How to handle navigation: primary & side navigation options
We're going to sum up a lot of research right now: the best navigation for your website is the one that makes the most sense. That's it.
REW websites come with two default navigation options: a primary navigation and a side navigation. For some of our older sites, the primary navigation takes the form of a mega menu. Our newer sites tend to utilize a drop down menu for the primary navigation. Regardless of which option your site has, the same principles are going to apply:
Every single website should use a primary navigation. It's the easiest navigation bar to find, and it's going to be universal across the site. Both users and search engines will expect to find the most important pages in this primary navigation, and that's exactly what you should put there.
The biggest mistake webmasters make is putting too many links in their primary navigation, especially with mega menu formats that allow it. Keeping your primary nav simple is critical for users, as well as SEO.
Consider that your site has a limited amount of authority, and that authority is going to be shared among all your linked pages. Your primary nav gets first dibs and the biggest slice of that authority—and it's just like a delicious cake: the more authority is shared, the smaller the pieces get. Try asking yourself, "is page X important enough to make page Y less valuable?"
Mega menu or drop down, you want your primary navigation to focus on your most important pages.
Here's where things get a bit controversial, as people seem to either love or hate side navigation bars.
In most cases, if you've set up your site properly and have only linked to your most important pages in the primary navigation, you're going to need a way for users to navigate your additional pages. This is particularly true on large sites that cover multiple cities or regions, and have hundreds of pages full of quality content.
The simplest way to organize these massive sites is through a side navigation. Our CMS makes side navs easy to sort and organize, they make sense and they're familiar to users. From an SEO standpoint, they're the perfect solution.
The arguments against side navigation tend to be design-focused, as people are getting used to sleek designs with large visuals. If you absolutely can't stand a side navigation and just don't want to do it, the solution is simple: find something else that makes sense.
There are other navigation structures that are logical and easy to use, which don't include side navigation bars. But these solutions are going to require some brainstorming and serious site planning, and could require custom work as well. You'll need to balance a design that looks good with a structure that's still simple and easy to understand.
For example, HighRises.com has an extremely simple primary navigation bar on the Home page, with local primary navigation bars for individual cities. This works, because it makes sense.
Summing it all up...
The key to a user-friendly and SEO-ready site navigation is planning. Make ease of use your number one rule, and prioritize your pages. You'll need to take a hard look at the depth of your site as it stands today, and forecast where you're taking it in the future. Once you've got your cornerstones ironed out, you can begin to pave the path towards the smaller, supporting pages.
It's only natural that the architecture will look different across every site. Spend some time navigating different types of sites, exploring your own, and taking stock of what structure you think you can feasibly apply to your navigation, without confusing your users.