In addition to writing excellent content, building links consistently, and optimizing for strategically targeted keywords, you need to fix and adjust dozens of little variables all over your website.
Today, we’re taking a close look at one of these variables: navigation links.
What exactly are navigation links and how should you consider them in the context of your SEO strategy?
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What Are Navigation Links?
Take a look at the top of this website.
You’ll see a horizontal bar with links to various pages and subpages, titled Services, Tools, Why Us, Blog, and Contact (plus Login and Get Started).
These are navigation links.
Navigation links are internal links to other pages of your website. What makes them different than other links is that they’re more heavily emphasized. When you visit a website for the first time, navigation links are among the first things you see, and it should make intuitive sense why this is the case; after scrolling through the homepage, users need prompts to figure out where to go next.
Obviously, navigation links are important for outlining the content of your website and providing users with meaningful direction so they can find the information they need.
But what does this have to do with SEO?
Why Are Navigation Links Important for SEO?
Navigation links serve many different purposes in the context of your SEO campaign, so it’s important to optimize them to boost your rankings.
- New webpages. First, remember that each link in your navigation is going to lead to a new page – usually a core page of your website. Each new page of your website is another ranking opportunity, and another chance to optimize for target keywords.
- Website structure and hierarchy. Google uses bots to crawl the web and index pages. The crawling path plays a role in how your pages are indexed, and therefore, presented in search engine results pages (SERPs). How you structure and name your navigation links can play a role in how Google analyzes and indexes your website. Without proper navigation links, Google may treat every page of your website as having equal footing – which probably isn’t the case.
- Naming and keyword optimization. How you name your pages and navigation links can also influence your SEO results. This is an opportunity to include target keywords, both for the respective pages in your navigation and your homepage.
- User experience. Finally, navigation links are an important element of user experience. If your navigation links are sensibly organized, easy to find, and easy to use, your users are going to be more likely to enter the inner pages of your website and spend more time-consuming information. Google rewards websites with positive user experience, so this can support higher rankings as well.
Types of Website Navigation Links
There are many different possible approaches to the design and presentation of your navigation links.
These are the main types that most websites use:
- Horizontal navigation. At the top of our website, you’ll see an example of horizontal navigation. As the name of this navigation link style suggests, these links are listed in a horizontal fashion. This is one of the most common types of navigations on the modern web, since it works well for a variety of devices and browsers and because it’s both clean and efficient. However, it may not be appropriate if you have an excessive number of links to include.
- Sidebar navigation. An alternative option is sidebar navigation, where users can find links listed vertically on the side of a website. This is arguably quite similar to horizontal navigation, relegating a relatively short list of links to only one small part of the website – without hiding those links.
- Hamburger menu navigation. Though this design trend is falling out of fashion, the classic “hamburger menu” navigation was quite popular when designing for mobile devices first rose to prominence. It’s called a hamburger menu because of the three horizontal lines depicting its existence. When users click on the hamburger icon, they can expand a navigation menu that presents them with all the navigation links they need. It’s a compact way to include more navigation links than would otherwise fit, but it forces users to interact before they can see them.
- Footer navigation. If you scroll to the bottom of this website, you’ll also see an example of footer navigation. Here, you’ll have practically infinite room to list all the navigation links you think are important to your users, without having to worry about those links obstructing the average user experience when perusing your homepage.
- Dropdown menu navigation. What if you have dozens of links to include in your navigation, but for design purposes, you only want to include a few in the header of your website. One option available to you is the drop down menu navigation; in this setup, you’ll have a handful of major headers in the main part of your navigation. When users hover over these headers or click on them, they’ll produce a submenu of daughter pages associated with this parent page. It’s another way to make your navigation more compact without sacrificing the number of navigation links you want to include.
- Hybrid approaches. And of course, it’s possible to utilize multiple approaches to navigation links simultaneously, as long as you’re not overcrowding your web design in the process. Case in point, our website utilizes both horizontal header navigation and footer navigation.
Best Practices for Navigation Links in SEO
So, what are the most important best practices to follow for navigation links in your SEO campaign?
- Keep your SEO navigation links to a minimum. After reading the rest of this article, you may come up with the idea to include as many navigation links as possible in your main navigation. After all, each one of these pages is a new ranking opportunity, and an opportunity to include more strategically targeted keywords in your homepage. But it’s usually better to keep your SEO navigation links to a minimum. Part of this is because of minimalistic design philosophy; you don’t want to overwhelm your users with choices, nor do you want to make your website design overcrowded and hard to parse. It’s also because you’ll get more value out of a cleaner, more straightforward hierarchy of pages. Only include what’s truly necessary for the core experience of your website.
- Avoid generic descriptions. While some exceptions are perfectly permissible, it’s usually a good idea to avoid generic descriptions for your navigation pages. When building a website from a template, you’ll probably be prompted to include navigation links like “Products” or “Services.” But this can work against you in a couple of ways. The shorter, more minimalistic page title is suitable from a design perspective, but it does nothing to make your brand stand out as unique. More importantly, this isn’t going to help you optimize for target keywords. Usually, this can be remedied with a small change; for example, instead of including a navigation link like “Products,” you can include one like “Women’s Boots.” Action-based titles for your pages are also useful, especially if you’re optimizing for conversions. For example, you could include a page title like “Book an Appointment” or “Get Your Free Consultation!”
- Use keywords carefully. Navigation links are an opportunity to optimize for target keywords, increasing the relevance of your entire website for queries that include those keywords. Still, it’s important to use those keywords carefully. Keyword stuffing is still a massive problem that could earn you a Google penalty, so if your navigation links appear unnatural or contrived, it could work against you. Additionally, you should stick to basic head keywords for most of your navigation links; attempting to use long-tail phrases or combinations of different keywords can overwhelm your design and your users.
- Use focus groups and surveys to improve user experience. A big part of successfully designing and including navigation links is prioritizing user experience. The better your user experience is, the higher your website is going to rank, and the more conversions you’re going to eventually get. While there are some basic principles of user experience you can apply to your initial design, you’ll see much better results if you use focus groups and surveys to learn about the average user’s experience and improve upon it. How do users behave when seeing your navigation links for the first time? Do they encounter any challenges or difficulties? Where do they go first and how do they use your website after beginning to interact with your navigation links?
- Pay attention to user flow and optimize. Similarly, it’s important to pay attention to user flow. This is a metric you can track in Google Analytics and most other website analytics platforms; it tells you about the typical paths users take throughout your website. Which navigation links seem to be the most enticing? Which ones are most likely to lead to conversion? Which ones do users avoid? You can use this information to better optimize your navigation links, in terms of wording, design, positioning, and order. Optimizing your navigation is a recurring process that requires an ongoing effort.
- Highlight the first and last position. As you might expect, the first and last positions of your navigation are going to be the most important. The first listed navigation link is going to be the first one that users see, and the last one is going to be the link they remember most due to recency bias. The links in your first and last position need to be the most important for user experience or the most valuable for your brand.
- Prioritize responsive (or other mobile-friendly) design. Additionally, regardless of which format you choose for your navigation, you need to think about mobile-friendly design. Most brands benefit by using a responsive design, which can reshape your navigation on the fly to fit whatever screen is trying to access it.
- Make use of breadcrumbs. Breadcrumbs are a kind of navigation scheme that makes it easier for users to understand the relationships between different pages – and understand how they got to where they are. For example, you might use a scheme like yoursite.com/clothes/womens-clothes-and-accessories/womens-shoes to illustrate that this page for “women’s shoes” is a subpage of “women’s clothes and accessories,” which in turn is a subpage of “clothes.” This can help give users context for the pages they’re accessing, and more importantly, can help them backtrack if they get lost or if they want to return to a previous page.
- Remain adaptable. Finally, commit to remaining adaptable. Your navigation links may be working well, but they could always work a little bit better – and it’s only a matter of time before you start considering and researching new strategic keywords for your campaign. Don’t be afraid to make changes, conduct experiments, and gradually optimize your navigation to perfection.
Are navigation links your top priority in your current SEO campaign?
Or is this a small and secondary issue you’re juggling along with dozens of other higher-level priorities?
Regardless of how much SEO experience you have, the complexity of your campaign, or what your long-term SEO goals are, SEO.co has experts, tools, and resources that can help you achieve your vision.
Whether you need help with navigation links or rebuilding an entire campaign, you should contact us for a free consultation today!