The structure and labels of a navigational menu can make a world of difference to the usability of your website. An effective menu can increase your site's ranking on search engines, making it easier for visitors to find you, and it can affect how easy your site is to use. Here are some best practices to consider when creating your main menu.

Note: These rules do not have to be followed to the letter, as there are exceptions to every rule and the needs of your website are unique, but they are good to keep in mind. 

Website content and structure

If you've worked with website content before, you may have heard of the phrase information architecture. Essentially, information architecture is how your website is structured. A good structure is specific and organized, making your site easy to navigate. One way to enhance your information architecture is to establish a good taxonomy. In WordPress, you can do that with categories and tags, and by utilizing parent and child pages. Categories and tags organize your information by topics, while parent and child pages establish a hierarchy that groups pages and ranks them by importance.

A site map with no structure versus a site map with structure

A site that does not use parent-child pages vs. a site that does. The structure of your site can help determine the structure of your menu.

So what does this have to do with your menu?

The content and structure of your menu will depend heavily on the content and structure of your site. If you only have a few pages on your site, they can probably all be top-level menu items and you can avoid using drop downs. However, if you have a great deal of content, you will need to be much more strategic about how it is organized, prioritized, and displayed in your menu.

Parent and child pages can inform how you create your menu. Think of parent pages as topics and child pages as subtopics. Parent pages will typically be top-level items in your menu, while child pages will be sub items or the items that show up in drop downs.

menu with submenu items

The same site, using the parent-child hierarchy in their menu[/caption]

Consider your users

The purpose of your website is to provide the information, answers, and services your users are looking for. Your primary menu should help them accomplish their goals. Therefore, it is beneficial to think about what those goals may be. Consider:

  • What are the services you provide your users?
  • What are your users' priorities?
  • What are they trying to find?
  • What are they trying to do?

After considering your users' needs, determine which pages or topics will be most important or useful to them. These should be the easiest to find, and should probably be top-level items in your menu.

Choose descriptive labels

After you have prioritized what content should be found in your main menu, you can begin to think of how to label that content. This is one of the most important parts of creating your menu. It is crucial that you use descriptive labels because it will describe the services you provide to users and will increase your site's ranking in search engines.

Using vague terms like "services" or "products" is unhelpful because no one searches for those terms. People—and search engines—search for specific topics and keywords. They search for what they need. When your navigation lists your main services, it briefly describes to your visitors what you do, and lets them know they're in the right place.

Avoid format-based labels such as "videos" or "photos," because they fail to describe a topic. People are looking for information, and generally, they won't care what format that information is delivered in.

A vague menu versus a more descriptive menu 

A vague menu vs. a descriptive menu. Try to use labels your users are likely to search for.

Choosing descriptive labels goes back to information architecture. It's recommended you have a page for each service, each product, or each topic you address. This enables you to be more specific when labeling items in your menu. If you have a complicated service or process with many steps involved, it can be beneficial to break up that process into multiple child pages and list them as submenu items. Additionally, having too much content on one page can be overwhelming to your visitors. Menus are much easier to skim than walls of text.

Limit the number of menu items

Limit main menu items to six or seven at an absolute maximum. The more items you have in your navigation, the more difficult it is for your users to remember and process information. If your menu is visually overwhelming, visitors might scan past important items. Prioritizing your content will help you determine what needs to be in the menu and what does not.

A cluttered menu Any number of menu items above seven is visually overwhelming.

Sites that have a large amount of content will have a harder time keeping their menus concise, so submenus can be particularly useful to them. Grouping information under submenus reduces the amount of text a visitor has to read at once. Submenus should also be limited to five to seven items to keep them easy to scan and process.

Consider the order of your website navigation

In a list, items at the beginning and items at the end are more easily remembered. The same goes for navigational menus. Anything you put at the beginning or end of your menu will be more prominent, so those spots should be reserved for your most important menu items.

A possible exception is if your menu includes a link to your homepage. Because people are used to Home being the first item in a menu, that is where they will expect to find it.

Test your menu

The final step to creating a menu is to test the menu. After it is complete, have a few people try it out to see how easy it is to use. Ask your testers to locate a specific piece of information or to accomplish a certain task. (If you thought about your users' priorities and goals, these are good tasks to give testers.) Then observe how well they use the menu to navigate and make note of any pain points. Recognize areas where your menu can be improved and take your testers feedback into consideration as you improve it.

The great thing about the web is that nothing is permanent and everything is flexible. You can gradually improve a menu through iterations, and your menu can change as your services and the needs of your user's change. Create a more concise, descriptive and effective menu, and your visitors will appreciate it.