Breadcrumbs For Web Sites: What, When and How

Breadcrumbs (or breadcrumb trail) is a secondary navigation system that shows a user’s location in a site or web app. The term came from the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale in which the main characters create a trail of breadcrumbs in order to track back to their house.

Image credit: loseyourmarbles

Same as in fairy tale, visitors needs to know their location in the site’s hierarchical structure in order to possibly browse to a higher level in the hierarchy. In this article, we’ll explore the use of breadcrumbs on sites and discuss some best practices for applying breadcrumb trails to your own website.

Breadcrumb Navigation Increasingly Useful

Breadcrumbs serve as an effective visual aid, indicating the location of the user within the site’s hierarchy. This property makes breadcrumb navigation a great source of contextual information for users and helps them to find answers on following questions:

  • Where am I? Breadcrumbs inform visitors of their location in relation to the entire site hierarchy.
  • Where can I go? Breadcrumbs improve the findability of site sections and pages. The structure of the site is more easily understood when it is laid out in a breadcrumb than if it is put into a menu.
  • Should I go there? Breadcrumbs communicate content value and encourage browsing (e.g. e-commerce site visitor might land on a product page, the product might not be a good match, but the visitor might want to view other products from the same category). This, in turn, reduces the overall site bounce rate.

Reduces Number of Actions

In terms of usability, breadcrumbs reduce the number of actions a site visitor needs to take in order to get to a higher-level page. Instead of using the browser’s “Back” button or the site’s primary navigation to return to a higher-level page, visitors can use the breadcrumbs.

Take Up Minimal Space

A compact mechanism not taking much of the page space as it is just the text with links in a horizontal line. The benefit is that they have little to no negative impact in terms of content overload.

No Users Suffer Problems Because of Breadcrumbs

People might overlook this small design element, but they never misinterpret breadcrumb trails or have trouble operating them.

When Should You Use Breadcrumbs?

A great way to determine if a site would benefit from breadcrumb navigation is to construct a site map or a diagram representing the site’s navigation structure, and then analyze whether breadcrumbs would improve the user’s ability to navigate within and between categories:

  • You should use breadcrumbs when you have a large amount of content organized in a strict linear structure or hierarchical structure with defined categories (e.g. can be partitioned into sections which can be divided into more subsections). An excellent scenario is e-commerce site, in which a large variety of products is grouped into logical categories.
  • You shouldn’t use breadcrumbs for single-level websites that have no logical hierarchy or grouping.

Types of Breadcrumbs

Breadcrumbs can either be on the basis of: location, path and attribute.

Location Based

Location based breadcrumbs are a representation of a site’s structure. They help visitors understand and navigate your site’s hierarchy, which has multiple levels (usually more than two levels). This type of breadcrumb is very supportive for visitors who enters the site in a deeper level from an external source (e.g. search engine results).

Location based navigation. Image credit: marketingland

In the example below (from BestBuy), each text link is for a page that is one level higher than the one on its right.
Location Based Breadcrumb from the BestBuy

Path Based

Path-based breadcrumbs (also known as a “history trail”) show the entire path traveled by the user to reach on a particular page. This type of breadcrumb link is typically dynamically generated. Sometimes path-based breadcrumbs can be helpful, but the most time they’re puzzling — visitors often browse very wildly, jumping from one page to the other. Having such a meandering path doesn’t offer much help for user and can be easily replaced by a “Back” button in the browser. Finally, a history trail is useless for visitors who arrive directly at a page deep within the site.

Below is an example of path-based breadcrumb links that show two paths to navigate to the target page.

Path based navigation. Image credit: Oracle

Attribute Based

Attribute-based breadcrumb lists the categories to the specific page or most often product — as this kind of breadcrumb type are useful for e-commerce sites. This type of breadcrumbs helps the visitors to understand the relationship of products and offers a different approach.

Attribute based navigation. Image credit: marketingland

For example, in TM Lewin, breadcrumb trails show the attributes of the items displayed on a particular page:
This page displays all suits that have the attribute of ‘Slim Fit’. Image credit: T.M. Lewin

Hierarchy or History?

A rule of thumb for breadcrumbs is to show the site hierarchy, not the user’s history. Thus, use location-based/attribute-based breadcrumbs, not path-based ones.

Breadcrumb Navigation Best Practices

When designing a breadcrumb navigation, keep following things in mind:

Don’t Use Breadcrumbs As a Replacement For the Primary Navigation

Breadcrumb navigation should be regarded as an extra feature and shouldn’t replace effective primary navigation menus. Keep in mind that it’s a convenience feature; a secondary navigation scheme; an alternative way to navigate around your web site.

Apple uses a breadcrumbs navigation to support the primary navigation

Don’t Include Link to the Current Page in Navigation

The last item in the breadcrumb trail (current user’s location) is optional — if you want to display it, make sure that it’s not clickable or tappable. Since users are already on the page, it does not make any sense to add link of the current page to the breadcrumb navigation.

Use Separators

The most recognizable symbol for separating links in breadcrumb trails is the “greater than” symbol (>). Typically, the > sign is used to denote hierarchy, as in the format of Parent category > Child category. Other symbols used are arrows pointing to the right (→), right angle quotation marks (») and slashes (/). The choice depends on the aesthetics of the site and the type of breadcrumb used:

Image credit: Dribbble

Image credit: Dribbble

Select a Proper Size and Padding

Think carefully about target size and padding when designing. There should be enough gap between different breadcrumb levels otherwise people might find it hard to use them. But at the same time you don’t want your breadcrumbs dominate the page, thus they should be less prominent than the primary navigation menu.

Don’t Make It the Focal Point of the Design

You should not use fancy fonts or bright color because these will beat the very purpose of using breadcrumb navigation. A rule of thumb to follow when sizing and styling your breadcrumb trail is that it shouldn’t be the first item that grabs the user’s attention when landing on a page. Breadcrumb trail in example below isn’t bad, but it’s too eye-catching and might distract visitors from the primary navigation and main content.

Image credit: Dribbble

Google doesn’t make breadcrumb navigation look fancy, but users can easily locate and use it.

Don’t Use Breadcrumbs on Mobile Site

If you’re on mobile and you feel you need breadcrumbs to navigate then something probably went wrong with designing your site for mobile use. Most probably your site is too complex (too deeply nested) for this particular type of usage and environment that mobile provides. In order to solve this problem, you should think about how to make it less complex first, so that breadcrumbs aren’t even on the agenda.

Conclusion

All that breadcrumbs do is make it easier for visitors to move around the site, assuming its content and overall structure make sense. It’s one of the few simple things that enhances usability and fosters user comfort. And that’s sufficient contribution for something that takes up only one line in the design.

Thank you!