What is the one thing that gets overlooked in nearly 99% of the websites we look at in my comprehensive website critique?  The website menu.

Your website menu is just as important as the content that it is trying to organize.

While there’s no one right way to do a menu, here are 8 common mistakes made when organizing your menu.  Use this list as a quick checkup on your existing menu or a guide when planning a new menu/site design.

A bad menu can quickly kill an otherwise good web experience.

Mistake No 1. Not putting menu items in priority from left to right.

It’s a common designs standard to put the most important items in your menu on the left-hand side, and the least important items on the right-hand side. I think this is a good standard you should follow. Your first menu item should be “Home” and your last menu item should be “Contact.” Order everything else in priority from left to right.

Mistake No 2. Not using a top-of-page, horizontal navigation.

When the web first started, we had three dominate website menu styles: a horizontal bar, a left-hand side vertical bar, and a right-hand side vertical bar. The right-hand side option has fallen out of favor (for good reason – it’s confusing), so today you mostly see left hand or top horizontal menus, with the top horizontal being the most common and the easiest to use – that’s the kind of menu we have here. I recommend a top horizontal navigation bar in almost all cases.

I see lots of site that have more than one horizontal nav bar, or have both a horizontal plus an additional left side navigation. Both of these styles are hard to pull off successfully, so I don’t encourage them unless you’ve done some testing with your customers to ensure the navigation is clear. (Give me a call if you need help testing.)

Mistake No 3. Having a website menu more than three layers deep.

I understand that some websites are huge, and sometimes a multi-layer menu is impossible to avoid.  But really, anything buried more than 3 layers deep will be hard for users to find.  I encourage you to try and spread out the menu – feel free to take advantage of the full menu width and bring items up to the top

Mistake No 4. Burying important items in a navigation, or worse, forgetting to even put them in the menu.

Speaking of menu layers, your “sales” items – e.g. “hire us, “services,” “how to give us moolah” should always be at the top layer, or as close to it as possible.  Don’t bury anything important.  Earlier I said you should prioritize from left to right, but also prioritize top to bottom – with important items in the top layer.

Also, you would be surprised how many people ask me “how’s come this page gets hardly any views” when it wasn’t in the menu in the first place.  Double-check your menu to see what’s missing.

Mistake No 5. Not carefully deliberating on the word choice of a menu item.

Now that you’ve obsessed over what pages go where in the menu, you should spend just as much time worrying about the label on each menu item.  The word choice can effect whether or not your menu is confusing.  Let’s take an example – say you are a small hotel.  What does “Rooms” on a menu mean? It’s unclear.  “Book a Room” versus “Types of Rooms” or “Room Choices” is better, because that’s much more clear on what you’ll get when you click.  The idea here is to keep it short and sweet while still being very clear. In general, one word descriptors aren’t that useful except for very common web menu links (e.g. “contact”)

This tricky one only proves my point that you need someone else to look at your menu once you’ve drafted it out.

Mistake No 6. Having hard-to-use drop-down menu navigation.

Raise your hand if you’ve cursed at a website menu that had drop-downs that were next-to-impossible to use. (Even worse on a mobile phone.)

I’d love to say that drop downs perform poorly (because I personally dislike them) but that isn’t the case – as long as it is easy for even the most unsteady hand to mouse through the menu layers.  Issues like these can be hard to fix as they’re often tied to your technology platform, but they’re worth fixing, because otherwise you are annoying paying customers! Bonus points if your menu highlights the current page you are on.

Mistake No 7. Changing a menu order/contents on a whim.

I hate it when grocery stores rearrange the aisles, and your repeat clients will also hate it when you make constant changes to the menu – it makes it hard to find things.   The only time you should be changing the menu is either a) based on customer feedback, or b) based on your website analytics feedback (or c) I told you to, lol). Otherwise you are at risk of overengineering this stuff.

Mistake No 8. Assuming your menu is the only way to navigate your website.

Last but not least… you’ve now got a menu that is superb and easy to use, but don’t rest on those laurels… a menu is not the only way to get around a website.  And in fact, many web users are so disillusioned with crappy menus that they’ll skip the menu entirely.  To make sure you cater for these folks, ensure that you take advantage of two other best-practice navigation styles:

    • Search – a good search option is a must no matter how big or small your site is.
    • Inter-page links – make sure each page links to other appropriate pages.   If you’re struggling with this, always ask “what’s the next logical step?”  For example, I like to make sure about page always end with a “now explore our products/services” link, because that’s a logical next step.

If you haven’t noticed, I think menus are pretty darned important, and they don’t get the attention they deserve. Good luck with making your menu the best it can be – let me know if you’d like some help.