Why WordPress breadcrumbs are almost always pointless

34 Comments

breadcrumb fail whale

Breadcrumbs are a very popular navigation feature in WordPress websites. And the vast majority of the time, they are entirely useless. In fact I think I can argue that they can be negative to the overall user experience.

The purpose of the breadcrumb is to show the user where they are in a website, providing clickable archives of each layer. They can be a great feature in the right theme or on the right site, but I have seen very few implementations where breadcrumbs provided any benefit at all.

Why are they pointless?

The typical breadcrumb is at the top of the content area, above the post / page title but below the main navigation. A typical breadcrumb structure, depending on the theme developer or plugin, will rarely be more than three layers: home >> a date archive or category >> post name. Often times, like the picture below, the breadcrumb just goes straight to the post title.

WordPress breadcrumb

Proponents of the breadcrumb tout the benefit of being able to quickly provide the user with layered navigation options.  But why does the typical website need it if the breadcrumb will rarely, or never, show more than two layers plus the current page?

The breadcrumb is already so close to the main navigation that the user can probably get to the exact place as the breadcrumb can take them via the main navigation.  Not to mention, I’d rather show the user additional navigation options at the end of a post or page rather than the very beginning.

If I can’t take a user two layers deep into my site structure with the main navigation that is just pixels away then I might need to reevaluate my site structure in the first place.  Also, the typical “byline” will feature the post date and category archive already, and it’s not all that difficult to make the byline date an archive as well.

Why could it hurt the user experience?

All the inclusion of the breadcrumb trail typically does is crowd the top of the page and offer another distraction to the viewer.  Most sites are already showing ads, popular and most commented posts, tabbed widget areas, feature content sliders, and a lot of the other mess that is hugely popular in web design.  A useless breadcrumb trail is just another thing to blur the focus of the user.

When someone visits a page, isn’t the goal to direct their eyes directly where we want them to go? Usually the breadcrumb simply helps prevent the user from lasering in on the content and instead promotes mindless scrolling before leaving the page entirely and increasing your bounce rate.

Of course, sometimes breadcrumbs are good

I’m not trying to say that there is no point in using breadcrumbs on any site, just the vast majority.  Pretty much any traditional blog plus a lot of niche site types will never benefit from a breadcrumb. But there are some sites where I think the breadcrumb trail will have enough layers to be beneficial and provide click incentives to override the potential distraction.

  • Photo or portfolio site – If set up well, a breadcrumb trail on a photo or portfolio site may be beneficial to the user. For instance, my photoblog breadcrumb may look like this: Home >> Photos >> Swimming >> Summer Meet >> Me doing the backstroke.
  • E-Commerce site – If an e-commerce site has many products and product categories it could really benefit from a breadcrumb trail. A breadcrumb for this type of site could look like this: Home >> Products >> Computer Accessories >> Mouse Sets >> Logitech Performance MX

In each of these scenarios, as a user, if I’m looking at a particular photo or a product I may very well be interested in what else is in the summer swim meet photo gallery or mouse set product sub-category. It’s those third and fourth layers, that I can’t typically get in the regular sitewide navigation, that make the breadcrumb interesting.

So what’s the solution?

It’s obviously up to the theme developer whether to include breadcrumb navigation in a theme, and it’s hard to deny that it could be a good selling feature for a commercial theme. However, it would be nice for theme authors to provide documentation to easily remove breadcrumbs if they include them by default.

An even better solution would be for theme authors to think, “Does this theme really need a breadcrumb trail?”  And if you can’t think of any great scenarios for it: don’t include it.

Or if you can think of one or two scenarios where the site would benefit then perhaps it would be good to either only include the breadcrumb on certain templates or leave it to the user to implement with a plugin.

So am I off my rocker? Or can we all sing Kumbaya and say goodbye to the overuse of breadcrumb trails in WordPress themes?

34 thoughts on “Why WordPress breadcrumbs are almost always pointless

  1. Great article! I often read posts about the positives of breadcrumbs. This is the first I’ve read about the negative and you have great points.

    • Thanks, Scott. I noticed that too and thought this conversation could use a little balance. I think a lot of people got excited about how to create breadcrumbs and perhaps didn’t always ask themselves whether they were necessary everywhere they were putting them.

  2. I like breadcrumbs, but I prefer batter 😉

    Joking aside there is a time and a place for breadcrumbs, feedback from some of my clients is almost always negative, many find them confusing and they feel “lost” within the site.

    I feel if your UI is right people will be able to comfortably navigate your site by the main nav alone!

  3. User experience aside, breadcrumbs are generally a great SEO feature. Search engines are able to understand a site’s architecture more easily and categorize pages and sections of the site more appropriately. Google even uses breadcrumbs clues from your site in search results (the green links below a page description).

    Still, a blog is a fairly “short” layered site and if kept pretty simple then breadcrumb navigation may not really help your SEO at all. But any complex site, or even a blog that uses many levels of categories, can certainly reap the SEO benefits of breadcrumbs.

    • Interesting take on SEO, Patrick. I honestly didn’t consider it in my post, but can see how it can benefit in a deeply layered site.

      I feel like we’re building a pretty good case for complex sites to use breadcrumbs, but not so much on the “typical” blog.

      Thanks for chiming in.

    • I was thinking the exact same thing while reading this in my feed reader. I don’t put them on all of my clients site…some do request them others don’t even know them…but if someone asks why other sites have them the only good reason I can think of most of the time is SEO…so they end up asking me to add it to their site as well.

      Is it really needed on a simple and/or overall good structured website. I’d have to say NO.

  4. Breadcrumbs are not always useful within the context of a blog. Most of the time they don’t go beyond your typical “Home / Post Title.” Where breadcrumbs usually work out well is within a structured site with pages, sub-pages, sub-sub-pages, and so on.

    One thing I’m actually working on this week is enhancing my breadcrumb system to more closely resemble the user-defined permalink structure. I usually use a /archives/%year%/%monthnum%/%day%/%postname% post permalink structure on my blogs, and I’d really love for my breadcrumb trail to reflect that.

    • Ditto. Like the e-commerce example I used, I think a deeply layered site can benefit from breadcrumbs, but most of the time it’s just home / post title as you said.

      A breadcrumb like you describe would be much more interesting — especially for a site with a lot of posts like WPCandy, where those archives could really build up.

      I don’t hate breadcrumbs if they add to the user experience, but most implementations don’t add, but rather cause more distraction to themes that often have plenty of distractions built in already.

  5. Outside of SEO (and honestly, it’s not a huge impact in my experience but it certainly doesn’t hurt if done correctly), one needs to use a little common sense when it comes to using breadcrumbs. Still, I’ve personally done usability studies where some people have clicked on the home link in a breadcrumb vs. in a menu bar. Crazy, but true.

    Personally if there’s only two layers then obviously breadcrumbs are going to seem useless. But the majority of the blogs and sites I do are at least three layers deep (with a category or other layer present). Regardless the main purpose for these (for me) has always been to show the user generally “where they are” in relation to the order of things on your site.

    Anyone who hasn’t read this book, should (it covers items like these – this debate is very old):

    Don’t Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability
    http://www.amazon.com/Think-Common-Sense-Approach-Usability/dp/0789723107

  6. I mirror Patrick’s view that breadcrumbs are great for SEO although many wordpress sites are simple blogs so they are often not needed. That said there are some fantastic themes around that allow you to create content rich sites with many levels of categories so in this instance breadcrumbs should be considered for SEO purposes

  7. I’ll admit, the one thing this editorial did for me, is remind me that WPCandy doesn’t have breadcrumbs. Kind of ironic, really 🙂

    All of our breadcrumbs would have at least two steps, of course. For instance, this post’s breadcrumb would be:

    Home > Opinions > WordPress > Why WordPress breadcrumbs are almost always pointless

    I’ll likely implement something like this on single posts on the next update of the WPCandy theme. Which could be coming soon 🙂

  8. Another advantage of breadcrumbs on a site with content more than a couple of layers deep is to let the user know where they are after clicking on a featured item link from somewhere else on the site. Such as the homepage.

  9. I see your point Brian. There is no doubt that a breadcrumb like [home] / [ok_you_are_now_here] yields much juice.

    However,

    when a web site has “cats / sub cats / sub sub cats”, it’s a whole different story. Then, we both know it’s a one heck of a feature.

    Yes, it may appear that a theme may not need the breadcrumbs for most of its cats, but what about the site owner got a few cats that is highly nested and the breadcrumb is absolutely a fantastic way to ease up the navigation? So, what do we do then? In most pages, skip it and place it only where it is needed? Can such a major navigational element may appear and disappear from pages to pages – just because it’s pointless in 2 level depths but not so in 3 and up? This calls for a decision to be made; we either do it across the board or we don’t. My pick is to do it across the board.

    Here is the why…

    Let’s think about it for a sec. Does “Home >> Products >> Computer Accessories >> Mouse Sets >> Logitech Performance MX”, make sense? Because, at some point, isn’t it unavoidable to show something like [Home] >> [Products] and that’s it? Isn’t it what your post is completely against? Even tough, I see your point as to what has bothered you, however, I regard this as one of those things in life; it’s called “give and take”. Well, Do we give here? or Do we take? I’d say, do both. And that’s exactly what breadcrumbs are all about…

    Let me share a few cents on Justin’s case too. In the case of Justin’s example, his breadcrumbs would be
    [archive] / [2011] / [Oct] / [15] / [post title]
    At first sight, I found this style odd… But only at first sight. The oddness comes from the fact that the nodes all feel like different things… It’s got semantic and topic based words such as “archive” & “post title” as well as stand alone integers which makes it an Apples and IBMs like structure. Having said that, let me quickly come to the point, that I see the uniqueness and more importantly the usefulness in this approach.

    The usefulness comes from the fact that not too many people know that in a typical URL such as “site.com / archive / 2011 /12 / 4”, each slash in the URL is actually a viewable URL. And as a matter of fact, a very interesting URL. Even if one were to know this trick, it is so much easier to just click on the provided links rather than hacking into the URL…

    So overall, I think it is a good thing for the user to have it readily available. Here again, another give and take. The usefulness would outweigh the oddness. So I’d go for it.

    I’d also say the same think with the breadcrumbs too. Go for it.
    Usefulness in less cases will outweigh the pointlessness in more cases.

    Plus, when when we consider this; the SEO aspect of it;

    http://www.google.com/search?aq=0&oq=SEO+breadcrum&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8&q=seo+breadcrumbs#q=seo+breadcrumbs&hl=en&tbo=1&output=search&source=lnt&tbs=qdr:y&sa=X&ei=4ShITffGBYP6lwfpj4mVBA&ved=0CAgQpwUoBQ&fp=16f8d8976675af39

    It actually becomes a moot point to even discuss it. So, it never actually is pointless.

    Thank you for your article which stimulated some morning thoughts though.

  10. Just came across this post when researching opinions on breadcrumbs.

    I currently use breadcrumbs on my site (Themespotter.com), but honestly, I don’t like them and am considering removing the breadcrumb trail. I do think they are useful, but I generally want the site to be as clean as possible, and feel like the breadcrumb trail adds a bit of clutter.

    The other problem I have is that as a WP theme marketplace, themes/posts are often assigned to more than one category. My breadcrumb trail is set up to mirror the permalink structure, which of course only displays one category at a time (and uses the category that comes first, in alphabetical order). The issue is that the breadcrumb trail displayed on the post page isn’t always the path the visitor took to get to that page, and doesn’t always display the correct category. For themes that are only in one category though, I think it is helpful to have the breadcrumb trail.

    There’s of course also the concern that removing breadcrumbs can have a negative effect on SEO, but I am more focused on the user experience than trying to appeal to the search engines.

  11. So, using your example, if I’m on the page/post “My 2010 state of the blog”, if I don’t have breadcrumbs how do I know/remember where on the site I am?

    Your example breadcrumbs aren’t accurate: The trail would be: Home > Category > Post name

    Another example would be: Home > Top level page > Second level page
    That way I know which section of the site I am in.

    An even larger site may be: Home > Top level page > Second level page > Third level page

    Unfortunately the title of your post gives away the naivety and lack of real usability research that has gone into it: This is not a “wordpress” subject, it’s a basic core web usability issue, far greater than being just a WordPress subject matter.

    Yes, very simple sites with just one level of content, not required. But websites with multi-level content across different sections/categories, essential for good usability.

  12. And to comments like this: “feel like the breadcrumb trail adds a bit of clutter”.

    Simply means your design is not good. Design should follow function, NOT the other way round.

  13. Saying breadcrumbs are pointless when they aren’t implemented as breadcrumbs but extra links with no hierarchical value is kind of irrelevant, no? Considering that they have no longer become breadcrumbs.

  14. Also, look at this exact post: It’s in the “Opinion” section, which I wouldn’t have known unless for the breadcrumbs above the post title.

    Now would that be irony, or hypocrisy?

  15. Appreciate this article since I was just about to install breadcrumbs and wondered if I really needed them. Yes, if I had a complex hierarchical structure and a lot of articles, I can see breadcrumbs helping a visitor navigate. But the distraction factor has to be weighed in. I use menus and a table of contents already and have a very “flat” structure. Your article gave me pause, Brian, and for now am holding off on the breadcrumbs. They didn’t work out for Hansel and Gretel either. 🙂

  16. That’s what worries me about posts like this. They are written to stir up controversy and elicit hits, rather than being based on sound research of any means. Anyone doing just cursory research into web usability would realise that breadcrumbs implemented well are essential for most websites.

    The question to ask yourself (to make it easy): Does a web visitor arriving on a random web page on your site know exactly where in the site they are? If not, you need breadcrumbs. Simple.

    • Hey Dave,

      I just thought I’d answer some of your questions, since I keep seeing your comments pop up. I’d first like to assure you that this post has nothing to do with a desire to “stir up controversy and elicit hits”. I have no desire or incentive whatsoever in doing so, monetary or otherwise. It’s just an opinion article.

      The intention of my article doesn’t require research. It’s based on my own user experience. My experience is the research. Again, it’s an opinion article, and I clearly state that *I* believe breadcrumbs have a place in some sites, but that many do not need them. You may notice I even give examples, such as e-commerce and photo sites as times where breadcrumbs can be great. If others agree with me or disagree with me, they are welcome to do so. Just as you are welcome to believe what you like and do what you like. I’m not stopping you.

      Also, where you say my example is incorrect, and that the category should be between the post title and Home, that’s not entirely accurate. Many breadcrumb functions will follow the site permalink structure, unless you include something else in the settings or whatever breadcrumb structure. It’s not uncommon at all for people to have breadcrumbs like my example on their site.

      Also, to refute your part about not knowing this is in the opinion area and the “hypocrisy” of the breadcrumbs in this site’s navigation. There is a big black box right at the top of the post that says “opinion” with a pretty opinion-esque icon. It’s not part of the breadcrumb. Also, the breadcrumbs were a) not present on this site when I wrote this and b) not implemented by me. I’m a contributing editor here – not the administrator. So I think it’s safe to say I’m not a “hypocrite” in the sense you attempt to define me.

    • Also, I find it pretty funny that you don’t seem to have breadcrumbs on your own site. And it’s exactly the kind of site I was referring to. Pretty flat and easy to navigate without them.

      Have a nice night, Dave : )

      • True. But you might also notice that for most of my site it’s a flat site, where users know exactly where they are from the navigation, and for the only area it’s not (the blog) I made a conscious decision that users would know where they were as it was obvious.

      • I certainly think it’s far more obvious where on of my blog pages exists in my site than your “opinion” piece if it wasn’t for the breadcrumbs on this site. Surely you wouldn’t debate that point?

        • Ha. Well this site has a big box in the top left of the post – the first place many users look – that calls it both in word and icon that it is opinion. So yeah, I would : ) But I like to debate things…

          Also, as I’ve already mentioned. The article wasn’t about breadcrumbs on WPCandy. It was about them in general – and in general WordPress sites don’t have the kind of depth and volume as WPCandy. WPCandy is a very busy blog, and is one of the types of sites where breadcrumbs can make sense – as I think I said in a previous comment some months ago.

          All in all, there are plenty of sites out there balancing this one that praise breadcrumbs, and millions of sites use them without even thinking about it. This post was written as a bit of a balancing point, and just to express my personal opinion. You are welcome to disagree, just as others are welcome to agree with me. In the end, just like every decision, a decision needs to be made. So I’m going to go back to building websites this evening – with no breadcrumbs ; P

  17. I put my hands up that “hypocrite” was perhaps a bit strong, so apologies for that. But while I do realise and recognise that this post is an “opinion” piece, I have the feeling many others do not, and those with less experience in web usability will accept this article as more than just “opinion”. Hence my concern.

    It’s a little like any other aspect of developing a website for my clients: I present them with the facts, and/or the best research/info available on how to implement a certain element of functionality. If they then decide for personal reasons to ignore my professional advice and do something else, that’s entirely their right as the business owner, but at least they know what the prevailing information available indicates. I’m not sure this “opinion” piece presents all available information for those who do not take the time to research further. Not your responsibility as a writer, but my objective from my responses.

    Cheers.

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  19. I am old-hat at e-commerce but relatively new to building sites, and sometimes knowing less gives one a more useful-than-expert-opinion and more accurately reflects usability for the average visitor. I find breadcrumbs in my simple WP services sites to appear redundant and confusing–and a bit ridiculous looking.

  20. hey man, i know this article has been put to bed already. what theme is used in the image above?

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