Core Navigation – What Belongs and What Doesn’t

The core content on a web site (the information needed to make a buying decision – any information integral to the sales process) belongs in the web site’s core navigation (the links in the top or top side portion of the web site). The original business web sites that started kicking up in about 1994 had the following five core content pages, usually:

  • Home
  • About (us)
  • Services or Products
  • F.A.Q. (frequently asked questions)
  • Contact (us) or Order Form

These were, after all, the pieces needed to make a sale. You looked at the HOME page for the core marketing message and marketing differentiators. You looked at the ABOUT page to decide if you trust the company or want to know more about who you’re doing business with, before you give them your business. You looked at the SERVICES or PRODUCTS page to make sure you were getting the right product or service, to narrow down choices, or see if there might be a package deal or additional incentive. You might glance at the F.A.Q. if you were hesitant to contact the service provider or order the product, to see if your concern or objection is answered there. And finally you used the CONTACT or ORDER link to go forward with the service or product. The marketing piece (web site) was driven by the sales process.

As other content pages were added, they were generally moved to secondary navigation. For instance, you might add a photo GALLERY. It’s not really crucial information to help you make a buying decision. It’s fluff – maybe beautiful fluff – maybe even effective fluff – you might get a lot of contacts that mention it – but you still, usually, don’t put it in primary navigation.

By primary navigation, we usually mean the first top horizontal row of links or buttons – buttons are kind of old fashioned these days – like knobs on a car stereo – and they have lower search engine optimization (SEO) value than plain links. By secondary navigation, we usually mean either the left sidebar (occasionally a right sidebar) or the second row of horizontal links. Some sites have a third row or additional column (tertiary navigation). Some have dropdowns (hierarchical navigation – pages and subpages, categories and subcategories). Some have other forms of navigation altogether, for highly specialized sites. Wikipedia, for example, is primarily search-based navigation – something that’s less effective for a service-based business site, but which works fairly well for a product-based site like Amazon. In all, though, most navigation schemas follow something like what you’d find in a book – whether it’s using a table of contents, an index, tabs, markers, or what have you. The rectangular screen, book-like approach is actually a tried and true way of ordering navigation and content that’s been the standard since we stopped using scrolls.

As time went on in the web world, though – as we moved from thousands of sites to hundreds of thousands – some pages became more common in primary navigation, and some pages less so. This happened slowly, because people tended to copy one another’s standards. When there were very few business web sites, business sites had certain things, so people assumed that all business web sites should have them. Some of those decisions made less sense as the web developed. The best example is the LINKS page. You still see one on some sites. For more personal brands, or social startups, that can make sense. For the average real estate agent though, for example, it usually doesn’t. First, those links pages became popular before search engines like Google. Why do I need you to tell me how to find the local school district, when Google can do it instantly? Businesses wanted to be your one stop shop – your portal for all web-based information – so these pages often grew out of control.

But quickly, there came to be much better portals out there, both in terms of richness of content and in being maintained and remaining current and comprehensive. If you want a portal of say community links in Albuquerque, NM, constantly adding to – let alone maintaining all those links as they change (so they don’t get broken and you look unprofessional) – can be a hassle. Besides, precisely since the spurt of search engines like Google, you actually lose SEO value for having a lot of external links on your site. You’re giving away your search engine “juice” – your search engine value. When search engines see a site that has a ton of external links, they rank it lower, not higher – worse, it can get treated as a portal site – a site that’s chief value is links to other sites – something the search engine itself already provides – and ranked very low. LINKS pages are a vestige of the past, when there were fewer indexes, guides, portals, and less effective search engines, not to mention social bookmarking sites that, for a lot of internet uses, make even those things superfluous. If you see a Links page on another business site, don’t rush out to copy them. Unless it’s highly unique, just chuckle and don’t try to ‘compete’ with that.

A new link (or button) that has popped up in primary navigation in a lot of effective business web sites is (our) BLOG. That’s because, as we’ve said elsewhere, dynamic (constantly growing) content can have much higher search engine value than static content, if you do it right. That’s true precisely because the fascination of reading a web site just because it exists wore off long ago, when we passed the threshold of business sites being uncommon and interesting to sites being ubiquitous and largely boring. In a world of gazillions of web sites, we want fresh, original, frequently updated content. It’s like when balsam shampoo came out. People rushed to buy it – there were only a handful of shampoos at the local grocer then – remember Prell?, and this balsam stuff was all new. But now there’s an entire aisle dedicated to shampoo, and frankly no one cares if it has balsam or henna or whatever. Instead, you’ve really got to be part of the ongoing popular dialogue – natural, organic, phosphate free… No one had heard of a blog in 1994. To this day, some small businesses are unaware of the marketing value – they’re not part of the cultural shift – the new ongoing discussion among their target clientelle, which itself is shifting underneath them. It doesn’t matter if your 20 clients over 50 tell you they don’t use Facebook – your 2000 prospects that are using Facebook are going to be that next wave of clients, unless you ignore them – that’s how attrition will kill a business that doesn’t adapt.

Or businesses copy dynamic content, but badly – sometimes literally, plagiarizing blogs right off the web – which actually hurts their SEO – it’s like feeding yourself poison. It’s as if you could tape record a conversation with your client and just put a cassette deck in the lobby with that dialogue on a loop. How effective is that? Not without barbed wire and sodium penethol. Internet marketing stopped being just a collection of gimmicks when having a web site stopped being just a gimmick. The new internet marketing is all about being genuine and open (remember that friend or relative that wouldn’t “go online” because a virus might leap off of the internet and destroy his computer?) and about communicating – not just speaking “at” them. If you’ve got armloads of expertise, insights, and advice, and you can listen to what your clients and prospects are struggling with, don’t fully understand, or want to think about – then you’ve got the makings of internet marketing success. You have the core – all you need is the technique, and a little consulting time with a group like ours can get you the rest of the way.

There are certain things you need in your core navigation (primary or secondary), and they haven’t changed all that much. You still need the basics we bulleted up above. For instance, your About (us) page and Contact (us) page should generally be prominent. For examples, see [these sites] or [these].

There are times, however, when you break the rules. Generally, hiding the CONTACT page is like hiding a lamp under a bushel. If you want to maximize people’s ability to interact with you, you make it easy to see and click from the top of the site (core navigation), you have links to follow you or add you to social networks (like Facebook and Twitter), and you have a lead capture form on nearly every page. Commonly, sites that don’t do this are sites that sell products, but don’t want to field a lot of customer service calls – they want to funnel you to online or automated help solutions or a support ticket system, but aren’t wanting to consult with you personally about a service they’re offering. Amazon is, again, an example. But a real estate agent who buries the Contact page is likely to chase away clients who want to be represented by an agent. Same with attorneys, psychologists, personal trainers, accountants, or anyone else who provides a service or acts as agent or advocate for you.

Likewise, the ABOUT (us) page: Companies that put it at the bottom of the site, or bury or hide it, are usually either so well known that only researchers are looking for the info (like Walmart) or so transactional that the most important thing is to get a line of products visible for purchase online with a price, a search feature, and a buy now button (like Amazon). For Amazon, again, primary navigation is about searching for products, not about getting information. A company that’s a new startup or is trying to greatly increase their contacts and interest from internet marketing, needs a prominent ABOUT page. They can always move it to the footer when they’re a household word. But even product-based sites often need a prominent ABOUT page if they’re unknown and need to garner trust for the sale. Remember, core navigation is about providing any information needed to complete the sales process. When I’m about to buy my favorite Red Bush Tea from a web site I’ve never seen before, I read the ABOUT page before deciding to order.

Footer navigation (as opposed to core navigation) became essential as legal concerns and misunderstandings (and even abuse of the web) abounded. In the footer, it’s common to find a general “legal statement” or “terms of service” (TOS) or more specific Privacy Statement, Copyright Statement, Credits (e.g. “Powered by Market Moose”), or an alternate Contact option (e.g. Webmaster’s e-mail address or “Report Site Problems”). Today, you might see something like “Open Trouble Ticket” or “Support” (though having a more prominent Support link – e.g. in core navigation – can help the sale by emphasizing that support is only a click away). There’s not one right answer – for example, another theory suggests making the support link less prominent, to avoid suggesting that it’s a common need. But companies often find themselves shifting from one marketing approach to another (e.g. as clients complain about not finding the support link). There’s a doctrine of navigation, but it’s not a collection of absolutes. As we said, you will sometimes find the About (us) and/or Contact (us) links in the footer, if the company is a household word, is primarily product and online ordering driven, or wishes to avoid personalized contacts and consultations.

A Site Map is another excellent piece (with high SEO value) to find in the footer. It’s a good marketing help, too, so it’s nearly impossible for a determined site visitor to get lost. All navigation should be recapitulated in the site map. In some sites, membership or an account is required to view certain pages, so you might want the site map visible only for those who are logged in.

One secret is that if you have a flash-based web site, your core navigation buttons are likely invisible to some search engines or, if you’re using graphic buttons, they have much lower SEO value than text links, so a common search engine optimization technique is to recapitulate the entire navigation scheme as text links in the footer. It can look a bit cluttered, but that’s a trade off – in addition to the heightened SEO value, it’s actually excellent if the site visitor has a broken flash installation, is using a currently non-flash device like an Apple Ipad, or just has a weird-sized device that might cut off or otherwise interfere with your core navigation. It’s more insurance against a determined (to buy or contact you) visitor getting lost.

Remember, not everyone is like we are – some need a brief summary of all the core elements on the home page (who, what, where, why, what now?) and will make up their mind about you right then; others need more detailed information to support them in the sales process, and will utilize more secondary pages. The most effective sites have universal appeal not because they satisfy one presumably shared personality, but because they cater to the breadth of different buyer types out there. The biggest mistake with navigation is to assume that buyers only need what I need. Once we assume that, we’ve stopped listening to what the effective conventions really are – they’re aggregate feedback from gazillions of buyers on how they actually think, what they really want, and what they need to make a buying or a contact decision. Approach your navigation as if most of the world is not like you (a conceit we can all fall into, to the detriment of our marketing). Instead, make your navigation appeal to all kinds of people by being well-ordered and easy to use (even if it seems clear and simple enough) and thorough (even if you really think most people won’t click on most links, because you wouldn’t). Guard always, in internet marketing, against seeing yourself as the client base. If you go by the common 4-square personality charts, you’re only 25% – you’re the minority. Most of your site visitors don’t think like you, decide like you, or buy like you. Get them all – make your navigation personality-proof.

Navigation is a core marketing feature of your web site and is directly linked, therefore, to both the sales process and to search engine optimization. Intuitive navigation – focused on usability, visitor expectations, and business conventions – is a key component of the web site as a marketing venue. If your navigation is cluttered, highly unusual (without a highly unusual purpose), or ill-conceived, overhauling the navigation is just as important as any other SEO or marketing task on your web site, and should be a significant part of any web site build or web site overhaul package. You wouldn’t outfit a NASCAR vehicle with confusing or cryptic controls – it needs to be something a driver can settle into and navigate easily and ‘instinctively’. The demand for rationally ordered navigation, with a reduced learning curve, is actually increasing as technology devices become simpler to learn and use – e.g. the Apple Ipad – and as standardized devices (whether hardware like smart phones or software like instant messengers and e-mail) reach near total saturation of the market. Pay attention to your core navigation – of course, we’re here to help also.

Market Moose Internet Marketing – Solving Problems As Technology Changes.

Daniel DiGriz

Daniel DiGriz is a corporate storyteller and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe, which provides creative direction, marketing leadership in marketing, and campaign direction for firms that want a stronger connection with their audience. A Digital Ecologist® applies strategic principles from both natural and digital ecologies to help organizations thrive across multiple ecosystems. Daniel hosts podcasts, speaks at conferences, and his ideas have appeared in Inc, SmartBlog, MediaPost, Forbes, and Success Magazine.
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