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Choosing the Navigation Structure that meets your needs.

A survey was conducted of web surfers to ascertain their area of least satisfaction while browsing the web. At the top of the list was a poignant frustration.

'They couldn't find what they were looking for.'

Although it wasn't specifically stated whether that frustration was with search engines or the individual sites themselves, my guess is that it was a significant level of each.

Well, we have no control over the quality of information that goes into the search engines nor with the relevancy of the search results, but we have total control over the ease of use and navigation for our own sites.

What navigation structure is the most effective at getting visitors to the information they need, easily and effectively? The answer? Once again, it depends on the primary goal and primary audience.

Is your audience made up 'productivity minded people', those who by nature seem to want in and out of a site quickly taking just what they need and nothing more. Or are they relaxed, laid back people, true 'browsers' in every sense of the word. These folks tend to find a site that interests them and can easily spend an hour or more on one site. There are of course several levels in between the two as well, but the issue is knowing your audience and then creating a navigation structure that will cause your audience to fulfill your primary goal once they reach the site.

Only you can determine what that is, but here are four basic navigation structures you can compare to see which will fit your site best.

PORTAL NAVIGATION

This navigation structure is well represented by its name, portal. It is exactly that, a single site that leads you to other sites. Although you may spend some time at a portal because of services (free email, stockquotes etc.), its main goal is to be a window to other web sites. Most major search engines are portals.

There is a subcategory of Portals called Vortals that might work for someone who is in a very unique field of interest and can claim a more targeted audience. Vortals are Vertical Industry Portals, which basically means they are a portal for a specific industry or field rather than the general public.

Some characteristics of portals:

1. Visitors can access most features of the site from one page. Portals are filled with links and search features.

2. Visitors are likely to leave the site as quickly as they came. You must advertise quickly and effectively as the visitor will likely not be there for long.

3. Portals are almost always database driven. This is one of the reasons it is difficult to be a true portal because it's heavy on the maintenance.

4. Information is constantly changing. New site submissions, new advertisers, stock quotes, etc.

It takes significant resources and traffic to be a truly good portal and most portals make their income from advertising.

A portal, in my opinion is the poorest of choices for a home based or small business entrepreneur. I've run across too many sites who want to be the "one stop shop" for this or that and their site is littered with links and banners going to other sites (mostly affiliate programs). I affectionately call these folks affiliate junkies. These are merely pseudo-portals and in my experience, the least effective navigation approach.

HIEARCHICAL NAVIGATION

This is a navigation structure that is best used on sites that have large amounts of content. Take a look at the following site:

http://www.brewerscience.com

Notice how the site has a main set of links for each division of the company and when you click on one of those links, you get a whole new set of links that are specific to that division of the company.

Of course it's always good to keep at least a "home" page link on every page of the site so there is always an anchor point for the site.

Here's another example of a hierarchical site:

http://www.wordnet.net/imc/navigation.htm (the titles on this page are for display only for this article and are not linked)

Notice how there is another set of links under the facility specific information. Each of those links will take you to a main page for that particular facility and when you get to that facility page, it too has its own set of links for different pages of information within that facility.

This hierarchical navigation structure is best used for an informational site that has significant amounts of content.

Most of you will be much better off with one of these next two navigation structures.

GLOBAL NAVIGATION

On some level, every site should have at least some global navigation structure, even if it is just a home button or link that is on every page of the site.

A global navigation structure is one that does not change from page to page, it remains the same 'globally' across your site.

A vast majority of sites on the Internet use the global navigation structure and it is a very solid way to design a web site. It gives consistency to the site and allows for all information to be no more than one or two clicks away. You probably use global navigation on your site whether you knew what it was called or not.

The global navigation fits well with nearly all sites especially if you are selling several products or services.

LINEAR NAVIGATION

Linear navigation is one of my favorite forms of navigation. If used correctly I have found it to be very effective in selling a single product or service.

I have also dubbed this the wizard of oz navigation structure because the purpose is to keep the visitor on the yellow brick road. The yellow brick road is simply the straightest path to achieving your primary goal.

Linear navigation is really just a global navigation structure with a punch. The major difference is this:

Global navigation is about choices. Which of these five buttons do I want to choose?

Linear navigation is about a lack of choices. You simply take 'Dorothy'(your visitor) by the hand and lead her down the yellow brick road.

The following site is a terrific example of linear navigation:

http://www.mysitestinks.com

Not only does it use a 1,2,3 step approach, it is designed to read straight through like a book and get you to the purchase page.

A linear navigation will always take the visitor to a place of action, a crossroads. It puts the visitor in a position to have to make a yes or no decision on your product or service, whereas other navigation structures leave it up to the visitor as to when they need to make a decision.

In summation, it bears repeating that your navigation structure should be suited to your primary goal and target audience.

You've probably spent countless hours devising ways to get your target audience to your site, make sure you use the right navigation structure to get them through your site.

About the contributor
Ralph Hilliard's WordNet University is turning beginners into web designing fools!



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