7KHPanuscript is DWWDFKHG for information only
Zheng, G. (2015). Web Navigation Systems for Information Seeking. In M. Khosrow-
Pour (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, Third Edition
(pp. 7693-7701). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.
Web Navigation System Designs for Information Seeking
Southern Polytechnic State University, USA
Web browser is used as the major tool for information seeking on the Internet today. However,
because of the vast information space on the Web, people often feel entangled and disoriented when
overloaded with massive amount of information, a problem often referred to as “getting lost” (Lazar,
Bessiere, Ceaparu, Robinson, & Shneiderman, 2003; Levene, 2010; Nah & Davis, 2002). They tend to
lose sense of location, direction, and context (Head, Archer, & Yuan, 2000), especially when there is
minimum assistance provided. Common causes of getting lost include unfamiliarity of the website design,
difficulty to locate information due to deeply buried information, and isolated information (i.e.
Information Island) without any linkage to related information. Users often reported frustration when
“getting lost” (Lazar et al., 2003).
Web navigation systems provide assistance to guide users in the web information space. A good
navigation system can ease the problem of getting lost and improve information seeking effectiveness.
Common navigation tools include menu, sitemap, navigation trail, etc. Navigation is also a key factor of
web usability (Palmer, 2002) which studies the ease-of-use of web applications and interfaces. Web
usability guidelines are usually used by web developers then they design web navigation systems.
This chapter will present an evaluation framework to examine major web navigation systems
from a human information behavior and user interface perspective. The framework focuses on content
structure and ease-of-access, two of the most important features of web navigation systems. The
advantages and weaknesses of each type of web navigation system will be discussed. The framework is
expected to provide a more complete picture and a more structured analysis of web navigation user
interface designs from a web information seeking perspective. Last we will discuss some future directions
of web navigation designs influenced by the mobile computing trend.
Information seeking is a human activity with a goal of obtaining information. Being a subset of
the human information behavior field, it is particularly concerned with methods people employ to
discover and gain access to information resources (Wilson, 1999). Web information seeking is
information seeking in the World Wide Web environment using a browser as the major user interface.
Compared to other software environments, web is a much larger and more complex environment with
massive information and complex interlinking structures. This poses even more problems for users to find
the information they want.
There are basically two generic tactics to seek information on the web: querying and navigation.
Querying, or searching, is the process of “submitting a description of the object (for instance, keywords)
to a search engine which will return relevant content or information” (Jul & Furnas, 1997). Navigation, or
browsing, is the action of moving oneself around an environment in an order, “deciding at each step
where to go next based on the task and the parts of the environment seen so far” (Jul & Furnas, 1997).
Users use these two tactics together to obtain information on the web. The choice of searching or
browsing depends on factors like task type, web site design, user preference, and skill (Nielsen, 2013).
While searching has drawn more attention for the past a few years, navigation is still a fundamental way,
and even the “last mile”, of getting useful information. For example, users still need to navigate through
searching results to evaluate the relevance and usefulness of them.
Zheng, G. (2015). Web Navigation Systems for Information Seeking. In M. Khosrow-Pour (Ed.), Encyclopedia of
Information Science and Technology, Third Edition (pp. 7693-7701). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.
The Web has become very large and complex. It is getting more difficult if people just rely on
their intuition and follow embedded hyperlinks to locate information resources. Web navigation systems
are commonly provided to guide users through the web information space. The major goal of a web
navigation system is to present an effective content index or guide and support various web navigation
behaviors. It allows users to approach an abstract information space in a similar way as they travel in a
physical space (Juvina, 2006). Good navigation systems not only make information easier to find and
allow users to acquire more useful information, but also contribute to the overall website success.
Traditional web navigation system designs focus on web usability, as navigation is considered to
be one of the important factors to measure web usability (Palmer, 2002). A major consideration in web
usability and web navigation design is to avoid getting lost. Getting lost is a common problem in an
abstract and complex information space like the Web. The theory of human information processing
(Miller, 1956) suggests that when navigating, a user tries to construct a structure map of the information
space and a navigation path in mind. The structure and contents of information spaces are mentally
represented and manipulated during Web navigation sessions (Juvina, 2006). This information is stored in
short term memory which has limited capacity. As the user is browsing and reading content, he/she will
have difficulty in memorizing that structure. When the structure of information vanishes from the short
term memory, he/she tends to get lost. To relieve memory overload and avoid getting lost, web usability
studies suggest several guidelines (Danielson, 2002; Fang & Holsapple, 2011; Nielsen & Loranger, 2006;
Palmer, 2002; H. Zhang & Salvendy, 2001): 1) visualizing the structure of information space; 2)
providing easy and flexible access to the navigational information; 3) providing context cues and
navigation trace or history; 4) behaving consistently; 5) keeping the navigation system itself simple but
meaningful. These usability studies and guidelines indeed have a positive impact on designing web
Web Navigation Systems: Content Structure and Ease-of-Access
Human information behavior studies show that the most important features of a navigation
system are visualizing website and content structures to users and providing easy access (Danielson,
2002; Nielsen, 2008; H. Zhang & Salvendy, 2001). Based on these two features, a 2 dimensional mapping
framework is developed to categorize and assess major navigation systems. Figure 1 shows the
framework diagram with some typical web navigation systems.
The framework is arranged as a two-dimensional positioning map with two axes representing the
two features mentioned above. The first dimension (horizontal axis) is how much structure information a
navigation system provides to a user when he/she is visiting a particular site or page. On one end, the
complete structure can be presented. A typical example is a sitemap (Pilgrim, 2007), which is like a
detailed table of contents of a book. On the other end, only partial information is presented or no structure
is presented at all, such as quick links or browsing history. The second dimension (vertical axis) is how
easy a user accesses or views the navigation tool and information. On one end, it can stay in-sight all the
time without extra computer operations to interact with. On the other end, it can be visually separated and
stay out-of-sight, and needs additional actions to be presented. For example, a site map is usually
designed in a separate webpage and linked from the homepage. So an HTML site map presents a
complete structure but offers completely separate access.
Figure 1: A Framework to Characterize Web Navigation Systems
(with some typical examples)
We use this framework to evaluate and discuss major navigation tools and systems used today.
The discussion is further organized into two sub sections which represent two basic types of navigation
systems (Levene, 2010): 1) website-provided navigations: these are designed and provided by individual
websites or applications which are usually part of the website and are rendered together with other HTML
page content by browsers; 2) browser-integrated navigation systems: these are either built-in components
or add-ons of browsers. In practice, more than one navigation systems can be used at the same time to
achieve the best result.
Website-provided navigation systems
The most common type of structural navigation system is global navigation (Adkisson, 2005) or
global menu. A global menu is the main navigation tool provided to show a website’s major sections and
is displayed on every webpage. It follows a sequential menu design (Zaphiris, Shneiderman, &
Norman, 2002) in which it normally provides links to a site’s top level sections, and sublevel menus can
be accessed only on a subsection of the website with only peer-level items (also called local menus or
local navigations). A global menu usually stays at the top (as a horizontal bar) or left (as a vertical bar or
side bar) of a web page. If not in a fixed screen position, it will be out of sight if the page is long and
scrolled to the page bottom. The single level menu or sequential menu design does not provide a complete
structure view at a time, and only have limited number of links without resorting to sub-navigations. This
kind of navigation system can provide a simple and direct guidance for users to go to the next immediate
major subsection, but it requires significant more steps to reach deeper level content. It is usually used for
simple websites without hierarchies; or it can be used for big websites in which top level sections are
relatively independent, and horizontal navigation between sections is not likely to happen (usually called
a hub-and-spoke navigation behavior).
There are two directions to complement the sequential global menu and both have become
popular for the past a few years. First, more complete structure can be incorporated into a single menu
system. This is called a multi-level navigation menu, also called structure preview design (H. Zhang &
Salvendy, 2001) or expandable menu/indexes (Zaphiris et al., 2002). Common implementations and
styles include dropdown menu (for horizontal menus at the top), fly-out menu (for vertical menus at left
How much structure
How the access to the
structure is provided?
A normal page-top drop
down or fly-out menu
Floating/fixed position or sticky
Tree menu in a fixed
side panel or frame
Sitemap Explorer or
A fixed position
or right), drop-up or pop-up menu (at the page bottom), multi-level navigation bar, accordion menu, tree
menu, mega menu, fat footer, HTML sitemap page, breadcrumb, etc. These designs are similar in that
they are all able to provide access to multiple levels of a hierarchical structure. But in practice, these
systems do have differences, and even the same type may have inconsistent designs and behaviors on
different websites. Table 1 summarizes the features of these navigation systems in terms of structure and
Table 1: Major Multi-level Navigation Menu Designs
Provides complete hierarchical
structure with mouse-over or click
actions; have limited number of
top level links.
Not easy to access a deep level
menu item; usually do not
show items at all levels at the
same time; cannot access peer
level sections directly (must
start from the top level links
every time); provides
minimum context cues. The
consistency of interaction may
be a problem; can easily be
used with a fixed position
design to make it stay in sight
all the time.
Provides complete hierarchical
structure with mouse-over or click
actions; may have more top level
An alternative to the drop down
menu but is position at page
or double tab
Provides complete hierarchical
structure with mouse-over or click
Provides access to peer level
links; can display items at all
levels at the same time; easy
to provide context cues; may
support more complex
Usually provides two levels of a
Provides the most complete
Provides a complete structural
trace and context cues.
Can be used together with
drop-downs to view peer items
in any level; can be
customized at a fixed position.
or fat menu
Like a dropdown menu, but it
holds significantly more content of
different levels and types (often in
multiple columns), almost like a
Like a dropdown menu, it
needs mouse actions to show
more structures; structures will
hide when not used as it takes
a large portion of the screen.
Fat footer or
Provides more structure
information but commonly used
for secondary navigation.
To compensate the large area
it occupies, it is usually placed
at the bottom of the page; has
to scroll down to the page
bottom to see the menu.
Usually uses a complete page with
sufficient viewing area to display
the complete structure.
On a separate sitemap web
page; users need to navigate
back and forth between the
sitemap page and content
pages; does not provide
Second, the navigation system can be designed to stay in-sight all the time for easy access. There
are a number of options to deliver this feature. First, a floating menu, also called a fixed position menu or
sticky menu (Denney, 2012), is at a fixed position on the screen (can be top, bottom, or side) no matter
where a user scrolls the page to. Second, a side panel that always stays in-sight can be used to hold
navigational information. The two options above are usually achieved by using Cascading Style Sheet or
can also offer a constant sitemap design, which not only presents the complete structure to users, but also
will stay in sight all the time. Constant site map users show more information seeking confidence and
effectiveness (Danielson, 2002). A common example is the folder explorer in many web based email
systems like GMail or Yahoo Mail. Because this navigation aid always stays in sight, it occupies a certain
space of the screen, so the space for viewing content is impacted. One way to mitigate this is to add a size
adjustment feature or a hiding feature (manual or auto), so it can be brought up or hidden through a mouse
hovering or clicking action when a user needs it.
Other navigation systems are usually used as secondary navigations and are usually provided for
convenience. For example, many graphical or visualization based navigation systems occupy a pretty
large region of the screen, such as cluster view (Rástocný, Tvarozek, & Bieliková, 2011), tag cloud
(Sinclair & Cardew-Hall, 2008), carousel menu, thumbnails, and relationship map. And many non-
structural navigation systems are used for specific purposes and typically do not provide structural
navigation, such as quick links, related links (Verma, Patel, & Abhari, 2009), step navigation, pagination,
and continuous scrolling.
There are a number of inherent limitations of these website-provided navigation systems. The
biggest issue is the inconsistency across websites. Consistency is one of the important aspects of usability
in user interfaces (Nielson 1999). It helps a website to behave as expected, match a user’s mental model,
and minimize guess work (Nielsen & Loranger, 2006). However, cross-site consistency can only be
promoted, but cannot be guaranteed. Navigation systems on different websites are quite different in terms
of position, sequence, interaction style, animation, etc. For example, styling techniques and complex
scripting are often used to boost utility and aesthetics, but the ways they are implemented are not always
consistent across websites. These differences create adapting difficulties for normal users (Silver & Ward,
2004). They don’t like to be “forced to learn a special way of doing things” (Nielsen, 2008). Even well
designed navigation systems cannot fully address this problem.
Browser-integrated web navigation systems
One approach to ensure cross-site consistency is to integrate navigation systems to the web
browser itself (Nielsen, 2008). Browser-integrated navigation systems have a number of advantages if
Navigation consistency. These systems are part of the browser which is independent to any
website, thus they offer consistent interfaces and interaction modes to a particular user. This is
particularly useful for users to visit unfamiliar and complex websites.
Easy and flexible access. The browser built-ins and add-ons can be easily displayed, hidden, and
manipulated. It can always stay in sight when a user needs it without extra programming and
styling techniques. When a user is familiar with a website, he/she can choose to use the
navigation system provided by the website. When he/she is not familiar with a website, then
he/she may use browser components to interact with the website.
Personalization and customization. Personalization is a common expectation for the purpose of
ease-of-use (Blom & Monk, 2003). But personalization of navigation is largely missing in current
website designs. A personalized navigation can provide a comfortable and enjoyable way of web
information seeking. Browser components can be flexibly customized to a user’s behaviors and
needs, in terms of size, position, visualization style, interaction model, etc., without excessive
user tracking techniques.
However, existing standard browser-integrated navigation systems have not realized these
advantages particularly for structural web navigation (Head et al., 2000; Lazar et al., 2003; Silver &
Ward, 2004). For example, browsers usually have back and forward buttons to assist navigation, but these
two buttons often interfere with a website’s own navigation system. Browsers also provide bookmark and
history functions with easy access, which is useful for quick access, but they lack structure viewing and
context cues. Bookmark tools also need manual organization and management.
Realizing the deficiencies of standard browser built-in navigation tools, many people developed
browser add-ons to enhance the web navigation capability of browsers. MEMOS (Head et al., 2000)
utilized a separate window to improve the use of navigation history. Personalized Indexing (Lin, 2004)
and multiple categorization (Quan, Bakshi, Huynh, & Karger, 2003) both utilized a browser component to
index and categorize web pages. Side bar also used in navigation of search results, such as OutRide
(Pitkow et al., 2002), Lycos Side Search, and HotBot Desktop Toolbar. There are also systems that
specifically handle structural information. Parallel browsing (Xu, Yu, Zhao, Liu, & Shi, 2013) split the
browser window into two parts and provide views of two pages independently (and one page can be the
sitemap page). iCab (http://www.icab.de) captures structural links in the toolbar and displays peer level
sections. Standard sitemap navigator (standard-sitemap.org) and Sitemap Explorer (Zheng, 2013) are two
emerging navigation systems that are specifically designed to provide easy access to sitemaps in a
consistent and rich interaction model. Both systems feature an interactive sitemap client as a browser side
panel (or other UI components) and XML based sitemap files. They also provide standard commands for
information seeking behaviors such as moving up/down a level, expanding/collapsing a level, searching
within the structure file, etc.
Browser-integrated navigation systems, except for a few standard navigation functions, have not
yet gained wide popularity. This is largely due to the fact that the use of such a navigation system requires
separate download and installation, which has been problematic in the past due to privacy and security
Web has continued to develop for the past 20 years, and the navigation has been and will continue
to be a key aspect. There are two major opportunities the development of web navigation: 1) maturity and
advancement of browser-integrated navigation systems, and 2) navigation systems adaptation for mobile
First, despite of their advantages, browser-integrated navigation systems which provide structural
navigation are still at the research stage. None of these systems has become a standard built-in component
of mainstream browsers. Being distributed as add-ons significantly limits their wide adoption and usage.
A potential driving force to change the situation is likely a more open and feature-rich standard format of
XML sitemap protocol. A number of existing formats can be used to define sitemap content because of
their similarities to organize hierarchical information, such as RSS/ATOM (web feeds and publishing
protocols), OPML (Outline Processing Markup Language), standard sitemap protocol (standard-
sitemap.org), and Sitemaps Protocol (sitemaps.org). However, each of them has its own limitations.
RSS/Atom is most widely used, but it is mainly for news feeds, and the structure is fairly simple. OPML
is also simple but has not achieved wide adoption yet. The Sitemaps.org protocol was developed from an
information retrieval or search perspective and it is not used for user interactions (Wilde, 2008). Standard
Sitemap Protocol is user navigation oriented but mainly supports pure hierarchical structures. It may not
be completely suitable for all web content structures and user-oriented navigation activities, and it does
not support advanced features like multiple categorization, content relevancy, and collaborative filtering.
Utility tools to generate and maintain such sitemaps should also be ready if the protocol expects to attract
In addition, personal information management (PIM) functionalities can be enhanced in
navigation systems. Current sitemap designs are static and lack editability and manageability. A browser
component provides unprecedented potential for users to customize and manage their navigations. PIM
features become technically easy in client based navigation UIs, such as bookmarking, sorting, user
annotation, organization, categorization, sharing, searching, editing, importing/exporting, indexing,
import and export, filtering, zooming, etc.
Second, the latest mobile computing trend also brings a change to web site and application
designs. Two notable differences are 1) smaller and varied screen size and 2) touch oriented interactions.
Both have brought noticeable changes to web navigation systems and designs. For example, the
traditional dominance of top and left position navigation is gradually shifted to bottom (and right)
position to accommodate the convenience of one hand operation. More complex navigation systems such
as tree menus also need adaptation on mobile devices to improve user performance (Adipat, Zhang, &
Zhou, 2011). There have been increasing practices toward improving web browsing on mobile devices,
but the research field is still at its early stage, and many issues remain unresolved (D. Zhang & Lai,
2011). We will continue to see more navigation system adaptation techniques or even specific mobile web
navigation systems in the future.
Web navigation is an important part of web information seeking and web usability. The design of
a web navigation system directly contributes to the overall user experience of a web site and application.
There are many navigation systems and designs to choose from and each has its own advantages and
weaknesses. To have a complete picture of various navigation systems, this chapter provides a perceptual
map to understand their features from an information behavior and user interface perspective. Using the
two dimensions of content structure and ease-to-access, the chapter summarized and evaluated major
website-provided HTML-based navigation systems as well as commonly used browser-integrated
navigation systems. The framework can also be very useful when choosing and designing a navigation
system for a website or web application.
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Key terms and definitions
Information behavior: a class of human behaviors to interact with information.
Information seeking: a type of human behavior of obtaining information to satisfy information
Browser integrated web navigation: navigating web sites and information through a user
interface component integrated with browsers.
Sitemap: a structured document that describes the content structure of a web information space.
Sitemap webpage: a sitemap presented in a human readable HTML web page.
Web navigation: the process of visiting information resources following a certain sequence in the
web environment using a browser.
Web navigation system: a user interface tool that provides navigational information and support
web navigation behaviors.
Web usability: application of usability in the Web environment using browsers.