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Multi-level site navigations

Clear and intuitive navigation is essential for the effectiveness and overall success of any website, enabling users to interact with the site easily and quickly find what they are looking for. But for very large database driven sites such as a Joomla web development or Magento web development, navigation can be anything but straightforward.

One problem is that traditional navigation devices, such as drop-down menus, can only really support up to three levels of depth. More than this and the webpage simply isn’t large enough to accommodate the information and it becomes increasingly easy for users to lose sight of where they are within the site.

Other issues can occur when users enter the website on different pages and are unaware of the overriding structure or unsure of whether they are actually within a subsection of the main site or not. Complex sites containing microsites may even contain pages with the same name, e.g. About Us, which could further confuse visitors.

Whilst there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to the problem, some approaches seem to cope with the challenge better than others. Here are a few of the most commonly used:

Microsites

Large companies that provide a range of different services, sell widely disparate products or cater for differing target audiences all lend themselves to a website which is split into separate, smaller sections. A micro-site design is likely to have its own entry point and its own look and feel, whilst still fitting into the overall brand of the company. 

Some such websites have a static navigation bar (usually situated at the top of the page, where users expect to find it), showing the main parent sections of the site, and linking to the micro-sites themselves and further navigation. Having this bar visible at all times helps to bind each micro-site to the brand and lets users know that they are still in the main website.

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Tabs rather than drop-downs

Tabs (where information is displayed underneath ‘parent’ tabbed headings) are often more space-saving and visually more effective than single drop-down menus for displaying a greater quantity of menu information. 

But for websites with thousands of pages, these tabs need to either contain grouped information leading to other parts of the site, or have pop-up or additional fly-out text. Combining tabbed navigation with microsites is sometimes used effectively to cater for wide-but-shallow websites with a large number of pages.

‘Breadcrumbs’ and in-page hyperlinks

For huge websites where users can easily lose track of whereabouts they are, a ‘breadcrumb’ list can be displayed, to show visitors the route they have followed. This hierarchical breadcrumb list is clickable, enabling them to quickly and easily return to the level above. Combined with internal links to sibling and related pages, this approach can be a smooth and easy-to-understand navigation system and negate the need for bulky menus.

Non-existent navigation

A somewhat extreme solution is to do away with navigation altogether and rely instead upon tagged metadata and search tools. This approach suits websites with a huge number of pages that are regularly added and removed, and allows users to navigate their own way through the site, but also requires detailed tagging and can be difficult to maintain.

In the end, the choice of navigation is led by function. If a website’s function is to enable a visitor to complete a particular task, the navigation needs to lead them simply from one page to the next. Some sites are designed to be skimmed and explored sideways, whereas others are created for users to start shallow and then dig deeper into the content. 

Website navigation should be clean, unfussy, well-structured, systematic and easy to understand. And the larger the website, the smoother and easier the navigation needs to be.

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