Navigation Pages Versus Content Pages

Last week, a client asked a really good question. I thought I’d share the answer. It’s an important usability question that could affect not only your site design, but also your email marketing.

What are the pros and cons of navigation pages vs. content pages, and what’s the right balance between the two?

The issue came up because we were designing a navigation scheme that allows the user to dig deeper into the site via the main navigation bar than most sites allow. For instance, if you go to Amazon.com, you can only click on the main level navigation elements (tabs such as “Books” or “DVD”). Once in the DVD section, you can click “Top Sellers.” But you can’t get to “Top Sellers” until you’ve gone to a DVD page. We were developing a way for users go directly to second level navigation (following the example, DVD`Top Sellers) from anywhere on the site.

Is this a good thing to do? Is there merit in top-level pages, or are they simply filler pages that exist primarily so users can navigate to content that’s actually interesting?

The answer hinges on two major factors: the kind of business you operate and your revenue streams.

Many retail stores wouldn’t want a navigation scheme that let you bypass upper-level pages, for obvious reasons. Retail’s modus operandi is cross-selling, tantalizing, and putting products in front of people as they shop in the hope of increasing share-of-wallet. So, it would not be a good idea for a retail Web site to allow users to bypass drill-down pages. On the other hand, a site designed for informational purposes (a corporate knowledge base, newspaper or other research tool) would do well to allow users to get to specific content as quickly as possible.

If your top-level pages don’t actually present content, just links for further navigation, you aren’t providing real value on those pages anyway. Create a better (and quicker) navigation scheme.

Your revenue stream also has a lot to do with the decision. Web design is a careful balance of user expectations and design expertise, coupled with business need evaluation. Many sites (such as Yahoo) generate much of their revenue from advertising. It behooves sites like this to require users to traverse several pages. Each page represents several ad impressions. That’s how they make money. If Yahoo or a community site permitted deeper navigation through navigation bars, rather than a drill-down of pages, they’d significantly reduce page views, hence ad impression revenue.

There’s one more variable in the mix: the cost of page serving. This isn’t a huge factor for most small-to-medium size companies. If you’re an Amazon, Barnes&Noble, or similar-sized site, you spend a lot on infrastructure costs. Redesigning navigation to allow fewer page loads could significantly reduce average load size per hour, and require less hardware. A navigation overhaul would have to be significant to really see numbers change in a way that makes a financial difference, but it’s an interesting point. Change your navigation so the average user has 50 percent fewer page refreshes (requiring, on average, half the size of your current server farm), and reductions in hardware and maintenance costs could offset the reduction in ad revenue from lost page views.

Food for thought as you redesign your Web site.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know!

Until next time. . .

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