In my work as a digital marketing analyst for Hilti, the subject of the website’s main menu comes up often. My colleagues often want to know how effective the various links in the menu are in driving traffic to the pages they care about. And the requests to put new content in the menus can be numerous at times. A recent request to add some items to the main navigation got me thinking about best practices and standards our company should have regarding the links in the menu. Such a checklist of standards could help us avoid some of the political battles we all face regarding inter-departmental competition for space in the website’s menu.
So I went back and reviewed much of the material I’ve collected over the years regarding menu purposes and principles, as well as my library of resources on information architecture (IA). What I came up with was this following checklist of ten items to consider when adding new links to the main menu of your website.
The checklist has both brief descriptions of things to check for and more details citations of why those things are important. You’ll notice that all my citations come from the Nielsen Norman Group (NNG). This is because a few years ago I took a course about information architecture for websites as part of my UX certification program from the NNG. During this course, we discussed the main purposes of website menus, the primary one being to help visitors find what they are looking for. On the internet, competitor websites are also just one click away. Therefore, it is important to help visitors find what they are looking for quickly to keep them on the site and engaged with us.
Good menus, says Jakob Nielsen, “improve the navigability of your site [and] by helping users find more, they’ll help you sell more” (see Mega Menus Work Well for Site Navigation). I believe if you and your company strive to follow the guidelines in this document you will achieve just that–users will be able to more easily find your content that they are looking for and your conversions rates will go up.
The following guidelines should help your site, whether your information architecture is the result of research and testing, or if your menu has a less than optimal IA that you inherited and has more influence by company politics than usability best practices. And while I think the checklist is pretty good, that’s not to say it can’t be improved. If you have any suggested edits or additions, please let me know. Thanks.
Here’s the Checklist:
|□ Link is truly necessary in menu||Too many links in the menu can cause clutter, make things harder to find, and ultimately do more harm than good.||Rather than cramming everything into the menu, “Instead, make each top-level menu choice clickable, leading to a regular Web page where you present all dropdown options in plain, fully accessible HTML.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/mega-menus-work-well/
|□ Link goes to content that is important to end users||The menu should reflect content most desired by end-users rather than company internal initiatives. Exceptions may occur but should be rare.||“To engage users, website copy must speak to readers and not at them. …Users want to know what the product or service will do for them. …On the web, users are task oriented. They are often looking to answer a question, solve a problem, or find information.”|
|□ Link is at highest logical place in information architecture||A flat shallow menu hierarchy is preferable to deep and narrow one.||“Content is more discoverable when it’s not buried under multiple intervening layers. All other things being equal, deep hierarchies are more difficult to use.”|
|□ Link is placed where users are most likely to look for it||Think like an end user hunting for information. Where would they look first, second, and so forth?||“Information scent refers to the extent to which users can predict what they will find if they pursue a certain path through a website.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/wrong-information-scent-costs-sales/|
|□ Link text uses words familiar to our audience||Avoid using company-specific jargon. Titles of menu links should be short, descriptive, and intuitive for the average users.||“Ideally, jargon and branded terms that aren’t universally understood should be used only within the content pages, where users have context clues to help them understand what the unfamiliar terms mean. Findability is maximized by old, well-known words instead of new, made-up words.”|
|□ Link text incorporates high-value SEO keywords.||Menu links are among the most crawled by search engines, and their SEO value is high. Do keyword research to find effective terms.||“There are many elements to search engine optimization, but SEO guideline #1 is our old friend, ‘speak the user’s language.’ Or, more precisely, when you write, use keywords that match users’ search queries.”|
|□ Link text leads with high-value keywords||The highest value keywords should be front-loaded in the menu’s hyperlinked text.||“Start subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice. …They’ll read the third word on a line much less often than the first two words.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/f-shaped-pattern-reading-web-content/|
|□ Link text accurately describes the destination page||Users should easily understand what every link leads to and not be disappointed when they get there.||“Any broken promise, large or small, chips away at trust and credibility. The words in a link label make a strong suggestion about the page that is being linked to. The destination page should fulfill what the anchor text promises.” https://www.nngroup.com/articles/link-promise/|
|□ Link text and URL is unique on menu||Each link in menu should be unique, both in URL destination and the link text should clearly differentiate itself from other options.||“Unclear naming is one of the biggest and most important projects to tackle when it comes to [information architecture]. Each navigation category must be descriptive, specific, and mutually exclusive so that users can pick where to navigate without hesitation.”|
|□ Order of links is as meaningful as possible||Menu items should only be in alphabetical order if there is no better way to organize.||“Consider: Is there another organizing principle that would be more meaningful? …Usually, there’s another way to organize content that is better than alphabetical organization.”|