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Location of Global Navigation for Optimal Search Engine Indexing

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Reader Question: I’ve been told that I should put my navbar (navigation bar) on the right side of my Web site (or use a table trick to get the same effect) so search engine spiders will read my title and text first, and the navbar last. Is that necessary for optimum search engine positioning?

Answer: The location of a site’s global navigation should be decided based on two main considerations: site usability and search engine visibility. Placing the main navigation scheme on the right side of the page does have benefits. It also has drawbacks. I’ll go over the advantages and disadvantages of these navigation schemes in this article.

Making Web pages appear focused

For successful search engine visibility and site usability, the topic of a Web page should appear focused. During usability testing, which is a service we offer at our firm, some of the questions we ask testers include:

  • What site are you viewing? How can you tell?
  • What section of this site are you viewing? How can you tell?
  • When you view this page, what does the company want you to do? How can you tell?
  • Is there enough information on this page for you to place an order? Why or why not?
  • If not, what information would you like on this page that would encourage you to place an order?
  • Do you trust this company enough to place an order? Why or why not?
  • What pages have you visited?
  • What pages haven’t you visited?

(Note: We use these questions for a commerce site usability text, where the main call to action is to place an order or add to cart.)

On almost every page of a Web site, visitors should be able to look at a page and determine (a) where they are at, (b) the main focus of the page, and (c) what you want them to do. If visitors are unable to determine these three things on a page, then the page will have problems with search engine visibility and conversions.

Location of the global (main) navigation scheme

In terms of site usability, most people have grown accustomed to the main navigation being on the left side of the page.

When a site contains a lot of pages, it is quite common to have a main navigation at the top of the page, with a subnavigation located on the left side of the page. One of the problems with having a main navigation at the top of a page is banner blindness, where users typically ignore the content in the first 100 pixels at the top of the page. Reason? That location is where banner advertisements are commonly placed.

People are not accustomed to the main navigation being placed on the right side of the page. However, as a designer, sometimes I like to place the navigation scheme on the right side of the page. Using a right navigation has some benefits:

  • Most people are right-handed, meaning that the mouse location on their computers is on the right side of the screen. When (usability) testers use the mouse to navigate the site, they do not have to put the mouse cursor over the main text to navigate the site.
  • In Western countries, people read from left-to-right. Our eye-tracking software shows that testers tend to look at the center of the screen first. Then they read the page from left side to right side. So testers see the main text first, not the global navigation scheme. Likewise, the search engines also view the main text first, not the global navigation scheme.
  • Our tests have show that people do not mind that the navigation is on the right side of the page as long as the navigation buttons look clickable and distinct. The right navigation also works best in a two-column layout.

Thus, placing the main navigation on the right side of the page, or doing the table trick, can be effective for search engine visibility and site usability. For the search engines, the main text will appear prominent because it is placed before the global navigation scheme. And as long as the global navigation scheme appears above the fold and looks clickable, visitors have no problems using the site.

The three-column layout

Although many sites do quite well with a two-column layout, we have found that a three-column layout can be more effective in terms of search-engine visibility, sales, and conversions.

The following list shows where we like to place various items:

  • Column 1 – global or sub-navigation scheme
  • Column 2 – main content
  • Column 3 – visual calls-to-action, and applicable cross-links

The third column allows designers to showcase the main call-to-action so that it appears above the fold. Likewise, it’s a good location to put applicable cross-links, which are good for both the search engines and upselling. For example, if your site sells shoes, designers can place the “May we also suggest” links on the right side of the page.

Sites with a left navigation bar do quite well in the search engines, particularly if the navigation scheme is a series of graphic images instead of straightforward text links. If you choose to use text links as the main navigation in a left sidebar, be careful that the text in that column does not dominate the page. If a text-link navigation scheme dominates the page, the content of the page will not appear to be focused.

Conclusion

Whenever you design a site navigation scheme, always include two forms of navigation: one that is search-engine friendly and one that is slightly more visual. Usually, that means creating a set of graphic images for navigation buttons and placing a corresponding set of text links at the bottom of the page. That way, the global navigation is available above and below the fold (for usability). And the text-link navigation scheme is search-engine friendly.

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Shari Thurow is Marketing Director at Grantastic Designs, Inc., a full-service search engine marketing, web and graphic design firm. This article is excerpted from her book, Search Engine Visibility (http://www.searchenginesbook.com) published in January 2003 by New Riders Publishing Co. Shari can be reached at shari@grantasticdesigns.com.

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Location of Global Navigation for Optimal Search Engine Indexing
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