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.

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