Search versus navigation: What’s more important in 2020?

5 min read David Renwick

Note: We recently updated this post after receiving some feedback from our community.

There’s a long-held myth in the world of web design that search solves all problems. That, instead of needing to build out useful navigation that makes sense, you only need navigation that’s ‘good enough’ as people will just tend to use search anyway.

This isn’t actually true.

Back in 1997, Jakob Nielsen ran a series of usability studies and found that over 50 percent of users were “search-dominant”. Basically, these people would go straight for the search button on a website without paying much attention to the navigation. This was a by-product of the time. The internet was really just starting to grow, and search was the best way to cut through much of the chaff of early websites.

But times have changed. In this article, we’re going to take another look at the search versus navigation argument through the fresh perspective of another year, and then dive into some of the ways you can improve your own website’s navigation

Search versus navigation: No easy answers

As we saw in the example from Jakob Nielsen, users were largely search-dominant at one point, but this was over 20 years ago. A lot has changed since then, especially in the way that people seek information.

In 2003, Katz & Byrne found that most users preferred navigation over search, although this depended on “the layout of the home page and the site’s information structure”. Gerry McGovern found something similar, with his team running task tests with a technical audience. The result? 70 percent started the task by clicking on a link, and 30 percent started with search. He noted that people use navigation first because it’s both easier and faster to click on a link than to use the search box.

Interestingly, even Jakob Nielsen acknowledged in 1997 that, despite the obvious tendency for users to head straight for a search button, navigation was still key: “Despite the primacy of search, web design still needs to [be] grounded in a strong sense of structure and navigation support: all pages must make it clear where they fit in the larger scheme of the site”. He noted that there were a couple of primary reasons behind this thinking. Firstly, web design still needed to account for those people who didn’t use search, and secondly, users who arrive on a page still need structure in order to understand how the page fits into the rest of the website.

Of course, if the navigation in place is poorly organized or doesn’t accurately reflect the content of the website, you’re likely going to see an uptick in search usage or just lose users entirely. In other words, if the navigation isn’t up to standard, people will be pushed away from using links. In Gerry McGovern’s article, he states that: “Clear menus and links are the foundations upon which all great websites are built”.

Other research supports the view that while in-website search is still a popular option for many users, the navigation cannot be an afterthought. An article from Kissmetrics points out that, in a survey of over 100 survey respondents, over half preferred to use navigation over search. Interestingly, 47 percent of respondents said they preferred to filter down to specific product details rather than use search functionality on the website.

Much of how people use websites comes down to the purpose of the site itself. With retail websites, for example, you’ll likely have a large subset of users who know exactly what they’re looking for and will subsequently use the search function to quickly find their item. Using the example of a website that sells books, a user looking for a particular book is far more likely to use the search functionality than go through pages of titles.

There’s really no easy answer to the question of search versus navigation – but there also shouldn’t be. In 2019, website design needs to account for different user journeys and information-seeking approaches. You need to account for the search user and the navigation user – as well as the different ways they’re likely to use these 2 approaches together.

Understanding levels

For many designers, the idea of a website with multiple, deep levels may run counter to the idea of a website that’s easy to navigate – but this isn’t the case. It’s true that broad-and-shallow architecture makes it easier for users to find content, but a significant portion of Google’s visits are via a mobile device – meaning there’s real value in migrating to a narrow-and-deep architecture. If you’re wondering how to go about this, a closed card sort is the most relevant testing approach.

The key thing to keep in mind here is that there’s nothing wrong with having multiple levels, even multiple deep levels, as long as the navigation (supplemental and contextual) is suitable.

Two ways to improve your website’s navigation

Include a proper footer

The website footer is an often overlooked part of a website’s design, thought of as merely an afterthought to drop at the bottom of the page. Despite just how underrated they are, footers are an essential part of a usable, accessible website. For people scanning your website, a footer is a great place to showcase other interesting pages, and it’s also a useful way to point people to pages they may not know they’re looking for.

Run a tree test

If you’re looking to improve an existing website, you should start by looking at your information architecture (IA). Your IA informs the navigation on your website, so if you want to address navigation issues, it’s best to start there. As for actually fixing your IA, it’s best to start with a tree testing tool like Treejack, which can identify bottlenecks and other issues. Then, you can use a card sorting tool to brainstorm possible fixes and then run the tests again to measure any improvements.

Keep in mind that tree testing works best the more you do it. You should test, make changes, test again and keep repeating the cycle for best results.

If you’re interested in diving into more navigation resources, Nielsen Norman Group has a great section here.