Blog Navigation and the Ongoing Challenges that Arise

Navigation is obviously one of the most critical aspects of usability. Developing effective navigation is a challenge for most websites, but it’s especially an issue for blogs because of the content that is continually being added.

Think about the typical blog. A few new posts are probably added each week, but navigation is almost never changed or updated, except by using internal links within the posts themselves. Finding posts is always possible by browsing through the archives, checking through some categories, or by doing a search, but the more content that is added, the harder it is to navigate.

Some blogs that cover news and other time-sensitive info may have a high percentage of posts that are of very little value down the road, but the majority of blogs have a wealth of useful information in the archives that is not being maximized. Finding ways to make content easily accessible with logical navigation can be difficult to achieve without a cluttered blog.

Challenges and Issues Associated with Navigation

Ability to Find Old Content

I’ve spent the last year building up a blog that contains almost 300 posts (and I know many others have done the same or more), but my primary concern each week is finding a way to create new content to be posted that will help the blog continue to grow and move forward. Of course this should be a priority, but it’s not that often that I consider how I can make it easier for visitors to find old posts that they’ll appreciate.

Between the new subscribers that have come in the past few months and the growing number of search engine visitors, a very high percentage of visitors have never seen the older posts, and I think this is pretty common for most blogs. With that in mind, making the older content findable is very important. However, it’s always a challenge for bloggers and blog designers to know what content visitors will be looking for and how to make the navigation more effective in this way.

If you want to improve navigation to your archives should you include a popular posts section? Should you use a related posts plugin? Should you link to archive pages by month? By author? By category?

Personally, I like the idea of using a manually created list of popular posts in the sidebar, as I have done on this blog. This allows the blogger to highlight older content by their choice, rather than letting a plugin decide which posts are popular. Plus, it can be updated and changed from time-to-time to feature different posts.

In my opinion, one of the biggest keys to improving the ease of access to older posts is by using internal links within the body of posts. Before you publish a post take a minute to read through it specifically looking for opportunities to link to other posts in your archives. Contextual links are great for usability because visitors who are reading a post will often be interested in related information that you’ve covered in the past, and the link is right there in front of them. Also, links within the body of a post will obviously be included in your feed, which means subscribers will have another opportunity to click through to your blog from their feed reader.

Categories Are Virtually Useless in Most Cases

Maybe I’m not like the typical blog visitor, but personally I very rarely click on links to specific categories in a blog’s sidebar. (Michael Martin of Pro Blog Design has a recent article, Why Tags Are Better Than Categories.) When I was re-designing this blog theme I considered removing the category links from the sidebar altogether, which I may still do at some point.

Last week when writing about blog sidebars I gave the example of Freelance Switch not using a list of categories in their sidebar, and instead linking to an archives page. For now I’ve attempted to make the category list on this blog more user-friendly by removing a few specific categories from the list that either have very few posts or aren’t that relevant to most visitors. Hopefully the shorter list of categories will be a bit easier to digest.

When addressing the navigation of your blog, consider your category list. Do many visitors use the categories for finding content, or are they just taking up valuable space?

Popular Post Lists are Not Updated

I mentioned earlier that I like to control the popular posts listing manually. While this does provide the opportunity for the blogger to have more control over what posts are listed, it also tends to create lists that are rarely updated to include newer posts that should be there. By using a plugin to automate the list it will include these posts without any effort on your part.

While I don’t change my list all the time, I do add/remove links every now and then (I just added 40 Photoshop Tutorials for Lighting and Abstract Effects, which has done very well since being published last week). If popular post lists are never updated, they’re not doing much good for visitors.

Sidebars are Usually Ignored

I feel that sidebars are often an afterthought for bloggers and blog designers. They have potential to be more useful, but not if the necessary thought and effort isn’t put into their development.

Small Potato wrote a post on WPDesigner earlier this year, Static Sidebars Suck. In this post he gives some reasons why blogs should vary the sidebars according to the page or section of the site. Changing up the content of the sidebars can give visitors a different experience that could be more helpful and relevant to them.

If the primary purpose of a sidebar is to assist in navigation, and it’s being ignored, the overall navigational effectiveness of the blog is going to suffer. When working on improving the navigation of a blog, creating sidebars that get noticed by visitors and easily provide them with useful links should be a priority.

Related Posts Plugins are Nice, but Often Ineffective

Many blogs use plugins to include a list of related posts at the end of each post. This can certainly help improve the internal navigation of the blog (and the SEO as a result), but from my experience they are typically ignored by visitors.

I used one of these plugins at this blog several months ago until I did a WordPress upgrade and that particular plugin was not compatible with the new version of WordPress. I chose not to replace it with another similar plugin because the links were just taking up space and not being clicked. In some cases the related posts that we’re linked were certainly not ones that I would have chosen, and in other cases they were pretty accurate. In either situation, they were rarely used by visitors. Again, this is something that I tend to ignore on other blogs that I visit.

I’ve had more success with manually creating a list of 3 or 4 posts at the end that says, “If you enjoyed this article, please see…” I don’t do this on every post, only occasionally, so it seems to stand out a bit more to visitors. I tend to use these lists on posts that I expect to do well with social media. Since many visitors that arrive through social media have never been on the blog before, it would be a big plus to get them to click through to other posts.

Internal Links Within Posts are Critical

The most important aspect of blog navigation is including useful internal links within the body of your posts. They will generally get the highest click-through rates from visitors, and they’re also the most usable for visitors. If you’re reading a post and an internal link is used within the context of the post, you’ll usually have a very good idea of what you will find if you click on the link. Readers like to have an idea of where they are heading, and contextual links can accomplish this.

Adding internal links to your new posts isn’t that difficult, but adding links to older posts is almost never done. This is a huge issue for blog navigation, in my opinion, because there is usually far more content on a blog that would be relevant to visitors, but it simply isn’t linked in the right places. Imagine the average search engine visitor to your blog. They probably arrive at a post that was published several months ago because it provides the information that they were searching for. However, maybe you’ve published two or three posts since that time on the same topic that are more up-to-date and in more detail. Wouldn’t it be helpful for the visitor to see some links within the body of that post that point to these newer posts?

One solution to this issue is to go back through your archives and look for opportunities to add links to newer posts. This will obviously take some time depending on how many posts you have published. (This is on my to-do list for this blog). There is also the aLinks Plugin for WordPress users that looks like a viable option (I haven’t used this plugin myself, so I can’t testify to how well it works). This plugin will allow you to set up keywords and phrases that shouldn’t be linked to specific URLs. Any time that word or phrase appears in your blog posts aLinks will create the link to your page of choice.

Conclusion

While navigation is an important issue for usability, it’s also a never-ending challenge for bloggers that are constantly posting new content. In order to improve the navigation of your blog you’ll need to address several key issues and make decisions according to what will help visitors find what they are looking for, and what will allow you to maintain efficiency with managing the blog.

If you have other thoughts, issues, or challenges related to blog navigation, please leave a comment.

If you like getting design inspiration by looking at excellent blog designs, you’ll love our new gallery site Blog Design Heroes.

Published July 17th, 2008 by

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17 Responses

Comments are now closed on this post.

  • Hmm… I don’t think the problem is effective navigation. I think the problem is “ad blindness”, especially if your audience is an “old” one or a true blogger audience.

    These people get used to seeing certain plugins, like Related Posts, or certain sidebar features, like Recent Posts or Popular Posts. They stop looking at them. I know I don’t pay any attention at all to most sidebars anymore.

    Before I became a problogger, I did pay attention. But habit, common use, expected placement… same old, same old, and I began filtering out the noise.

    This is just human behavior. So the point is not whether these forms of navigation are effective, but rather for how long they are effective and for which types of visitors.

    What’s the solution? Continually discovering new ways of getting people to click around the blog or move in deeper? Meh. Not sure. Consistency and expectations make a huge difference to consumers and readers.

  • Michael Martin, July 17, 2008

    Thanks for the link Steven!

    I’m definitely struggling with this as well. I use a handmade Popular Posts list like you, but I’m guilty of rarely updating it. I was thinking of adding a related posts plugin, but if you didn’t have much luck with it, I doubt it will work any better on my blog. :(

    Blogtrepreneur.com has a section at the homepage called the “Time Capsule,” that highlights a post from the year before. I thought it was a pretty interesting idea. :) (If your blog is old enough for it)

  • sailor, July 17, 2008

    I am in the process of re-writing the theme for my blog. This article could not have come at a better time for me. Thanks, you have given me lots to think about.

  • Vandelay Design, July 17, 2008

    James,
    I agree that ad blindness and typical blog readers ignoring certain elements are the huge contributors to the issue. But in my opinion if an audience consists of these types of visitors, the navigation is ineffective if it doesn’t account for that.

    I don’t think the goal of navigation should be to entice people to click for the sake of getting another page view. The issue with most blogs that I visit, and one I struggle with here, is that the archives are under-utilized because the navigation structure isn’t ideal.

    Michael,
    Yeah, I think the time capsule thing at Blogtrepreneur is interesting, but I’ve never clicked on a single one of those links. Maybe other people do, but I don’t.

  • Here’s a thought. What about a plugin that rotates through posts older than X number of days, and the widget would display five links that say, “From Our Archives” or “Have you Read This?”

    Even better would be a plugin that would pick the oldest posts and slowly exchange them every three days with the next oldest and so on up to the most recent before dropping back to oldest again.

    Or something like that. ;)

  • Janko, July 18, 2008

    Awesome writing! I was retouching my blog recently and I was asking myself the same things.

    Popular posts are definitively a way to go, and I could agree that it’s better to manually manage this list. Especially if you write content that can be out-dated. However, I created a small widget that shows popular content based on number of comments. By analyzing stats, I noiced that most commented posts are often most popular, most visited and most rated. I think that in this case comments have the greatest value.

    Regarding categories, strange, but my visitors often click on category links. Maybe it depends on how you determine the categories. In my case I have two “opposite” categories: design and development. Many visitors are interested just in the web design and others in pure programming. So, I’ll keep it for now :)

    One thing that I noticed when talikng to people is that, if there is an image with some content (like your popular posts list), visitors will more likely click on those links. That’s strange..

    And related posts… hm.. I am thinking for some time to give it a try and I’ll definitively will.

    Thanks, mate!

  • Kat Rice, July 18, 2008

    This is a great post. When most people talk about blog design its about color schemes and visibility which is important but navigation is usually left to the coder to think about if it all. Great points all around.

  • Jin, July 18, 2008

    all you need is prev/next/archive links on each page. anything else is excess.

  • Vandelay Design, July 18, 2008

    James,
    That sounds interesting. I wonder if there is an existing plugin that could do that. I think it would probably still face some of the same issues as related post links, such as blindness, but maybe just using a different headline like you mentioned instead of “Related Posts” would be more effective.

    Janko,
    If categories work for you and your visitors definitely keep using them. It makes sense when you split your blog like that. Yeah, I think images just draw more attention.

    Kat,
    Thanks for the feedback.

    Jin,
    In my opinion previous/next links are pretty much useless. They’re too limited.

  • matt williams, July 18, 2008

    I agree with this post. Of coarse navigation tied in the design is the key. I ran into a post the other day about a woman wanting to start her own blog site. Long story short, she went straight to the expert and consulted with Chris Garrett. The results were amazing. If you go to remarkableparents.com , you will see the what I am saying. Adding internal links to the actual text is the best way to have people click thru rate go higher. My navigational tactic is a little of both. I only use the side bars because it tends to look more professional. The other day on dream weaver 9 , I discovered the navigational pull down tool. I am now working on a navigational pull down tool that will enable me to start from one solid main topic or heading , and work your way through the structure of the entire site with just one click.

  • pearl, July 19, 2008

    Hey Steven

    What a nice post. The issue of navigation was the biggest one for me on the previous theme. And I have the same feelings on categories too. 1) I never click on categories on other blogs, 2) Just like me, it’s possible that people haven’t categorized their posts correctly, so what’s the point?

    On related posts issue, I cannot recall any single time I clicked on those either on any blogs but I like the random posts plugin. This plug-in has allowed me to see my own posts from the past that I’d completely forgotten about.

    Although I feel very restrained, non-techie people like me have no other way to do this than to rely on plug-ins for most popular posts or random posts.

    would love to see more on this topic in future…

  • Jin, July 21, 2008

    V,

    “Jin,
    In my opinion previous/next links are pretty much useless. They’re too limited.”

    keep it simple. if you really think about navigation in its simplistic form, it’d be to navigate next/prev. and have a link to see all the articles.

    there’s a reason why most blog sites(especially designers’) all look the same. somehow “popular articles,” “recent articles,” “recent comments,” etc became necessity than decorations.

    i agree with you on internal links. it’s simply the best, least distracting way.

  • Lori, August 10, 2008

    As a newbie to the Blog World, and very interested in how to create a dynamic, elegant, and interesting blog, I’m currently combing through websites looking for tidbits of information. I always look for the category section for posts on blog design and CSS. So, yes, categories can be very useful.

    Unfortunately, I find that many sites do not have good ways to get to their older posts. All that work, wasted because people can’t find it easily.

    Thanks for this article. I’ll keep this conversation in mind as I set up my sidebars.

  • Bruno, October 21, 2009

    Our website’s blog section has (so far) not even included any kind of navigation, because we’re trying to approach the whole site very minimally, adding elements as our needs arise. Now that navigation is looming on the horizon as a necessary element, we finally set out to start planning it, and this post has helped to reinforce our thoughts about some directions to head in and what deviations from the usual blog template might be appropriate. Thanks!