Primary or secondary navigation? That is the question.

Your primary navigation bar serves a pretty straightforward purpose: to help online visitors seamlessly interact with your website and gently nudge them in the direction of your products or services. And just as your main website navigation serves your customers, your secondary-level navigation generally serves the needs of your business.

Let’s take air travel as our metaphor: at an airport, you’ll find signs that point travelers towards the gate where they’ll board their plane. There are also gift shop and restaurant signs which ultimately serve to bring in revenue, while also making customers’ travel experience more pleasant in the process. The online version of this helpful (but not immediately crucial) signage is what we call secondary-level navigation.

Best Practices for Secondary-Level Navigation

When you’re designing your website’s secondary-level navigation systems, you may look to major online publications for inspiration. These sites will often display dozens, if not hundreds, of categories and tags that seem to provide some usefulness to the reader. But it’s important to keep in mind that nine times out of 10, ad-supported websites are designed to sell categories to advertisers, not everyday readers.

For publishers like the BBC, most subcategories actually reflect how they sell ad space. Ad-supported businesses can generate higher CPMs if they only sell ads in a certain section or on pages with a certain tag. For example, a football apparel company may be more inclined to shell out cash for an ad spot on a subcategory specifically geared toward sports.

So while the secondary navigation menu might look like it reflects the needs of users (in this case, readers of the publication), the links are really serving the needs of the business. Don’t make the mistake of emulating the design of a publisher with a very different business model from your own. Instead, focus on improving your own engagement metrics in a way that makes the most sense for your brand.

Persona Targeting

If your branded publication isn’t supported by advertising (as is the case for the vast majority of company blogs), then using secondary-level navigation for the purposes of persona targeting is a smart strategy. As a business, you want to find out as much as you can about your audience — everything from the topics they enjoy reading about to the headlines they click on and the industries in which they work. The way you structure your secondary-level navigation can help you uncover this key information.

For example, L&T’s brand publication, The Digital Strategist, touches on a wide range of marketing-related topics. By including specific categories aimed at various niche interests, we can keep up with a range of readers who may be interested in each of the topics we cover.

secondary level navigation best practices

You can accomplish the same result with implicit tagging in Google Analytics. Leveraging onload events to tag articles will produce data that shows you the percentage of people who clicked on articles relating to a particular topic.

Choosing where each page goes in your navigation is really simple, so don’t overthink it: If it serves your customers, it belongs in the main website navigation. If it serves you as a business and simultaneously helps your users, it belongs in the secondary-level navigation.

Longneck and Thunderfoot offer digital strategy services, including website branding, style guides, persona development, and audience segmentation. We’re a partner in making content work for your business. Learn more about digital strategy here.

Author Ami Foote

A graduate of the University of South Carolina, Ami is a staff writer at L&T. She has previously written for, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Britax Child Safety, and a variety of non-profits around the country. On a good day, you can find Ami obsessively consuming one or all of the following: folk music, NPR, black coffee, jeopardy, or Guinness.

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