Fix Navigation to Improve Conversions, Part 3

Over the past few weeks, we’ve looked at how navigation effects conversion rates. Site search engines, which can account for up to 25 percent of a site visitor’s primary form of navigation, requires special consideration to improve effectiveness.

Most e-commerce traffic navigates via a combination of persistent global navigation, local supplemental navigation, and contextual embedded links. All work together to drive visitors to their optimum conversion paths. When a specific persona’s needs are overlooked in this categorization and labeling exercise, site navigation fails.

This week, we’ll examine how breadcrumbs, site maps, and other factors related to direct navigation of a Web site (such as URLs, bookmarks, and 404 error pages) improve conversion.

Breadcrumb Navigation: Are You Here? is one of many commerce sites that use breadcrumb navigation: You are here: Home Page > Jewelry & Watches > Rings > Bridal & Anniversary > Diamond Solitaires. Its usefulness has been debated in the information architecture community.

Mark Hurst explains his “Page Paradigm” implies there’s no need for breadcrumbs, despite its relative ubiquity on the Web since about 1996. A recent study indicates if users were trained to use breadcrumb navigation, they’d be more effective in their use of it.

We see only about 2 or 3 percent of users actually use breadcrumbs while navigating sites. This includes business-to-business (B2B), business-to-consumer (B2C), e-commerce, and lead-generation sites. Is it time to lose the breadcrumbs?

Although many visitors don’t actually use this form of navigation, it does provide a sense of orientation in an environment otherwise lacking in any form of physical orientation, other than “home” and “back.” Well-executed breadcrumb navigation provides a sense of orientation, can reveal content, and may possibly give the user confidence a site was well planned. However, it’s not essential on every site.

Site Maps: Direction for a Lost Visitor?

We typically see 1-3 percent of visitors use a site map. Jupiter Research analyst Eric Peterson comments, “Site maps have a tendency to be used as a Band-Aid on sites that have not placed enough emphasis on the self-service search experience.”

This may well be true, but site maps have search engine marketing (SEM) value. Web sites should generally have site maps for that reason alone, but many don’t.

A site map containing links to all your pages allows search engine spiders to find deeper content within your site. Though all these links may be useful to a spider, they’re usually too much for the typical visitor. You can see good examples of user-oriented site maps at Fedex and Kaiser Permanente.

It’s much better to group content into categories, then provide some context around what those pages offer. For other good examples, check out Social Security Online and Lands’ End.

Improve Navigation Before They Arrive

Site maps are also useful for 404 or other error pages. You certainly don’t want visitors to get a Windows default message as they do at Ernst & Young, Eddie Bauer, and

In contrast, take a look at PriceWaterhouseCoopers. Better still is an approach used by Apple and

Sites often forget the importance of unique page titles for search engines. They’re equally important for people who want to find your site among their bookmarks. So it’s useful to have a unique favicon file show up in the browser’s address bar. It’s saved with a bookmark (if you save to your favorites, you should see the red Y! icon by the name).

A last note, to avoid people typing your URL incorrectly, it’s helpful to have simple URLs people won’t forget or mistype.


A fascinating thing about watching visitors navigate is recognizing that repeat visitors typically use sites differently than first-time visitors. You might consider changing your navigation based on this, as changes the tabs displayed based on purchase and browsing patterns.

As Don Norman of the Nielsen Norman Group said, “Usability is not the goal. Honest, it isn’t. Usability is always secondary. The goal is to satisfy the needs of the user. Information, functionality… And if you work for a company, one goal is to keep the company profitable…. Would I degrade a product if I knew it would increase sales? Yup.”

Although some forms of navigation may be more useful than others, each has the potential to drive sales. None should be neglected.

The biggest challenge facing Web sites is broken navigation. Are you repaving the road to conversions?

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