Have E-Commerce Sites Forgotten the Rules of Site Navigation?

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When you log on to your favorite e-commerce website, can you easily find what you are looking for? Have you ever left a site because you couldn’t find what you were looking for, or because the site navigation was too difficult to manage?

If so, you aren’t alone. Two years ago, the Baymard Institute conducted a study of the top 50 consumer websites, including such behemoths as Walmart and Amazon, and found that there were more than 900 usability problems on these sites. Issues ranged from improper categorization to search problems to problems finding recently viewed items and more, but what they really boiled down to was this: Despite investing millions of dollars into site design, even the largest retailers weren’t following even the most basic rules of site navigation.

So what does that mean for smaller e-commerce retailers? Navigation should be your top priority. According to KissMetrics, bad site navigation is the number one reason that users leave your site, cutting into your retention and conversions. When customers can’t find what they are looking for, whether it is a particular product or contact information, they will get frustrated and leave — and most likely, head to your competition. Even when you use free website and hosting services to help you, you still need to remember the most basic rules of site navigation.


1. Keep Your Home Page Simple

When you land on the typical e-commerce home page, what do you see? Probably, tons of links. However, studies show that the optimum number of links on your home page is no more than seven. That’s right, seven. Any more, and the page is likely to feel cluttered, and users will be overwhelmed and likely to miss important information. The fewer links you have on the home page, the more they will stand out.

At the same time, don’t sacrifice usability in favor of simplicity. One trend that’s taken hold in Web design lately is the single-column design, which highlights your content, but makes it more difficult to find other information. When users need to scroll to the bottom of the page to find what they are looking for, they are likely to get frustrated. So while you should always remember the “three-click” rule — that is, everything that matters should be within three clicks of the home page — you don’t want to oversimplify to the point that users have to go hunting for information.

2. Focus on Search

In another Baymard Institute study of the top 50 e-commerce websites, researchers found that most sites don’t have the advanced search functions that user’s want. Among some of the top findings:

  • 70 percent of the sites require users to use exact names for searches in order to return results; in other words, searching for “blow dryer” returns results when “hair dryer” did not.
  • While autocomplete is present on 82 percent of the sites reviewed, it only worked well on 36 percent of the sites.
  • 18 percent of the sites tested did not tolerate misspellings in product names or types.
  • 16 percent of the sites did not support searching by product name or model — even when the information was present on the product page

These results reveal several potential problems that can stem from poor search results. For example, when a user tries to search by product name, and no results are returned, they will assume that you don’t carry the product. And when search does not support exact queries — accounting for misspellings or alternative queries — users may again feel believe you don’t have the product or get frustrated and leave.

The solution, then, is to spend time perfecting your search functions and use analytics to determine which queries your customers are using, to keep them from leaving your site prematurely.


3. Use Dropdown Menus Sparingly

On non-e-commerce websites, dropdown menus are detrimental to navigation, as they often encourage users to miss important top-level pages. However, when you are organizing a store, dropdown menus can help customers find what they want quickly — as long as the menus are labeled specifically (“Men’s Shirts” rather than “Clothing” or “Products” for example,) and there aren’t too many items in the list. The more product categories you have in the list, even if they are very specific, the more overwhelming it is to the user, and the more likely they will either rely on search or go elsewhere.

The bottom line is that your e-commerce site needs to be easy to navigate, meaning not overwhelming and easily searched. If you can accomplish that, you should see your time on site and conversion rates increase — as well as your sales.


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