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.
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?