Is Search Powerful Enough to Kill Main Navigation for Good?

The Great Search Dilemma

We all search online. By now, we are all used to going to a site or app, typing in the thing we want, and choosing from relevant results. Whether we’re trying to find a friend on social media, pulling up the best recipe for mashed potatoes, or trying to remember lyrics for that song that’s stuck in our head, just about everyone knows the basics of online search, probably even your technology-averse grandpa.

A digital product team might start to wonder: Search is now so pervasive and so well-understood, is it possible that it’s the only thing people need to get around a modern site or app? Could we go extremely minimal with the main navigation or — wait — what if we do away with it entirely?

And wouldn’t relying on search instead of main navigation solve a bunch of problems? Main navigation can add visual complexity to an otherwise simple and clean design. It’s tricky to divide content into a reasonable number of navigation items. It can cause headaches for development, responsive design, and accessibility compliance. The main nav can also be a political nightmare — everyone thinks their department or specialty belongs in the main nav. In a search-centric or search-only product, all internal stakeholders would have equal representation. And, not to forget users, data shows that search gets a ton of traffic. Doesn’t it make sense that we should lean even harder into search knowing that people use it?

The above are all great questions. And, at first, all signs seem to point to main navigation’s death knell.

But have you ever gone to a site or app where you had no idea what to search for? You weren’t there to find a specific product or answer, you were truly just navigating to see what was there or how the company could help you? You almost certainly have if you’ve ever vetted a new company or service using their site or app.

Or have you ever used a search that didn’t work so well? A search that brought up random results that were only the distant cousin of the thing you were looking for? Sure you have — this type of search is everywhere. Even some of the biggest online retailers offer search that’s mediocre or worse. And trust us when we say that hell has no fury like a user trying to find something with their trusted search bar and it doesn’t work.

While the questions you might be asking about getting rid of main navigation altogether are reasonable, we have compiled another set of questions you must also ask before you decide to go that route.

If you can answer “yes” to ALL of the following questions, your site or app can take a search-first or search-dominant approach, and you can get rid of main navigation.

1. Is search the entire point of your site or app?

2. Are your users looking for something very specific out of a sea of options?

3. Is it faster for your users to search for what they need than to drill down by topic or category?

4. Do your users have high expectations for accurate, complete, helpful search results?

5. Does your budget allow for creating a robust search that returns relevant results every time?

6. Does your site or app contain thousands of items within hundreds of categories?

7. Does your product locate a person or business from the untold millions in the world?

8. Do you sell more products than have ever previously existed in the history of mankind?

9. Do you offer access to the entire catalog of human knowledge?

10. Does your name rhyme with Zoogle, Bamazon, or Mickipedia?

No? If you couldn’t answer “yes” to any one of the above, nice try but you still need a clear, helpful main navigation.

Chances Are, You Need Both Navigation and Search

The truth is that some people search and some people navigate. Removing or diminishing the ability to navigate removes a primary way people interact with your site or app.

Some people are even outright search averse. They consider it a last resort. They may call customer support before they would ever search your site for a topic, product, or answer. Paring navigation menus down to one or two unhelpful options or removing the nav entirely essentially ensures that navigating users will be frustrated with your experience.

Not only do some users wholeheartedly prefer to navigate, main navigation gives them valuable context about your site or app from any page they land on. The categories in your nav help users know that they are in the right place. Navigation tells them where they can go, what they can find, and what they can do. That’s powerful stuff. Search struggles to accomplish this as elegantly and intuitively.

Sure, a handful of sites out there can rely almost exclusively on search. They might not need (and would even be hard-pressed to create) main navigation. But your site or app is almost certainly not one of them.

Sites and apps that can successfully rely only on search alone are so rare, we could almost list them out. We’re talking Google. Amazon. Maybe the Yellow Pages online. Maybe Orbitz, Kayak, and other search-centric travel deal sites. The list is incredibly short. These sites and apps get away with relying almost solely on search because they contain so much information or so many options that categorizing content into navigation categories ceases to make logical sense.

Even very search-heavy sites and apps like Zillow and Ticketmaster allow users to also find the information or item they need via a navigation menu. Heck, the master of encyclopedic knowledge online itself, Wikipedia, offers navigation in addition to search. Come to think of it, so does Google.

Search Can Do a Lot, but It Can’t Replace Nav

Your site or app will benefit from effective, appropriate search. But not in place of a clear, helpful main navigation. Ditching the main nav may seem like a great idea for a lot of reasons: design aesthetic, saving space, trying to remove site elements based on analytics, unwillingness to spend the time carefully considering and organizing your content, etc. But it will leave a good portion of your users high and dry.

Don’t let anything distract you from the simple truth that many people will find it easier to get around your site or app with a clear and helpful main navigation menu.

Let your competitors try the search-only approach instead. When navigating users realize that their trusty main navigation is nowhere to be found, those folks may just come straight to you.

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Our team has been doing the real work of user experience since the early days of the commercial web. We’re out to make your digital products a whole lot better.

…for searchers, navigators, and every user in between.

Author: @baileysendsword
Graphic: @djosephmachado



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