How We Navigate The Web
We use the Web all the time without giving it much thought on how we navigate but there is a lot of thought put into the processes of how this happens behind the scenes by web designers and developers.
Web designers and developers go to great lengths to craft efficient user interfaces that allow users to navigate websites and web apps.
A key consideration when web designers and developers create user interfaces is the efficient organization of information so that it is easily accessed by end users. The design has to be optimised to allow users to intuitively identify and locate the information they need.
Usability is crucial for the design of websites and web apps and their corresponding user interfaces. Poor design in this regard results in users abandoning websites or web apps; a scenario which is not desirable for the owner of the website or web app.
A Historical Perspective
The modern day computer is third generation with a history originating from 1963 to the present. This generation of computers is characterised by miniaturized transistors which allowed them to become smaller, more powerful, more reliable and they are able to run many different programs at the same time.
The first generation of digital computers, 1937 - 1946 were massive machines weighing tens of tons which made use of vacuum tubes for computation. They could only perform single functions and had no operating system.
The second generation of digital computers, 1947 - 1962 were an improvement to the first generation computers making use of transistors instead of vacuum tubes and were more reliable. This period saw the introduction of operating systems and programing languages.
The development of computers in the third generation of computer history has seen the development of computer networks that allowed computers to be connected to each other and communicate by sharing data. The culmination of these developments has been the Internet and the World Wide Web.
Before computer networks, users of computers only had to navigate their own computers and as networks evolved people progressed from accessing files on a network to navigating the Web. It is important to appreciate this historical perspective in order to get a better understanding of how we navigate the Web.
Types of Web Navigation
Essentially web navigation, from the perspective of web designers and developers, is about organizing information in the most efficient way so that it can be easily accessed by users and at the center of it all is the website or web app.
Users navigate a website and web apps by means of hyperlinks which are a network of interconnected resources that are navigated by clicking on them. By clicking on the hyperlinks, users can navigate to various parts of a website or web app.
Website navigation can be categorized into 4 different types; hierarchical, global, local and search.
In hierarchical website navigation, the structure of the website or web app navigation is built from general to the specific. An example of this would be a top hyperlink hypothetically called “Services” that sits at the top level which would have sub-hyperlinks such as “Web Design” and “Email Marketing” which would be more specific extensions of the “Service” hyperlink.
The hierarchical website navigation provides a clear, simple path to all the web pages from anywhere on the website or web app. It also provides a highly structured approach to the organization of information.
Global website or web app navigation shows the top level sections and pages of a website or web app. It is available on each page and lists the main content sections and pages of the website or web app. This type of navigation only focuses on the main top level hyperlinks whereby more granular navigation is provided locally within the pages linked to.
Local navigation involves the hyperlinks within the text of a given web page, linking to other pages within the website or web app. Local hyperlinks may not be easily accessible compared to hierarchical and global navigation since the user has to scan through text to access them.
Search navigation is perhaps the most versatile. Depending on the architecture of the website or web app, search navigation may provide the most succinct navigation as users are able to find the specific information they are looking for.
Search navigation also poses the risk that users my hit a wall when information is not found and not have an alternative path on which to proceed. It is therefore a challenge for web developers to to provide the most comprehensive search algorithm to meet the needs of users.
Search Engines and Navigation
Although most of us do not think it as such, search engines like Google are simply sophisticated websites that curate information which enables us to locate other websites. The type of navigation used on search engines, is obviously search.
Search engines have revolutionised the way we navigate the Web. Before search engines you either had to remember a web address to navigate to it or at least you had to remember a web address for a web directory that listed the website you are looking for.
Navigating the web using search engines has become so common that people do not bother to remember web addresses any more. They just Google it! This is why it is important to search optimize if you have a website or web app so that you can be found on the Web.