Even when there might not be one definite "scientific" answer, a
navigation to the left side is closer to web convention -- and should
therefore be chosen for most types of web sites. While original and
challenging site content might well be of interest, learning to
understand uncommon navigation concepts is not part of a satisfying
------------- Navigation Positioning
There are several positions a web site navigation can be placed. To
the left, right, middle, top or bottom. Usually, sites use a
combination of these positions; that is, navigation on top, some on
the left, often on the right as well, and additional links on the
------------- Consistency With the Web
Usability cannot be discussed without the context of what people
expect before they arrive on a page, since most of us simply won't
have time or motivation to relearn their navigating behavior for a
single web site. Thus we have to see what is common online:
- At the top, there's often a main navigation, or topics/ categories
-- the "global" navigation
- To the left, we might have a more complete navigation menu. Or, it
can be the main navigation
- At the bottom of the page are additional links (like Copyright
Information, Email Contact/ Feedback, Company Details)
- To the right, there's often additional information along with links
(like sponsors, or related articles)
- In the middle: these embedded links are usually "local" navigation,
or links to other web sites containing related information
Sean Timberlake writes:
"You've seen [the navigation bar] before -- on the left side of
countless sites or maybe at the top -- a list of the top-level
categories a site has to offer. It's so widely used as to be cliche,
but guess what: It works. Because it is so overused, every single
person who has spent more than a few minutes on the Web knows how to
use this thing."
Jacob Nielsen states in his Alertbox article of 1999:
When Bad Design Elements Become the Standard (Jakob Nielsen)
"If you are thinking about how to design a certain page element, all
you have to do is to look at the twenty most-visited sites on the
Internet and see how they do it.
- If 90% or more of the big sites do things in a single way, then this
is the de-facto standard and you have to comply. Only deviate from a
design standard if your alternative design has at least 100% higher
- If 60-90% of the big sites do things in a single way, then this is a
strong convention and you should comply unless your alternative design
has at least 50% higher measured usability.
- If less than 60% of the big sites do things in a single way, then
there are no dominant conventions yet and you are free to design in an
alternative way. (...)"
------------- Navigation Examples
Now let's see where navigation is usually placed:
- In Windows, the Menu is on the top. However in many Windows
applications, the key navigation is to the left. The toolbar of
programs is typically on the top and/ or to the right. Status displays
at the bottom, while actual content goes in the middle. Or take
Windows Explorer; folder navigation is to the left. Or the Internet
Explorer History Bar, also on the left side.
- On Web pages, things differ from one site to the other, but we can
still see a common theme among "western" web pages.
I will take some practical online examples and analyze their
navigation placement, and wether there seems to be a general
preference for left vs right, or vice versa:
The "category navigation" is on the top ("Books", "Electronics", "Toys
& Games" and more) in the style of tabbed selectors. Also at the top
is account navigation. To the left, we have the more complete
navigation, sorted by categories. To the right are advertisement
links, as well as additional information interspersed with links. In
the middle we find the main content with inline linking. On the very
bottom of the page we have additional links ("Conditions of Use" and
Microsoft uses a dynamic navigation, much like a menu in a Windows
program. On the site, the main categories ("All Products", "Support",
"Search") are on top, and moving the mouse over them expands the
sub-menu. To the left, again we can see a more complete navigation. To
the right we find downloads and news items. The bottom contains
Google is not a typical content-based site and serves a very special,
straight-forward purpose. I include it here because of its popularity.
Briefly put, the main category navigation ("Web", "Images", "Groups",
"Directory", and "News") is on top, while advertisement links can be
found below it and to the right. Only when we go to the Google
information pages, we can find navigation to the left. See:
Google Web Search Features
The navigation of this site differs from the typical
navigation-on-left scheme. There are categories at the bottom
("Printers", "Handhelds") as well as on the right side. Contact,
About, and Cart links are collected on top of the page. A "Choose A
Country" box pops up a list of available support regions to the
middle/ left. The bottom, as usual, contains Copyright links and more.
I could provide a lot more pages that would establish that indeed
navigation to the left, while not being the only concept in use, is
more common when it comes to navigating a sites' main categories --
whereas the right bar is often used for additional links, like
advertisement, news, downloads, and so on.
------------- Consistency Within One Site
Wherever one decides to put the navigation bar, consistency within the
site is the key. While one might favor left, or right, it's certainly
sub-optimal to switch from one to the other on the same site.
Site Types and Architectures [PDF]
"Consistency of Navigation
- You should create a navigation hierarchy and stick to it
For example primary navigation across top, secondary along left,
text links as back up
- Navigation elements should be consistent both in position as well as
------------- Opinions & Arguments
Following are opinions and arguments from different people discussing
the topic in newsgroups, and from different articles on the web.
Jenny Brien writes:
Re: Main navigation positioning on a web site - winds of change?
"A post-facto thought on left vs right. Left navigation shows where
you are in relation to where you've been (Metaphor - Explorer Bar).
Right navigation shows [where] you can go from where you are (Metaphor
Web developer Ken Wallace makes following statement, which you might
or might not agree with:
Re: New Site to Check
"[Personally], I never design right side navigation bars, because
western civilizations read left to right, and we tend to comprehend
quicker left to right."
Other (right-handed) people say that to them navigating with a
left-side bar feels like "reaching over the table", since they
typically position their mouse cursor to the right-side of the screen
to navigate the scroll-bar. However I might add that every time they
access the back-button they would "reach over the table" as well, so
maybe this is an artificially constructed obstacle.
Also, this article should be of interest:
Web Navigation - How to make your Web site fast and usable
Navigation: Vertical vs. horizontal navigation bars
"The answer is there is no right answer [to the question whether
navigation bars should be vertical or horizontal, on the left side of
the page or on the right]. Since we said that visitors will not
memorize our navigation scheme, a user will forget the path to the
information she wants from one visit to the next. For the regular,
daily visitor, it's important to build navigation that is consistent
throughout the site and makes sense in a logical way.
But, most users visit infrequently. Just remember that Web users scan,
looking for buzzwords. If those words are in your navigation area or
in your main column of text, a user will find it. Where you place your
navigation bar is secondary.
Aesthetically, if you want your design to stand out from other sites,
don't put a bar on the left side of the page. But most visitors won't
notice. If a user wants to move stock from one mutual fund to another
on the E-Trade.com Web site, the success of his or her action is what
Mike Slocombe writes:
Where to put navigation
"Navigation should always be clear, concise and simple, and designed
with the end user in mind.
It may be boring for designers of commercial sites, but the fact is
most people easily understand left-hand and top navigation bars. That
doesn't mean personal/portfolio sites have to be created this way. Use
whatever is appropriate to the content and aims of your site."
As additional information, here is an argument favoring left-or-right
navigation in general (as opposed to top navigation):
Web Site Navigation - Navigation Bars
"There's no hard rule about how and where to put navigation bars.
Because most computer screens are wider than they are tall, and good
typography for the best readability demands shorter line lengths, it
makes sense to put navigation bars on the left or right side of the
And here are arguments for and against the five different positions:
Site Types and Architectures [PDF]
"Where To Put Navigation
* In first area of focus
* Similar to GUI convention
* May collide with branding
* May scroll off screen and force back
* No collision with branding and page labels
* Probably force scrolling unless fixed page
size in use
* Not in primary field of focus
* Breaks with convention of GUI and most Web
* Left-to-right reading pattern
* Minimum mouse travel to primary buttons used
* May create narrow window
* Navigation fence keeps focus away from content
* Scroll off problem
* Content immediately
* Not convention
* Right varies in distance
* Maximum mouse travel
Not enough room for content
Only good for home pages or other landmark
------------- Technical Feasibility
Also note; for technical reasons, the concept of "right" can be harder
to implement on fixed-width layouts. Web pages using a dynamic layout
can establish this more easily. However, for both dynamic and
fixed-width layouts, "left" is always left on the screen. "Right" may
differ depending on the resolution in use by the visitor.
I hope it helps!
Is Navigation Useful? (by Jakob Nielsen, 2000)
"For almost seven years, my studies have shown the same user behavior:
users look straight at the content and ignore the navigation areas
when they scan a new page."
Google and Google Groups
"site navigation" "left or right"
site navigation nielsen
site navigation "left or right"
"where to put navigation"
"navigation to the left" "or right"