Optimizing your website menu for your users and for SEO

In an ideal world, every single page of your website would be accessible from that one, site-wide website menu. But as you, as a web developer or website owner, undoubtedly know, the real world of websites is far from ideal. We struggle with multiple devices, fixed-width websites, themes that can hardly be changed without creating new problems, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, the website menu is the most common aid for navigation on your website and you want to make the best possible use of it. Here, I’ll address a number of useful best practices that allow you to optimize your website menu for both your users and SEO.

Website menus

First of all, I think we should forget the assumption that a website can only have one menu. I think we have become used to the small links in the upper bar on a website.

Website menu: greenday.com

Like so many other websites, Greenday.com has a first menu in the black bar, whereas the red bar also contains a number of links to internal or external pages. Social profiles, Apple Music and Spotify links, but also a newsletter subscription.

Website menu: Manhattan College

Manhattan College has a clear second menu leading to internal pages, aimed at specific audiences. It just goes to show that these extra menus are everywhere.

My point here? Don’t put everything in one menu. Doing that clutters your website and makes your main menu a poor reflection of your site structure. Focus on the most important content. For instance: I do like a ‘Contact’ link in a menu. But only add one if your main goal is that your visitors contact you. Otherwise, that link can be placed in a second website menu without a problem.

The downsides of too many links in your website menu

Too many links, anywhere on your page, isn’t recommended. Yes, Google may allow up to 250 links and perhaps even more on a page without any problems. But your website’s goal’s probably not to make sure your visitors can’t see the wood for the trees. We recommend against:

  • Tag clouds (what’s the use, really?)
  • Long lists of monthly links to your blog archive (don’t use date archives!)
  • Infinitely scrollable archive pages with links to articles (at least add excerpts and load more articles on scroll)
  • A hundred categories in a list (why so many!)
  • Menus with submenus and sub-submenus and so on

Why do we recommend against this? Having too many links on a page messes up your link value, for one. With so many links on a page, every link from that page is just a little less valuable for the page it links to. Besides that, it messes up the focus of your visitor. With every link, you add a diversion from the main goal of your website.

In my opinion, you do need to have a solid reason to add more than one submenu. And if you feel you need that extra level in your menu, monitor the number of clicks that menu gets and adjust if needed. I think you are much better off creating good landing pages for your submenu items, in many cases.

Read more: How to clean up your site structure »

The perfect menu

Of course, there is no template for ‘the perfect menu’. Much of it depends on your site and on what your goals are. In any case, there are two important questions you should ask yourself when optimizing your menu:

  • What is the best menu structure for my site?
  • What menu items should at least be in my menu?

Two more tips we can give you is to use a drop-down menu for important sub items. And don’t add too many links to your menu, or they will lose their value. Do you have other tips for a good site menu? Let us know in the comments!

Keep reading: The Ultimate guide to site structure »

Coming up next!

8 Responses to Optimizing your website menu for your users and for SEO

  1. Suzanne Trevellyan
    Suzanne Trevellyan  • 4 years ago

    For Google to index a page, must all pages be linked somehow in a menu? If so, is it okay if it’s just in the footer menu?

    • Michiel Heijmans

      That’s not at all necessary. It’s far more important to optimize site structure and serve an XML sitemap, for instance. These are things that make it easy for Google to crawl your site. Your menu should be focusing on the user and in the process be showing Google your main pages or site areas.

  2. hiflyman
    hiflyman  • 4 years ago

    Hi, In the world of increasing mobile search, is there not an argument to not having a main menu at all and just have images with links? especially if menus are difficult to navigate and click on a small handset screen. This way a search engine wouldn’t have the difficulty of trying to decide on the structure of the site as the images with text become the menu to the content and be ranked accordingly, and users will find it easier to scroll through the images, and locate their topic of interest from just one click, and then a website manager can adapt the new picture menu on the fly to drive traffic to the feature or item for sale? At the moment i use both a top menu, a footer secondary different page menu, images with links, page tags within pages and yoast breadcrumb, a visual user sitemap and a xml sitemap. Any thoughts and comments welcomed, thanks.

    • Michiel Heijmans

      Just not sure I would feel comfortable myself if I ended up on a website without a menu. I think it’s rather drastic to kill the menu entirely. But in the end, all depends on the type of website/product you have, right? Skipping the menu surely won’t work for a huge amount, perhaps most, websites.

  3. ranaemog
    ranaemog  • 4 years ago

    Hi Michael, I was a bit disappointed by this post, as I thought from the title that you would tackle best practices in naming website dropdowns. Would you recommend standard dropdown menus such as products, services, about us, contact us, etc., or would you recommend using optimized keywords for dropdowns. Do you have a post at Yoast that you can point to regarding this? Thank you!

    • Michiel Heijmans

      Sorry to disappoint you, Ranae! I think what you expected was a golden ticket to the right menu structure or so? I think there is no such thing. You should first look into the site structure of your website and all the think you’d like to share with your visitors, or better: all the things they want to know. From there, you can construct the right menu. But you are not finished there. You need to keep on monitoring your website and your visitor’s behavior, to make sure you just keep on delivering an optimized experience for them. In naming, you should focus on that as well. Don’t tell your visitors what you want to tell them, tell them what they want to know. Might take some testing or surveys, actually.

  4. Christian Baudchon
    Christian Baudchon  • 4 years ago

    Thanks for this very interesting article. Though I get your point about submenus, does this apply also to an e-commerce store that has thousands of products, categorized in hundreds of categories and subcategories?
    From a user experience point of view, is it better to have an expandable menu better (with multiple sub levels) or forcing the customer to click on multiple pages?

    • Michiel Heijmans

      Hi Christian,

      Thanks for your comment and question. Your case is certainly different from the ‘regular’ website. I think what you should focus on, is specific landing pages, great filter options and most definitely an optimized search option. I’m just not sure if hundreds of links in your menu or submenu will help a visitor that much. So would that still apply: yes, I think so.

      One way to look at this is to group the products in a number of sections. IKEA could have / has pages for chairs, but also for living rooms, for instance. Age could also be a differentiation. No need to cram all in that menu as the only of even main point of selection, right? Amazon combines a larger submenu with great landing pages.

      Do a survey to find out the journey of a visitor over your website: why do they visit your site in the first place? It might surprise you: Why does one buy a hammer? To drive a nail into a wall? No, to hang a painting ;-)