Navigation is one of the most important aspects of designing for any website, but the challenges associated are more sensitive for a blog or any content heavy site. Some designers take it as a mechanical task and they design the navigation accordingly. However, in my opinion, navigation is as much an art as it is a science, and designers need not limit themselves to default solutions.
The Mission of Blog Navigation
The ultimate mission of any website's navigation design is to effectively guide readers around the site so that their needs are met. That is why navigation is understood to be the most critical aspect of usability to any type of website.
Designing an effective navigation system for a blog is an especially sensitive matter... owing to the fact that content that is continually being added, increasing the complexity of navigation with each new post.
This is where the mission of blog navigation begins to take on a little more complexity than a general definition. In a blog, the key design goals are as follows:
- Users shouldn’t miss out on anything new or special.
- Users should quickly understand what content is available.
- Users should know how to find the content that they are seeking (if they are on a mission to find something specific).
- Once that content is found, users should be able to find more content that interests them.
This presents some additional challenges for a designer because so much of these scenarios happen after the design is complete. Fortunately, there are a wide variety of "design paradigms" at your disposal to address these challenges to prepare your blog designs for usability success.
To put it simply: the easiest way to make an ideal navigation for your blog is not to leave any surprises for the reader and to put things where they would expect them to be found. Just what this means will be a little different for every project, but we'll identify some key strategies below. In all of the tips that we'll be examining, I want you to remember one principle:
The goal for any blog's navigation system is that the main navigation elements stay the same, even when content changes on a daily basis.
With that in mind, let's dive in!
The Challenges of Designing Blog Navigation
What follows are some of the fundamental challenges associated with blog navigation, and ways to address them with simple design and content strategies.
Once a blog hits about 40 posts, it becomes unrealistic to expect readers to keep hitting the "More Articles" button as their primary form of navigation. Once a blog hits 100 posts, it's just plain cruel.
Our goal here is to help you to identify the type of problem withing your design’s navigation... once we've done that, solving the problems is actually pretty easy:
Challenge 01: Finding Old Content
When you start a blog, navigating content seems easy... it's often not until you have several months (or years) worth of content that this challenge begins to show it's ugly face. As the blog grows further and you keep adding content on weekly basis, finding these older posts becomes harder for readers.
With the blog growing and new content continuously being added to it, there is a great percentage of the visitors who will miss out on some of the best content you have posted on your blog. This is bad for two reasons:
- Reader's are missing out on great content that you have to offer.
- You (or your client) is missing out on traffic from the older posts.
I have seen many blogs which were full of all sorts of interesting stuff; However, when I tried to dig the content deeper to check out the older posts, I was left with no choice but to browse it page by page and hope that I stumble upon a great article. And so, I realized the importance of making the older content findable.
Solution: Design Usable Archives
My suggestion for dealing with the challenge of finding older posts is to integrate archival content into your design. Any WordPress user can include a simple "monthly archives" widget... but in my opinion those monthly archives are silly and archaic.
If a reader can't find an article using the "Search" tool, what makes you think a monthly index is going to help? It's not!
My advice is to follow two principles:
- Categorize and tag your content properly (we'll cover this in a minute)
- Use a search system that actually works (for people who know exactly what they are looking for).
- Integrate smarter types of archival content than simple monthly archives.
This can be easily achieved with including the ‘Popular Posts’ panel on your blog. While there really isn't any harm in opting for archiving and older post plugins, using a manually created list of Popular Posts in the sidebar is the best way to deal with this challenge. This will enable the blogger to highlight older content according to his own choice (and analytics), rather than forcing readers to guess whether or not May 2007 was a good month for articles.
Apart from Popular Posts tip, some other ways to improve older posts navigation are Internal Links and Contextual Links to cater to those visitors who are reading a post and would be interested in related information that the blog has covered in the past. We'll cover this a bit more in the section on "Related Posts".
Challenge 02: Category Chaos
Categories are another important aspect of your blog’s navigation. They are useful for organizing the content and to simplify the user experience of your blog. Consider your blog as a complete business set up where the Categories are the cabinets or file folders where the whole data is kept and organized. The sole purpose of the Categories is to organize; however, if the Categories are not organized themselves, then the navigation will become chaotic and confusing.
When addressing the navigation of your blog, take a look at your category list and ask yourself 2 questions:
- How many main categories are there? (more than a handful can become confusing)
- Can you easily understand what the site is about from the category listing? (ie: Coffee Beans, Coffee Makers, Coffee Reviews, and Coffee Philosophy - you can guess this is a blog about coffee.)
- Are the categories relevant and useful for finding content? (or are they just taking up space?)
The underlying issue is one that designers should be aware of, even it it's someone else's blog you're designing: Useless categories create confusion. This not only makes the blog look busy and cluttered but also leaves the visitor confused and disappointed if they open up a category only to find .
The Solution: Design Categories for Usability
To address this issue, my suggestion is to make the category list more relevant, simple and user-friendly. You can start off by removing a few specific categories from the list that either have very few posts or aren’t that relevant to the subject matter. This way the shorter list of categories will be a bit easier to digest.
It's important for the categories to be intuitive and understandable. When you are initially making the categories on your blog, put yourself in the reader’s shoes and make it as obvious as possible. It is equally important to strike a balance between creating categories that are too specific and too broad, so the reader may not get confused with too little or too much content in the categories section.
Bonus tip: Creating categories based on Search Engine Optimization is another way of doing it right. Using some of your blog's most popular keywords in your category titles can help boost your search engine results.
Challenge 03: Encouraging Visitors to Keep Reading
At one point of time, reading a blog was a very "active" process - a reader would need to navigate the content to find what he wanted. That's fine in theory, but it can result in high "bounce rates", where readers will leave your site the instant they find what they were looking for.
The Solution: Bring Relevant Content Forward
This is one area of blog design that, thankfully, has improved dramatically over the past year. Thanks to a variety of new plugins (available for everything from WordPress to Expression Engine), there are countless pre-built tools to bring relevant content to users on the very same posts that they are interested in.
Many blogs have started using plugins to include a list of Related Posts at the end of each post. The Related Posts plugins are meant to smooth out the internal navigation of the blog by guiding readers to relevant content... but we can still improve on them by manually setting the "related posts" rather than letting the plugin set them for us.
Manually curating posts as "Popular Posts" is a great way to help readers find interesting content.
Call it what you want: Related Posts, Popular Posts, Relevant Articles, etc., but they all come down to achieving one thing: helping users find content that's proven to be interesting to them. It's funny, but something as simple as saying, “If you enjoyed this article, you would also be interested to read…”, can encourage visitors to actually move around a site rather than leaving the moment they find what they thought they wanted. If you customize the Related Posts list yourself and manage it according to visitor’s trends, it can prove to be far more successful than automated plugins.
I'll conclude by emphasizing the importance of navigation for your blog. The challenges we just reviewed aren't rocket science, but it's amazing how a few simple changes to a blog's navigation design can dramatically improve the user's experience on a blog (or any other heavy content site).
Just look at Amazon.com for example - part of their success has been as a result of their "customers who bought this product also bought this:" widget (shown below)
This addition to their site seems so simple on the face, but consider how many times you've clicked those "related products" yourself. Sure, Amazon.com isn't a blog - but it makes for a great example of how using simple design and content strategies can improve usability and the overall user experience.
A large number of blogs rely far too much on the wealth of information in their archives... most of which never finds the visitor’s eyes. If you address the aforementioned issues according to the suggested tips, you will be able to maintain a good level of blog efficiency and usability, making its navigation ideal of your visitors.