How to set up your nav bar for the best SEO

May 4, 2020

The navigation bar is obviously a critical part of how people use your site – though it’s not the only way that visitors find things, it’s often the main way that new visitors find out about what you have to offer. Visitors use the navigation bar to:

  1. Understand your site, and what it’s about, in general
  2. Navigate directly to content they’re looking for
  3. Get information about your brand – the words you use, interaction style, and the general navigation bar design say a lot about who you are.

We’ll deal here with (1) and (2).

We don’t recommend placing extremely heavy weight on SEO when designing and populating your navigation. Navigation bars serve a huge number of important functions, and SEO is a subset of those. But more importantly, usability is a cornerstone of good SEO – great usability means information is easy to find, which results in more backlinks, more popularity, and lower bounce rates.

So let’s talk about usability first. (And for a good list of general usability guidelines, see our usability audit.).

You may have heard about the concept of “information scent” – when a user is focused on a task, they’ll follow links that seem to head toward what they’re looking for.

The navigation bar has a vital role to play for these users. For most visitors to your site, it’s the first place they’ll look to start tracking down the specific information they’re looking for. There are a few things you can do to make that job easier for them.

Make the navigation bar easy to scan. Through design, layout, the items you choose, and how you categorize them, it should be easy for a visitor to look at the navigation and quickly find a promising link to click on. How many items you have doesn’t matter by itself, it’s really about how the menus are organized and laid out. Short menus with 5 - 7 items work well if they’re a text list, but a lot of evidence suggests that “Mega Menus” with dozens of items can work well too, if they’re built thoughtfully.

Guide users to the most helpful content. It’s true that users are likely to be actively searching for information on your site. But they want to – and will – put the minimum effort into this. Good navigation should help your users by anticipating what they want to click on – don’t give everything on your site equal weight under the assumption that the user will want to browse.

SEO considerations for navigation bars

Now that we’ve established what really matters, there are a couple considerations to keep in mind that are specific to SEO.

First, navigation bars tell Google what the most important content on your site is, because the pages in your navigation bar are, as a result of being in the navigation bar, linked from every page. This tells Google that you want visitors to go to those pages. Which, of course, you do. If you have general, broadly-applicable pages that you want to rank – you can consider putting these somewhere natural in the navigation. For example, have a “Learn” menu that links to guides or explainers.

Second, the labels you use in navigation bars send a strong signal to Google about what a particular page is about. Make sure these are consistent page content, URLs, etc. And make sure you have real content that supports the labels you’re giving these pages. (Our on-page audit template can help with that.)

Conclusion

  • Usability is the key, even for SEO
  • Make your nav bar easy to scan
  • Guide your user to the pages they’re most likely to be interested in
  • If you have great content that isn’t ranking, it’s OK to put a limited amount of this in the navigation bar – provided it’s general and helpful to most users
  • Keep your navigation bar labels, page URLs, and page titles consistent, and make sure you have great content behind each nav bar item

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