How to Choose Links for Your Website’s Header Navigation Menu

When you’re planning out the header navigation menu for your website, there are many factors to consider. You may be tempted to include links to every page on your site. Alternatively, if you have lots of pages, you may just opt for linking to your category pages. While it may seem like a very simple decision, how you structure your header menu can have serious implications on the success of your site.

In general, when you plan out your site, you need to think about usability, conversion optimization and SEO (search engine optimization). The goal is to create to a header menu that supports these elements in harmony. Doing this well requires understanding some best practices in web design. So, let’s take a look at the concepts you’ll need to know in order to optimize your header menu.

Usability

First and foremost, your priority in designing your website should be to make it easy for your customers to use. If users cannot easily find what they came for, you’ll cause them unnecessary frustration or what’s known as friction. Sites with friction in their user experience have higher bounce rates and are not likely to get recommended by users to their friends.

When it comes to your header, this means it needs to include links to any functions that are commonly used by your site’s visitors. If you have an interface that users log into, a shopping cart, or a contact form, be sure to link to them. At some point in a typical user’s journey across your site, they will need to access those features, so why not make things easy for them by including them at the top of every single page?

Next, think about any specific pages you have on your site that are useful for most of your visitors. This can include tools, data charts, resources pages, research you’ve done, or anything else that many of your users will find unique and helpful. If you have just 1 or 2 of these, then link to them. If you have many, then place them in a dropdown menu under a resources or tools button in the menu.

See the menu below on Neil Patel’s marketing blog. The site has some valuable marketing tools that are relevant its readers, so they are all linked to within a dropdown menu from a “tools” button.

Dropdown menu button

If your website offers a service that requires a high degree of trust, then you must have an “about us” link in the menu. This includes nonprofit organizations, lawyers, accountants, medical services and others. Your visitors are unlikely to convert into leads without knowing about the people standing behind your organization, so be sure to make it easy for them learn more.

Conversion Optimization

Whether it’s sales, leads, donations, phone calls, newsletter signups or anything else, most websites have specific actions they want their visitors to take. Optimizing your design to maximize the number of visitors that take these actions (conversions) is crucial. While most conversion optimization tactics take place within the actual body of landing pages, the header menu can also help encourage users to convert.

If your website has 1 primary conversion action that you want users to take, such as signing up or donating, then consider adding a button in the header menu with a button that stands out, prompting users to sign up. Consider the orange donate button below from the Habitat for Humanity website. Users can read content on any page of the site and once they are inspired to donate, they immediately know exactly what to do.

Example of Donate button in header

Search Engine Optimization

When most people think about optimizing their websites for maximizing their search engine rankings, they typically think about creating great content. While this is generally true, a website’s internal linking structure, in particular the links in its header menu can serve as very powerful signals to search engines as to which content on a website is most important and therefore which pages are highest within the site’s hierarchy.

Being high up in the hierarchy shows that a page relatively important to the website and helps improve its chances of ranking well.

Header navigation menus can also help websites make sure that newer pages are discovered and indexed by search engines, thereby enabling them to appear in search engine results pages. Each time a search engine crawls your website, it follows the links and uses them to find other pages, where it follows the links on each page while noting their content. If a page is only 1 to 3 clicks away from the header menu, it is more likely to get crawled and ranked by search engines.

So, if your header menu links to category pages, and those pages link to your newer pages, then you improve the chances those new pages will get indexed. You will therefore want to cluster pages around themes and then create category pages for those themes that link to each page in that category. Then, by linking to the category pages in the header, all your pages will be within 2 links of every other page.

Finding a Balance

If only one of the three factors listed above are relevant for your site, then choosing which links to include in your header is easy. But if you are trying to juggle two, or even all three factors, it can be challenging.

When designing your header navigation menu, use the following guiding principles to help you:

  • If you have one important call to action, place a prominent button for it that you label clearly, such as Sign Up or Contact Us.
  • If you operate in a high-trust industry, include an “about us” link
  • If you site has few pages, link to the 5 most important ones
  • If you have many pages, place them within categories and link to the category pages
  • If you have a few pages that are by far the most important, place links to them directly in the menu or within dropdown links in the menu
  • Do not flood your menu with links, it dilutes their value for users and search engines
  • Be sure that the text used in the links are descriptive of the pages they link to. Don’t get fancy. It’s confusing for users and search engines.

These tips should help you with ideas for how to structure your header menu. Keep in mind that you can always change it or test different options. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

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