Bauerhaus Design believes in promoting a variety of experts, including guest blogger, Caryn Ginsberg. This article is part of her free web design series “Websites that Work” and originally appeared at Heart of the Matter Design.I’m getting together with family in a couple weeks and was trying to find a restaurant that would take a reservation for eight. It was frustrating how many websites I went to where I couldn’t find out whether I could make a reservation or not.

It was a great – if painful – illustration of the importance of navigation to creating a website that works. If it’s hard for people to find what they want on your site, you’ve created the impression that you don’t care or that you’re hard to do business with. Not a good place to be!

Effective Website Navigation

Clear, easy-to-use navigation is central to your best web design. Navigation includes the menus and links that enable people to move from page to page. Here are five can’t miss tips to offering navigation that invites rather than discourages the people you want to attract.

Design for task. What do your visitors want to do when they come to your site? Design your navigation to make it easy for them to accomplish what they want. Of course, you’ll also want to provide clear, simple navigation that gets them to pages that achieve your objectives, too.

Keep a consistent look. Don’t make your visitor keep figuring out how to get around your site. Using the same placement, look and labels throughout makes it easier for them to get around… and less likely they’ll abandon the site. Remember that people may enter your site via search engines to any page, so don’t count on the home page to help them understand how your site is laid out.

Consider global and local. If you have different needs for different sections, maintain the same overall or global navigation to show people how to get around the major areas. Use local navigation that appears on in certain sections to offer tailored choices for lower levels. In this page I’ve created for the upcoming relaunch of the Certified Humane Raised & Handled® site, the top menu bar is the global navigation on every page, while the links at left change within the About, Food, Animals and Farm / Ranch / Business sections. Note how the left links have subheads in green to give order to the long list. The current web page has the local navigation as a series of text links. See what you think of the difference.

Identify links. Be clear on which text is a link by using a different color and / or treatment such as underline. Don’t use the same treatment for non-links. If your WordPress theme allows or you’re doing custom html, choose a consistent color scheme for links as someone hovers the cursor over them, when they are active (visitor is on that page) and when they’ve been visited. You may need a different color scheme for links within the body text vs. links in a menu bar, however.

Include search and site map. The search function provides a way for visitors to access the content they want directly. It’s also a fallback when their attempts to locate information via navigation have failed. If your site is large or complex with multiple levels, include a site map that visitors can use if they want to see the overall structure of your pages. But neither should excuse weak navigation, so don’t let adding them reduce your focus on creating an easy-to-use site.

The best way to find out if your navigation works is by testing. Because you’re so familiar with your site, it’s hard for you to evaluate what’s easy and difficult to do. Engage some people from your target audience and ask them to give you feedback. You might even assign them specific tasks that you know people will want to do – such as finding information on a product, program or service – and ask them how well they were able to accomplish each task.

With all you’ve done to get people to your website, the last thing you want to do is let them drift away. Don’t leave your visitors afloat. With good navigation it will be smooth sailing for them to do business with you.