wrong, it will go wrong. It's true in life and true in the virtual world of the W3. Some visitor will do something that you (or your designer) never expected - find a rat hole, get permanently lost with no hope of ever finding a way out, mess up the checkout - something that no one could foresee. And while you can try to plan for these aberrations, they shouldn't be your focus. Your focus should be on a well-designed, well-marked system of site navigation that facilitates the purchase of goods or services with as few clicks as possible for the greatest number of visitors.

That's the site map to success.

Radin Yousefi is the CEO of Pluginlab.com. A software company creating some of the most popular tools for web site designers and developers. To learn more, visit www.pluginlab.com



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