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How to use website navigation to boost engagement

Written by Tom Ewer on 17 June 2013

When it comes to designing profitable websites, one cannot underestimate the value of engagement. Put simply, an engaged user is a valuable user - the longer you keep someone on site, the more likely they are to carry out a desired action (such as subscribe or purchase). An obvious method for increasing engagement is to create top quality content; the logic being that if the content is great, visitors will want to read more of it. However, top quality content is of little use if the visitor cannot find it. And that brings me to the topic of today's post: using website navigation to boost engagement. One of the keys to increased engagement is to make it extremely easy and intuitive for the visitor to navigate through the website and I want to offer up a number of suggestions as to how you can do that.

The Navigation Bar

Let's start with arguably the most common navigation element in use. The navigation bar on a website typically acts as a top-level menu for the most commonly accessed pages on a website. It is the go-to option for many visitors.So what should you include within your navigation bar? My advice is to keep the options to a minimum - do not overwhelm the visitor with choice. Too much choice can lead to indecision, which often leads to no decision at all. A company website might have the following links:

  • Home
  • About
  • Services
  • Testimonials
  • Contact
  • Blog

And a blog might have the following links:

  • Home
  • About
  • Start Here
  • Archives (discussed later)
  • Contact

You should be able to spot the common theme here - links to what are likely to be the most popular pages on your site. Since your navigation bar will be placed front and centre, that's where links to the most popular pages belong.

The Sidebar

If you're running a blog (or a blog as part of your website), you will almost definitely have a sidebar. Although single column designs are becoming a little more popular, most visitors still expect to see a sidebar when they visit a blog. It is therefore unfortunate that most blog webmasters abuse the sidebar, filling it with a huge number of generally worthless elements that do not necessarily assist the visitor. In reality your sidebar should offer a relatively small selection of options that aid in increasing engagement. Visitors should be able to use it as a secondary means of perusing your website, as a complement to the navigation bar. A sidebar can include the following elements:

  • Categories
  • Popular posts
  • Links to social media profiles
  • Links to products/services
  • Email subscription box
  • A search box

Each of the above elements serves to either further engage the visitor with your brand or convert them(whether that conversion be an email address or a purchase). When it comes to your sidebar, the rule of thumb should be to omit anything that doesn't directly improve the chances of visitors further engaging with your content.

Archives

The cardinal sin of creating content online is to make it difficult to find. If you are creating "evergreen" content that will be as useful in a year's time as it is today, you want to take the time to ensure that it doesn't get buried as the months pass. If you have a content-heavy website then the navigation bar and the sidebar probably won't be sufficient to provide your visitors with an easy means of finding what they want. Under such circumstances you should produce an archives page that gives visitors multiple methods of browsing your content. Such methods include:

  • Date archives
  • Categories
  • Tags
  • Search

Whether a visitor is trying to find an article that they read a couple of months ago or want to digest all content relating to a specific category, the archives page will provide them with the solution.

Internal Links

Arguably the most effective form of navigation is to provide internal links within your cotent - this applies to both websites and blogs. Why? Because most Internet users these days aren't looking for a website - they're looking for a specific piece of information or a product or service. When they come across your site they have no loyalty towards it and will not hesitate to navigate elsewhere.But if you can engage them for long enough to read your content and click on a few links within that content, you may have done enough to make a lasting impression. As such, it pays to include links to other pages on your site within your content at every opportunity (within reason). Every additional link creates a possibility for further engagement without the visitor ever exploring beyond your content.

Looking Beyond

In reality, increasing engagement is more of an art form than a science. It is as much to do with the creativity of design as it is the observance and application of usability theory. The elements discussed above are the nuts and bolts required to set a platform for increase engagement, but it is more important to understand the underlying principles than the specific implementation. In short, make it easy for people to navigate your site and clearly communicate what they can expect from any choice they may take. Engagement should follow naturally.

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