navigation menus

I’ve lately had to deal with a huge database-driven website. What troubled me most was the huge navigation menus – and I am wracking my brain over the ways to optimize it both for users and search engine bots.  It is always the hardest – to organize huge number of links into one easy-to-navigate and clear menus.

I am researching the topic now, drawing the site structure on a sheet of paper and still have to come up with the “perfect” solution.

Now, the best way to educate yourself is to learn from examples. Therefore I decided to look into one of the most successful (in terms of performance, not implementation) examples dealing with the huge database of products and sections:

Below, I am giving the history of navigation menus evolution without going into any extra ramblings. Your thoughts, resources and opinions are much appreciated! I promise to do a follow-up here or at SEJ linking to everyone whose comments I’ll be referring to!

I’ll start my analysis from 1999 when Amazon sidebar navigation looked overwhelming to say at least:

Amazon navigation menus oct-1999

The key features:

  • Website sections sorted into first- (bold links) and second-tier (“… And More” section – containing all things that can’t be combined – is a good sign of broken website information architecture) ;
  • Inconsistent website navigation: why do “Top Sellers”, “Recommendation Center”, “New Releases” and “Soundtracks” come in one pack?

In 2000 Amazon took some steps to make the navigation menus much shorter (the image below) – second-tier levels were removed. It might be much more focused that way and less disturbing but does provide much less information for the first-time visitor.

During the whole next year it remained still top-tier-only but it continued to grow until it turned into something surprisingly huge and even more unfocused. Most elements seem to be completely in the wrong place: Video and DVD? In Theaters? Magazine???

Amazon navigation menus oct-2001

It had remained to be that huge monster until 2006 when they changed the design twice again: first time it turned into something even larger and clumsier (with second level being back):

Amazon navigation menus jan-2006

And then into something even huger but surprisingly much better organized (click to enlarge):

Amazon navigation menus dec-2006

Positive steps in information organization:

  • Main categories are listed in alphabetical order;
  • Categories and subcategories are all logically related (e.g. there’s no more “Top Rated” and “Soundtracks” listed under one roof).

As of today (January 2009) Amazon sidebar navigation (hover) menus contains even more links (screenshot from Google cache to get an idea how it looks like with JavaScript disabled):

Amazon navigation menus jan-2009

The first thing that comes to my mind is that they renamed the whole block from unclear “Browse” to “Shop All Departments” (which is already a good move).

Secondly, they have reconsidered the alphabetical order and probably list them by popularity now (I guess popularity was also the criteria behind re-arranging the subcategories).

So, what do you think on the whole topic of arranging links into the navigation menus? Any tips links observations to share?

Post image by flattop341

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I am the owner of this blog as well as Brand and Community Manager at Internet Marketing Ninjas and Founder of MyBlogGuest, MyBlogU and

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  1. I thought a lot of online retailers were moving away from the taxonomy approach and moving towards a filter based approach to show content. We have been trained by Google to go to the search box when we want to find something so an interesting test would be to see what percentage of users actually use the taxonomy vs searching.

  2. Steve Krug shows in his book “Don’t Make Me Think” the evolution of amazon’s top navigation menu, which is more likely to help on usability, which is the book’s theme. People should take a look at that too.

  3. If I am not wrong Amazon have updated the menu again. I thought the last version shown in this blog (and cached by Google) was OK, however just visiting amazon they appear to now have a more compressed menu with a rollover showing the sub cats only when you roll over a menu.

    I think this way is great. Even newbies would have no problem finding their way around using this menu.

  4. Excellent post Ann. I’ve been trying to get my head around the best internal nav structure recently so this is very timely for me. I think Amazon’s current nav menu is pretty much spot on now, both for usability and SEO/keyword targeting, but its amazing to be reminded of how poor it was in the past!


  5. @Trent – Ann’s screenshots are with Javascript disabled so you can see all the subcats at once, that is why you don’t see the rollover.

  6. @jaamit ahhhh cheers for that dude. lol

  7. It’s great you sorted things out, guys 🙂 I am sorry for not clarifying that myself…

  8. Delphi .Net Development says:

    Not a problem Ann.. Things are pretty much clear now….

  9. I think that they’re testing and re-testing that one for

    a- seo results. They have better nav schemes that are more focused to their human visitors, imho. Kind of points to the problems with SEs technical limitations, in that they hardly duplicate human behaviour, but that’s another rant

    b- CTR/conversion rate/total revenue or profit. As you pointed out, they dropped the alphabetical bit and have reverted to what I assume is a popularity system.

    It would be nice to have them comment on their metrics, but then that’s proprietary, valuable data they’re very unlikely to share.

  10. Hi Ann Smarty,
    I liked your research. This is pretty amazing stuff. But now they have javascript driven menu and sub menu which is good improvement.

  11. Ann,

    Do you think is it sensible to change from alphabetical order to popularity ?Don’t you feel visitors may get confused from Usability perspective.

  12. Good question, Lohith, and I am afraid I don’t know the answer. Alphabetical order creates expectation (you always know where to find the item) whereas the popularity order caters for the majority and saves their time… Gotta research…

  13. I recommend alphabetical order, despite popularity might help a few, alphabetical order helps everyone.

    Also, this issue could turn into a poll, what do you think? alphabetical vs. popularity order.

  14. Frank,

    Nice thought.We got to come up with poll.

    Ann has given awesome explanation.Research and poll may give answers.

  15. Sorry for the off-topic comment: I usually try to convince my SEO friends to optimize the keywords that comment spammers use on their comments, so we really outrank them, have you ever considered that against spamming? =D

    @lolith – whenever you get the poll running, just send me the link! =)

  16. Absolutely awesome stuff. Cheers for this relevant information.

  17. This is the good way to organize the site.

  18. Viv Lonsdale says:

    Fabulous post I must say.

    Amazon is always held up as a good example of organising lots of information. It is true that they are great at testing and improving. But its clear to me that one section seems to have a problem – Books.

    Yes they have made the nav cleaner. But the mix of options is really horrid. Topic, then genre, genre, genre, topic. Its all a muddle.

    Then if you look at other sections like shoes, they have a very clear structure. Why???

    Different departments mapping their own IA ideas. Some good, some not so good.

  19. If you are in doubt, always ask: What has amazon done” It has been this way for some years now.

  20. Nice post, Your information about navigation menus evolution is very useful.

  21. A fellow web developer of mine reviewed my fledgling site design (Smart Web Developer), and suggested a future proofing it per your article.

    I thought “Bah Humbug”, but – since he’s a smart guy – I thought I better take a look.

    All I can say is … wow! Thank you! It was very powerful to see, and has convinced me to see the evolution of Amazon’s menus over the years. It’s convinced me to use a more flexible menu structure.

    Thanks for the great article!


    p.s. Forgive the gaudy opal on site. Still got to work on that… 😀

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