Navigation is more important than search

Recently, we did some extensive task testing with a technical audience. 70 percent started the task by clicking on a link, 30 percent used search.

The larger the website, the more important it becomes to have quality search. However, the foundation of all great websites is, and always will be, quality navigation. In fact, there is a direct correlation between the quality of your navigation and the quality of your search. The better the navigation, the better the search results will be.

Given a choice, why do people select navigation before search? Let’s say you want to buy an acoustic bass guitar. You come to a page and there are two options. One is a search box and the other is a series of links, one of which is “acoustic bass guitars”.

What are you going to do? You’ll quite obviously click on the link “acoustic bass guitars” rather than type “acoustic bass guitars” into the search box. Why? Because it’s easier and faster to click on the link. Now, what might change your mind? Perhaps if there were too many links on the page and they were poorly organized or confusingly named.

Now, suppose you see a link for “bass guitars”. Would you click on that? Suppose the link was “guitars”. Would you click on that? What if the link was “Musical Instruments”? What if it was “Electronics”? You might think twice about clicking on a link called “Electronics” if you were looking for an acoustic bass guitar, but that’s where you’d find it on the Amazon website.

The more words the link has that match the words in your head the more likely you are to click on the link. Search is not an activity we look forward to. It’s hassle and effort to type in a set of words and then scan a page of results. Give us the right link and we’ll click on it every time.

It is impossible to get navigation right for everything. No matter how good the navigation design is you will always end up with “acoustic basses” under “Electronics.” The thing you must do is ensure that the most popular, high demand stuff (top tasks) have the most logical navigation path.

Many organizations totally neglect search, but some seem to think that search will answer all their prayers. It’s as if when they “get Google” everything will change for the better. The sun will rise early and it’ll be just such a beautiful day. They don’t realise that if their content is badly written and badly organized then even the best search engine in the world will struggle.

It’s not an either-or situation. We search a little, then we navigate, then we might search some more and then navigate again. Search and navigation are thus intertwined and inseparable.

In many, many situations we have found that there is significantly more navigational activity on websites than searching. As it dawns on us how important search has become, what does this say about the vital importance of good navigation? Clear menus and links are the foundations upon which all great websites are built.

 

11 responses


  1. Even a good internal search engine takes a while to actually become useful. If bad navigation has caused people to often click on unwanted pages, that boosts those pages’ popularity, making more people likely to find them through search and click on them, further boosting their popularity. It’s something of a vicious circle which only good navigation can resolve.


  2. Mike, agree totally. There are all srts of hidden problems like the one you’ve just mentioned that if not properly managed can lead to poor quality search results.


  3. In a redesign of Newcastle University’s undergraduate pages, we took the approach of making sure that the homepage and pages for the main sections included our top tasks. Including the navigation in this way has improved the user’s journey through the site. Stats are showing increased traffic through the pages we highlighted rather than making our readers jump through a number of pages to get to where they want to be.

    We’ll be following up the stats with some user testing - hopefully this backs up what we think to be the case! It’ll be interesting to see how many users opt for the search now we’ve made our top tasks more visible.


  4. Linda, this is really great to hear about. Would love to also hear about the extra testing.


  5. Gerry …
    Well stated. th


  6. Thanks, Thom. Good to hear from you.


  7. Perhaps is simply the title “Navigation is more important than search”, that throws me off. If the goal is to get visitors to the content they are seeking I’m not sure how you can place one above the other and given the type of website, especially eCommerce and government sites that typically have more than a 70% search per session rate I can’t agree with that as a blanket statement.

    “Given a choice, why do people select navigation before search? Let’s say you want to buy an acoustic bass guitar…” again as a blanket statement I have to disagree. Check out what search engine and or web analytics stats to view the percentage of people that utilize search as their primary (first action) means of locating information. it also very much depends on the mode that a visitor is in - known, unknown, known approximate, research, browse, etc.

    “The more words the link has that match the words in your head the more likely you are to click on the link. Search is not an activity we look forward to. It’s hassle and effort to type in a set of words and then scan a page of results. Give us the right link and we’ll click on it every time.” Agreed descriptors are VERY important. This is one area why in onsite search and major search engines that have implemented ‘auto suggest’ are seeking much greater use or multiple keyword phrases and accuracy within their results.

    “In fact, there is a direct correlation between the quality of your navigation and the quality of your search. The better the navigation, the better the search results will be.” I agree on your term “correlation” - because those that spend time on the their navigation typically infers they spent time with the IA, taxonomy, metadata, etc. But this is a correlation only, not a causation.

    “Many organizations totally neglect search” - there is too much reliance on a onsite search algorithms. The best onsite search leverages both taxonomic & algorithmic search methods.

    Question for you - with the rise and success of Faceted Search (dynamic metadata attributes served via a search engine, but as links) where does that fall into the mix as you see it?


  8. Marko, an excellent post, and I agree with what you say. Of cpurse, certain environments will be more search-driven, but I am continiously surprised to see how much navigation-based activity still goes on.

    Partly, I wrote the piece because I have seen arguments within organzations that was all about buying a search engine and then basically totally neglecting the architecture / navigation of the site.

    I think with this faceted search we are getting a type of mix of navigation and search which is very powerful. I think it’s a real advance, but it has to be done well.


  9. Another study counts about 5% search users : http://webusability-blog.com/navigation-versus-search/comment-page-1/#comment-5234


  10. So the ratio is 70:30 for navigation to search, do we know any figures for the popularity of A-Zs that are commonly used on local authority websites?


  11. I’m afraid I don’t, Adam. Sorry about that.

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