Navigation Schemes in Web Site Design
By Shari Thurow




As web site designers, we always try to create a web site navigation scheme that (a) is consistent throughout the entire web site and (b) allows the site's visitors to find what they are searching for quickly and easily. A consistent site navigation scheme shows your potential customers that you are thinking about their ease of finding your products or services on your web site.

The following list shows some basic web site navigation schemes:

Text Links
Many web newbies understand that blue, underlined text is a hyperlink. For this reason, we think that it's generally a good idea to include text links in your web site design along with other graphic images.

The link colors in your text should be familiar to your visitor, if possible. Blue text usually indicates an unvisited link and purple or maroon text usually indicates a visited link. If you elect not to use the default colors, your text links should be emphasized in some other way: boldfaced, a larger font size, set between small vertical lines or square brackets, or a combination of these. Text links should be unique they should not look the same as any other text in your web pages. You do not want people clicking on your headings because they think the headings are links.

Advantages:
The biggest advantage of using text links is the quick download time. If you are using large (in K) graphic images on your web pages, then it might be best to have a navigation scheme of text links. The other advantage of text links is that some of the text can be keywords.

Disadvantages:
The biggest disadvantage of text links is that they can be boring to look at, especially if you have a large amount of blue links sprinkled throughout your web pages. People like simplicity and ease of navigation. Thus, if there is a way to make your text links more visually appealing and easy to discern from other sections of content, such as placing them in a colored table cell or a colored sidebar, then we recommend you do this.

Graphic images - navigation buttons
Graphic images add uniqueness, color, and personality to a web site. Most web sites we see use web graphics (buttons) as a navigation scheme.

Advantages:
Graphic images have visual appeal. Peoples' eyes are naturally drawn to a splash of color and a change in dimension. The biggest advantage to using navigation buttons is that they give your visitors a visual representation of how to navigate your site right away, especially if the navigation buttons are visible on the top part of a computer screen.

Another advantage of using graphic images/navigation buttons is that as long as the navigation buttons have alternative text in the HTML code, your web site can still be navigated even if your visitors turn off the graphic images. (For tips on writing the HTML for graphic images, click here.)

If navigation buttons are used in conjunction with text links, you have multiple places to put keywords: both within the text link and the alternative text of the navigation buttons. Many search engine optimization specialists recommend this combination for good search engine indexing.

Disadvantages:
Download time is a big consideration in determining whether or not you should use navigation buttons. In general, you should keep the navigation buttons' file size to between 1K-5K in file size and dimensions between 60-165 pixels in width and 25-60 pixels in height. You don't want the main message of your site to be the navigation buttons, and you don't want people clicking off of your site waiting for all of your navigation buttons to download.

Many sites are getting away from using a beveled effect on navigation buttons to show variety in web site design. The disadvantage of this idea is that many visitors might not understand that the graphic image is a hyperlink. One of the main reasons beveled buttons are so popular is that people believe that a "buttony" image is "clickable." The following shows two sets of navigation buttons - the beveled buttons appear to be more "clickable."

Home graphic image - flat
About graphic image - flat
Contact graphic image - flat


Home graphic image - beveled About graphic image - beveled Contact graphic image - beveled

Graphic images - image maps
An image map is a single graphic image that allow users to access different web pages by clicking on different areas of that image. Read more details on how to use image maps.

Advantages:
Sometimes a single image map is quicker to download than multiple navigation buttons, as is the case with our web site. Another advantage for using image maps for site navigation is that graphic designers can show a bit more creativity in designing an image map compared to designing a set of navigation buttons.

Alternative text can also be placed inside the HTML of an image map.

Disadvantages:
Many graphic designers who specialize in print design like to show off their design talent by creating beautiful image maps that are slow to download. Having a beautiful image map can increase sales and show creativity and uniqueness, but there is a good chance of having potential customers click off your web site before a page has time to download.

Also, many search engines will not follow the links inside of an image map, so it is very important an alternative means of navigation for the search engines on your web pages.

Drop-down Menus - Javascript, CGI, etc.

JavaScript is a scripting language supported in Netscape Navigator since version 2.0, and in Microsoft Internet Explorer since version 3.01. You can program with JavaScript directly into your HTML pages, making it a very popular means to navigate a web site. A navigation scheme can also be coded using a CGI script.

Here is what a drop-down menu looks like (JavaScript not coded here):

Advantages:
The main advantage of drop-down menus is web page real estate. Drop-down menus don't take up as much screen space as multiple graphic images.

As long as you know that the majority of your site visitors use browsers that support JavaScript, this is a very useful navigation tool.

Disadvantages:
The main disadvantage of this type of navigation scheme is that many early browsers do not support JavaScript. If you know that many of your site visitors and customers use browsers that don't support JavaScript, then it would be best to use alternative forms of site navigation.

If your site navigation uses a CGI script, you must have a web server support your type of script.

Dynamically generated URLs
A dynamically generated navigation scheme, such as pages generated in a search function, is best used for web sites that have databases. For example, online stores with a large inventory can create a search function for their users to find the products they are looking for.

Advantages:
Dynamically generated URLs, particularly for online stores, help potential customers find the product or services very quickly. Site visitors can type in a search term and find what they are looking for within three clicks.

Search functions also don't take up much screen space.

Disadvantages:
The main disadvantage with this navigation scheme is that many search engines will not index dynamically generated URLs. Thus, in order to get your web site indexed, it is best to submit non-dynamically generated web pages to the search engines.

Maintaining both a database that generates web pages (i.e. dynamically generated) and static (HTML) pages can be both expensive and time consuming.


About the Author:
Shari Thurow is Marketing Director at Grantastic Designs, Inc., a full-service search engine marketing, web and graphic design firm. This article is excerpted from her book, Search Engine Visibility (www.searchenginesbook.com) published in January 2003 by New Riders Publishing Co. Shari can be reached at shari@grantasticdesigns.com.