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Are You Making These Common Website Navigation Mistakes?

It’s critical. The design of a website’s navigation has a bigger impact on success or failure than almost any other factor. It affects traffic and search engine rankings. It affects conversions and user-friendliness. Everything important about your website is connected to the navigation, from content to the URLs.

Let’s look at some common navigation mistakes and see what we can learn.

Mistake #1: Non-Standard Style

Visitors expect to find horizontal navigation across the top or vertical navigation down the left side. Putting your navigation in standard places makes your site easier to use. That means a lower bounce rate, more pages per visit and higher conversions.

non standard navigation

Be expected. Yes, marketing is about differentiation, but your navigation style isn’t the place to do it. Your goal is to help people find your content, not show them a new way to get around a website.

Mistake #2: Using Generic Labels

Navigation should be descriptive. Labels like “Products” or “Services” are generic to all businesses and do nothing to communicate with visitors. Ironically, “What we do” doesn’t say what you do. Save visitors the click (and help reduce your bounce rate) by making your website navigation descriptive.

When your navigation shows your main services or products, your site will communicate instantly.

generic website navigation

Your navigation is also a huge opportunity to indicate your relevance to search engines. Since your audience isn’t searching for “products” or “services,” navigation with these labels won’t help you rank. Use labels that include popular keyphrases according to the Google Keyword Tool.

Pro Tip! The navigation throughout the site and the site’s structure itself should be planned with search engines in mind.

Mistake #3: Drop Down Menus

Drop down menus are bad for two reasons. Depending on how they’re programed, can be difficult for search engines to crawl. But there’s another, bigger reason…

Drop down menus are annoying, according to usability studies from the NN Group. This is because as visitors, we move our eyes much faster than we move the mouse. When we move the mouse to a menu item, we’ve already decided to click…and then the drop down gives us more options. It’s a moment of friction in our minds as visitors.

drop down menus

Even worse, drop downs encourage visitors to skip important top-level pages. If your site uses drop down menus, you can see the problem right there in your stats: low visits on high pages.

Exception: really big “mega drop downs” with lots of options test well in usability studies. If you have a big site with many sections, they may improve usability.

Mistake #4: Too many items in your navigation

You’ve seen this before: that website with hundreds of links on the home page. Terrible. But even eight may be too many. This is because short term memory holds only seven items. That means that, eight is a LOT more than seven.

With fewer menu items, your visitors’ eyes are less likely may scan past important items. Every time you remove a menu item, the remaining items become more prominent. Challenge yourself to limit your navigation to five items.

Too many items in your navigation

Pro Tip: This trick also works for the rest of the page, not just the navigation. Every visual element removed makes everything remaining more prominent. You can many anything “louder” by making other things “quieter.”

Concise navigation is also important for SEO. Since are inevitably more links to your home page than your interior pages, it has the most “authority” with search engines. SEOs call this authority “link juice” and like a liquid, it flows from the home page to deeper pages through the navigation.

When your navigation has too many links, less authority and trust passed down to the interior pages. The link juice is diluted. The more concise your navigation, the more home page authority will flow to interior pages, making them more likely to rank.

Use the Link Juice Calculator to count the total number of clickable items on your home page. Amazon has around 100 and their site is bigger than yours, right?

Mistake #5: Getting the order wrong

Items that appear first or last on any list are most effective. Navigation is no exception. Psychology studies show that, attention and retention are highest for things that appear at the beginning and at the end. It’s called the “serial position effect,” and it’s based on the principles of primacy and recency.

navigation order

So put your most important items at the beginning of the navigation and the least important items in the middle. “Contact” should be the last item on the list, putting it at the far right in top-level horizontal navigation, a standard location.

Bonus Reminder! Always links, never buttons

In case you’ve missed the web design trends from the last eight years and you’re still tempted to use graphical, button-based navigation (rather than text-based links) here are five good reasons not to:

  1. Buttons are not search friendly, since the text within is invisible to search engines.
  2. Buttons are harder to update than links, requiring Photoshop and a new image for every update.
  3. Buttons load more slowly that links, making them especially bad for mobile visitors.
  4. Buttons are less accessible to the visually impaired.
  5. Buttons are unnecessary, even if you want to use non-standard fonts, thanks to tools like TypeKit.

5 Examples of Navigation Done Right

Let’s wash out our eyes with some better designs. Here are five sites that don’t make the mistakes we just looked at.

Smith Brothers – descriptive, concise navigation

smith brothers

Navigation on the Smith Brothers site is descriptive and concise. Just four items, starting with the first and second most important services and ending with a contact link.

Independent Publishers Group – descriptive, grouped navigation

Independent Publishers Group

The IPG website uses strong contrast to differentiate between the primary and secondary navigation in the header. Each with five or fewer items, making it easy to scan. The general term “services” is broken up into two more descriptive labels: “distribution services” and “digital services.”

Sweat Vac – descriptive, concise navigation with short labels

Sweat Vac

In case you didn’t see the photo (or you’re a search engine) the navigation tells you what this company does: headwear. Other products, like shirts and gear are listed next. In this minimalist approach, each item is one simple word.

Kiefer Swimwear – descriptive, ordered navigation

Kiefer Swimwear

The Kiefer site has a huge catalog, but the categories are available as main navigation throughout the site. The most important items to visitors (swimwear and swim gear) are listed first. An important item for Kiefer (sale) is listed last. Less popular categories are in the middle.

EuroFurniture – ordered navigation with mega drop downs


Most visitors have a room in mind. Fewer visitors are looking for a specific product or a brand. The EuroFurniture navigation lists items accordingly. Mega drop downs make it easy to jump into this huge furniture catalog.

Pro Tip: Tablet Friendly Mega Drop Downs. Notice the little blue ‘x’ in the top right of the mega drop down above. It’s a close button. Without this, tablet users would have no way to dismiss the window, since they have no mouse cursor to move off of the drop down.

TL;DR – Conclusion

Website navigation mistakes are expensive and avoidable. One mistake could affect both search rankings user friendliness. Make the labels descriptive. Limit the number of items to seven. Put the important stuff at the beginning. Avoid drop down menus. Follow the web navigation best practices in this article. …Then finally, check the difference in your analytics.

About the Author: Andy Crestodina is the Strategic Director of Orbit Media, a Chicago web design company. He’s also the author of Content Chemistry, An Illustrated Guide to Content Marketing You can find Andy on and Twitter.

  1. This is a great article, thanks for the tips (reminders)!

    I often run into headbutting conversations with clients who want to do something off the beaten path or have put together a menu before hiring a web designer and think their decision is correct. Using the info from this article, I can definitely have friendlier conversations with clients with some supporting content!

    • Often i have similar mistakes been done from so many site owners, and then they come asking for optimization help. Even some entrant web-designers have performed similar mistakes, especially stuffing extra drop down menus, thinking it would be a better way to build a huge linking ground.

  2. This is a great article. What’s best about it is that you not only showed what’s wrong but examples of how to fix it. Maybe those companies you used as examples will get the hint…

  3. Fantastic post and something i’m definitely going to show to clients since they are constantly making navigation/menu mistakes. Question though:
    You have the following:
    “Mistake #3: Drop Down Menus

    Drop down menus are bad for two reasons. Depending on how they’re programed, can be difficult for search engines to crawl. But there’s another, bigger reason…”

    But then under Navigation Done Right you list “EuroFurniture – ordered navigation with mega drop downs”.

    So my question is are drop downs a good thing or a bad thing? Good in certain scenarios (like EuroFurniture’s “mega” dropdowns?


    • Brian,

      I agree. The Euro Furniture example is highly contradictory. Plus it uses reverse type which is idiotic.

    • Look at the exception for drop downs he lists in italics. The Eurofurniture site is an example of this exception.

    • Scott Knitter Jan 28, 2016 at 8:29 pm

      One thing I find confusing in dropdown menus is knowing whether just clicking on the top-level menu item itself will bring up significant content or not. I’ve seen important information lost on a main section page because it looked like I was supposed to click a submenu item from the dropdown. I think the brain expects to have to choose a submenu item, so it doesn’t always realize there’s content connected to the main-menu item itself.

      • Yes and I have that same issue. I have important information on the Top level of a drop down menu and it worries me as people think they are to only select from the drop down choices. My thought is to make a redundant option to the top level and make it appear again on the sub menu. Is that a bad solution? What is the negative to doing that?

      • One way to differentiate primary nav items that have content from those that are merely categorical labels (for which users must choose a sub-page) is to give those that DO NOT HAVE CONTENT an indicator. The one I’ve seen most commonly and that coveys the concept well is the upside-down carat (V) or “down arrow”.

        So a primary nav might look like this:

        label one label two label three ▿ label four label five ▿

        Hope that helps.

  4. Everything seems correct, but then we have asian website. Take a look at any asian succesfull retailer they’re doing the opposite any common sense would suggest. I had some experience designing rakuten pages and it was frustrating to look at the data and to design an awful/succesful page. Some of the rules above (too many items in your navigation it’s a classic) are simply not correct if you aim a customer with a different culture.

  5. Totally agree with this. There are some business owners who only care about the design and not the usability. These people forget that although nice designs are great, average designs can often beat a website with all of the bells and whistles if it is easier to use and there are less road bumps in the conversion process.

    • Great point, Angela! I would add that I don’t think great design and good usability have to be mutually exclusive. It’s definitely possible to have both! Warby Parker is my go-to example of a website that’s easy to use and has a nice design. Finding a way to marry the two is the real trick, and something many sites haven’t achieved…

  6. It is amazing to see these common mistakes happen time and time again on practically every site I visit. I cringe every time I see mistake #2! However, I am glad to see that you provided a handful of good examples at the end.

  7. This is a great article. I always find the worst part is actually convincing my clients to reduce their navigation and to use descriptive (and concise) words. This article will be a good resource to point out next time a client pushes for something that’s less effective for them.

    Lately, I’ve been tossing around how to effectively eliminate drop-down menus. I know they’re not very tablet or mobile friendly. Do you have suggestions on how to reduce clicking and unnecessary page loading while still eliminating drop-downs? The article didn’t get into much detail about solutions to the “Mistake.”

    Next, if we could all just convince the world that sliders are conversion killers… :)

  8. You say that drop down menus are a bad thing – but what is the alternative?

  9. Hello, could you explain me more about #2 and #3

    Mistake #2…I’m a little confused….a Webpage must have labels like ” products ” ” services” or is better ” what we do “?

    Mistake # 3….If Drop Down Menus = Bad Usability / Bad Seo

    Could you give a different option for a Website???? Do you have an example???

    Thanks a lot for your help

    • Bryce Propheter Jan 16, 2013 at 11:59 am


      I can’t speak for the author, but as a web design firm, we do have a little experience here.

      In #2 He is making the point that a navigation title like “pool equipment” makes more sense (both for the user AND search engines) than a generic “products” or “what we do”.

      In #3, there are a number of ways you can change this. The first one I recommend is taking a look at how your website is laid out. We recently had a heating and cooling client that we changed from dropdowns to no dropdowns this way.

      Rather than having a long list of services under the “service” navigation, we re-organized his pages to fall under each of his services (i.e. heating, cooling, air quality). Then, on those pages, we created sub-navigation to get into the sub-services (heating repair, furnace installation, etc.)

      Hope this helps!

  10. Matt Giovanisci Jan 15, 2013 at 7:30 pm

    I feel like I’ve already followed every one of these rules…at least I think I did. I would love some feedback from the community on my navigation. Is it too hard to understand, or too simple?

    Just click my name for a link to the website in question.

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Bryce Propheter Jan 16, 2013 at 11:54 am


      I just took a look at your site and I think you have indeed followed most of these “rules”. If I had to suggest something, I would recommend adding the word “pools” after “inground” and “aboveground”. This will make it more clear what the link is pointing toward.

  11. Too many links in the drop down menu is not good as the authority passed to the other inner or internally linked pages will be less and hence it affects the page’s serp ranking abilities. Search engines will need lot of bandwidth and time to crawl & index the linked pages on the site, as mentioned by Andy in the blog its better to keep it concise and only important links in the navigation rather than stuffing all the unwanted links in it.

  12. Dekker Fraser Jan 25, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    I didn’t think I agreed with point #2 until I saw your Smith Brothers example. I like how they stuck with the standard “about” and “contact.” When you start calling it “our team” or “give us a shout,” it can be very difficult to find. When I get to a page, I usually search (Ctrl + F) for the word “about” or “contact”…it’s annoying if those can’t be found. I see how they got more creative with the “serives” and “products” by adding industry-specific descriptors. This makes sense for branding and SEO.

  13. > Always links, never buttons

    This is terrible advice and I suspect you may be misunderstood in your use of the term ‘button’. I believe you mean to advocate against the use of images as buttons or links.

    The button HTML element IS search friendly, IS NOT harder to ‘update’ than links, DOES NOT load any slower than links, is equally accessible to links, and is ABSOLUTELY necessary to web design. Buttons and links have their own semantic meaning and purpose in the construction of a website and to advocate the use of one over the other in such a general sense is absurd.

    • I completely agree on this point. There is also plenty of research out there that shows links which appear ‘touchable’ are more likely to be used.

      That being said, navigation shouldn’t compete with content or action items.

  14. Good article with practical, helpful examples. It all goes back to usability – even if you’re a great company and offer a great product, it won’t do you any good if your customers can’t navigate your website.

  15. Thanks for the great info. I think it’s really tough to reduce the amount of page links in the (my) menu. I want to redo my site but I don’t know how to consolidate pages when the pages are already quite long. I was actually thinking of reducing the size of a page by splitting some of them up but then I would need an additional menu link.

    I will get rid of my menu buttons although I like their look.

    any thoughts?
    thanks, ken

  16. This is a rather poorly researched article. Some of it is just completely wrong, and some of it is way out of date.

    For example,#4. The ‘7-8 items’ in short term memory has absolutely nothing to do with a visual menu. The menu is there on screen…there is no need to retain any of it in your short term memory. The myth debunked:

    In addition, studies have shown that the number of links isn’t necessarily an issue. What’s important is that the links are meaningful to the user. This is a good study for that:

    And your “don’t use buttons” declaration doesn’t bother to define what you mean by ‘buttons’. I believe you are referring to images. Which is fine, but there are so many other ways to make a ‘button’ that have nothing to do with images that you are likely giving out bad advice by not defining the term.

    As for #3, yes drop down menus can be annoying, but at the same time, mega menus have been shown to be useful for users. Again, it’s the vague assumption that is the problem.

  17. If I wanted to attract artistic people (and I would, being an artist/musician/game developer), I would make an artistic site and the relevant visitors would know what to expect. They’d expect flash, they’d expect music, they’d expect something more than black and white scrolling text (with blue links). They’d expect an interactive experience that shows as much imagination as the content itself. Anyone who didn’t like it, probably shouldn’t be there anyway, so them going elsewhere just saves wasted bandwidth.

  18. Kymeshia Morris Mar 11, 2013 at 9:22 am

    Great tip about drop down menus. I always thought drop down menus were annoying.

  19. There are some good tips in this article, but there are a couple problems as well.

    First, the article itself lists no publication date (unless I’m just missing it somehow). The only indication users have regarding the date of this article is the dates on the comments. For articles — especially those related to technology — there is *no* good excuse for not having a date of publication. There are things in this article that are completely irrelevant today. It would be easier to justify their inclusion if I knew how old the article is. For example — the comments regarding using buttons. That’s largely a moot point, since any decent developer today stays away from graphical buttons, favoring CSS buttons instead, which make the comments in that section irrelevant (i.e., SEO problems, maintenance issues, etc.).

    Second, in Mistake #4 you state, “This is because short term memory holds only seven items.” This is a very misleading statement for two reasons. First, the “Magic Number” is 7 +/- 2, not just “7” (cf. George Miller’s research from 1956) Second, this is an average that has *numerous* caveats that must be considered as well. For example, you can increase short term memory by chunking information. So…you could group information in larger chunks, each chunk containing a couple or few items, resulting in a short-term memory storage that could be significantly higher than 7 +/- 2.

  20. What you guys think about navigational arrows at the end of each article? I use them on all websites, it enables visitors to move to the next article, or go to the previous article by clicking on next or previous. However, the only drawback I can see as I’ve also got an AdSense banner at the end of my articles. I’m wondering if I remove the navigational arrows, people may click on the banner more. After all, if somebody wants to stay on the website the enable just go to the normal navigational menu. Would appreciate people’s opinions on this.

  21. Brandon Prettyman Oct 27, 2015 at 11:00 am

    I enjoyed the article. Designing a useful and easy to use navigation becomes increasingly difficult with larger websites that have hundreds of pages.

  22. Brandon Prettyman Oct 27, 2015 at 11:21 am

    Looks like Jenifer has been ripping your article and scuffing the content for use on another site. Perhaps its just emulation of your awesome writing article.

  23. Using drop downs are natural user behavior. Users of the internet have come a long way since the 2007 NNgroup article that was referenced. Dropdowns are perfectly fine for desktop users.

  24. Disagree with most of the points raised here. The key to good design is context and relevancy. There are no one-size-fits-all ‘mistakes’. Whilst dropdowns on one site may be a poor design choice, on another site, it may be a quantified and rational addition to communicate a full range of services at a glance.

    Jason above raises a good point. Dropdowns are a design pattern that is part of natural user behaviour through years of internet use.

    Businesses today have to diversify to survive, it is common to have multiple skills and multiple offerings in terms of services. In some cases is simply not possible to describe and place these in a top level navigation so other solutions need to be found – the dropdown being one of them. Dropdowns work. Users expect them. What’s the problem? If it aint broke, don’t fix it.

    Mistake #1 – I DO agree with. Which idiot would put a navigation halfway down the page. But even this talks about user expectancy. We’ve got to always bear in mind what users expect, not over-design something just because we think it is better.

    #4 – too many items in the navigation. What’s the problem with this example exactly? It is an ecommerce site. The categories are ordered alphabeticaly. I don’t think any english speaker would have too much of a problem with navigating that. I actually think that their main navigation is clear and concise. Again, all about context. I’d prefer a long list down the left, listed alphabetically rather than the columnised/categorised approach of EuroFurniture. I personally would never trust a furniture company that can’t spell Chaise Longue!

    … but that’s just my opinion.

  25. In the “navigation done right” section you state “Most visitors have a room in mind. Fewer visitors are looking for a specific product or a brand.” Is this just anecdotal on your part or is there research you can point to that actually indicates this? I realize this article is several years old, if you’re still monitoring would love to hear your perspective.

  26. Yes all great and wonderful, you pointed out the flaws in basic web design. But you failed to provide the most important piece of information – the right way to do things. Each of your points should have included an example of the right way. Pointing out the negative only makes your web site negative and readers will perceive you as negative, too. You didn’t really give us anything we can use. I shouldn’t have drop downs? Well, what do I do instead? I shouldn’t have too many items in the left side panel? Well, what do I do instead? You missed the most important aspect of this blog post.

  27. So actually mega-drop down menu can work well.

    The same NN group recommends mega-drop down menus for navigation.
    If you carefully read the original link in the article, it’s not about navigation—it’s about using a dropdown to select the state in a checkout process!

  28. These are good tips, for certain, along with some of the “why” behind each.

    The last section has examples of nav done right, but it’s skewed heavily toward the selling of physical products. I’d be very interested in examples of good navigation for those providing non-tangible services, membership organizations, non-profits, and the like.

  29. You think the left-hand side of the screen is best for vertical menus. I’ve always been led to believe that the users eye looks more to the left. However, more and more people are using mobile devices to surf the Internet nowadays. Is it good practice to have the menu appear first when the user opens the website, mobile device, or have the menu appear when they get to the end of the content?

    I used to be really well with Google AdSense, however at least three quarters of my visitors now use my website from a mobile device and I have noticed some massive drop in revenue from AdSense. I put this down to mobile use and nothing else. I recently moved all my side menus from the left of the right. I also moved any AdSense units placed in the left-hand column over to the right. I’m now wondering whether it would be best to revert back to the left-hand position. I would appreciate your thoughts on this.

  30. We’re working on revising a website to address multiple user personas.

    What do you recommend to effectively minimise the number of menus (and confusion) while still providing a clear user journey when there are four common user personas with very different needs?

    Separate sites or landing pages is not an option right now, though hopefully will be someday. Until then, what do you recommend?



    • I want to piggyback on Phil’s question. Will dynamically updating menu options for visitors in different sections of the site negatively impact SEO?

      For example, our site contains primary and secondary navigation. The secondary navigation contains sections of the site that are branded and optimized differently because they are for a specific type of visitor. We are considering dynamically updating the secondary navigation to link to the “main” section of site in place of the link for the section the visitor is currently on.

      Does this seem impractical? Or is there any reason it would negatively impact SEO?

  31. Good article but this is a bit outdated in a few areas, which I understand.

    Think about this… if every website used the same layout and design, it would be easy for people to use, right? It would be boring, but it would be easy. So what’s wrong with the standard navigation links like About Us, Contact Us, Products, Services, FAQs, and so on? Nothing, really. People look for those pages, so naming them something else actually can hinder website usability.

  32. Hi Anthony,

    This is a fantastic article and still holds a lot of relevance. I would suggest updating the section on links vs buttons however. It’s very common with frameworks like Bootstrap or Foundation to use an anchor with a button class in modern web design. This creates the visual appearance and usability of a button, but has the ease of update of a standard link. It also allows easy crawling of the resource, which improves SEO value.

    One other thing to note is that you should create friendly title text, and if using images (such as a logo that links back to the home page) make sure to add alt text.



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