Breadcrumb Navigation: Hierarchy or History?


Breadcrumb Navigation: Hierarchy or History?

Breadcrumbs are a form of secondary navigation for websites. They’re useful, because they:

  • show the user where they are
  • provide one-click access for section hierarchy
  • are small and take up very little space
  • are potential SEO keyword targets

I try to use breadcrumbs whenever I can and I find they’re particularly useful on sites that have a deep hierarchy. However, one of the most frequently asked questions about breadcrumbs is, “should a breadcrumb display hierarchy or history?” Jakob Nielsen recently tackled this problem in a recent article titled, “Breadcrumb Navigation Increasingly Useful.”

Hierarchy or History?

…Offering users a Hansel-and-Gretel-style history trail is basically useless, because it simply duplicates functionality offered by the Back button, which is the Web’s second-most-used feature.

A history trail can also be confusing: users often wander in circles or go to the wrong site sections. Having each point in a confused progression at the top of the current page doesn’t offer much help.

Finally, a history trail is useless for users who arrive directly at a page deep within the site. This scenario is when breadcrumbs show their greatest usability benefit, but only if you implement them correctly — as a way to visualize the current page’s location in the site’s information architecture.

Breadcrumbs should show the site hierarchy, not the user’s history.

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