`How can I improve my Website’s navigation?’

When you go to any supermarket in America, you know the drill: Shopping carts are stowed in queues outside the store or immediately inside as you enter; the checkout counters are in rows at the front of the store; the aisles are organized by product type. Regardless of how modern or old-fashioned the store is, the conventions are the same. You don’t need instructions on how to buy groceries.

Similar conventions in form and function are evolving in cyberspace. We’re beginning to see strong similarities in how leading e-commerce sites, such as Amazon.com, Lands’ End, eToys, and Burpee.com, look and operate. The widely adopted model is based on an efficient use of screen space, good search capabilities, and the logical organization of shopping tools and information.

To improve the navigation of your site, we recommend adhering closely to these tried-and-true conventions. Here are a few basic rules to keep in mind:

– The Web is still predominantly a visual medium. People read their way around the Web. Since English speakers read from left to right and from top to bottom, your key navigational and shopping resources should be prominently located in the upper portion of the screen.

Usually, the top left corner of the home page is reserved for the company logo. Going across the top from the logo to the right is typically the main menu, showcasing such functions as the shopping cart, personal accounts, and help. The search bar either appears on this main menu or is given a separate box directly below the logo. Many sites also use this area below the logo to feature a secondary menu that lists their main product categories.

– Users need directional aids. Department stores provide a host of such aids: manned information desks on the main floor, and storewide and floor-specific product directories on each floor. Online catalogers must provide this same level of information via search engines, electronic menus, and links.

Typically, the left side of the home page is devoted to links to broad product categories, shopping services, and customer service. Lead with your merchandise offerings, organized into specific product categories. Beneath each category, you can provide a few subheadings to further narrow the search. We also recommend including several more targeted product classifications, such as age- or gender-appropriate recommendations (for instance, Toys for Infants and Toys for Toddlers; Valentine Gifts for Him and Valentine Gifts for Her), or price groupings (such as Gifts Under $20).

– Add visual interest, but avoid clutter. Think of the center section of your home page as a store display window. Artfully highlight just a few products with directions on where to find them.

– Don’t sacrifice clarity for design. While you may think a given stand-alone image is a recognizable link, your visitors might mistake it for a visual element or a banner ad that will transport them off-site. Never assume any process is intuitive. Instead, provide unambiguous instructions such as “Click here for more information.”

Any marketer going into e-commerce must remember the first rule of selling online: Make it easy for the customer to buy. The “customer experience,” not the technology, is the key driver of success on any e-commerce site.

There are several strategies to enhance the customer experience of your catalog Website:

– Make your site quick. Customers use slow modems, so make every bit count. Make graphics small, eliminate frames, and rely on text, not images. Customers want to buy, not admire your developers’ design talents.

– Make your site easy. Don’t design your site to look chic for your designers, or snazzy for your marketers, or gee-whiz for your CEOs. Make your site the quickest, easiest way for your customers to accomplish their goals. This means no browser plug-ins, no rude error messages, and no complicated ordering pages – all of which we see on e-commerce sites today.

– Offer good search capabilities. The search form should make it easy for customers to find basic products. Customers usually type in one or two words that describe a product, so test your search engine to make sure that any number and combination of queries will produce accurate results. For example, Avon.com sells a product called “bath and shower gel,” but a search on the site for “bath gel” returned no results!

– Divide merchandise into clear-cut categories. When customers arrive on the home page, most will click on the link that describes the category of the product they want. Prominently and clearly listing product categories will help customers get to their desired product easily.

– Use clear product names. Catalogers sometimes use product names that shoppers would understand only if they were already familiar with the product or the catalog. The Sharper Image Website, for example, lists products such as a Cordless Personal Wand. Why would anyone other than a fairy godmother need a Personal Wand? (It’s actually a portable massager.) Don’t assume customers understand your jargon.

– Get an outside opinion. Don’t rely on your staff for the objective eye you need to gauge your site’s ease of navigation. Your employees are already biased with insider knowledge.

Remember: The easier it is for customers to buy, the more likely they are to buy. You want them to buy? Make it easy.

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