If I Could Go Back In Time, I’d Kill Date Based Navigation

Author: Gab Goldenberg

Time and date based navigation offer terrible usability and even worse SEO. Have you ever heard of mystery meat navigation? Maybe not, but you’ve probably seen archive navigation that meets the following description:

“Mystery meat navigation (also abbreviated MMN) is a term coined by usability expert Vincent Flanders to describe user interfaces in which it is inordinately difficult for users to discern the destinations of navigational hyperlinks—or, in severe cases, even to determine where the hyperlinks are.

“The typical form of MMN is represented by menus composed of unrevealing icons […]”

Now, just because the typical forms of mystery meat navigation are unrevealing icons, that doesn’t mean people can’t get creative and find other ways to make crummy navigation.

Here’s one particular example that still exists on a number of blogs.

What will I go to if I click on 2? Or 3? Or 11? Or 17? To the best of my knowledge, there’s no difference between them except the date they were published. So I may as well click on any of those links! Or none, because they don’t look especially compelling…

For similar reasons, such mystery meat navigation is bad for SEO. Rather than linking internally using valuable anchor text that will help other pages rank higher, you use some useless anchor text that won’t get you a single extra visitor.

Similarly, it’s also bad usability if you have archive navigation organized by month.

We’ve all seen that kind of navigation:

There’s hardly any reason for anyone to navigate an archive by month, unless they’re doing historical research. For example, if you wanted to find out when Yahoo announced the end of paid inclusion, and you had a hunch it was in July 09, you might visit a search blog and go to their July archives.

That’s not how most people browse content though. Most users are interested in a topic, like link building, or link buying from news sites in particular.

That’s why my own archive navigation in the sidebar is organized by topic, and not by month.

Now, there is an exception to this:  if you write about ‘royds. Not hemorrhoids, you creeps :P.  The Refuge of Delayed Souls, at http://roydss.blogspot.com

That site makes unique use of the blog format of reverse-chronological posting to tell a story. Each new post furthers the story.

Obviously, not everyone has been with it from day 1.

So the author [her name isn’t on the site] has organized her archive navigation so that people can start at Part 1 (eg the first chapter). And they can stop at, say, Part 5 and return the next day and go from there. Kind of like placing a bookmark to keep your place in a book.

Refuge of Delayed Souls chronological navigation - organized by story parts/chapters.

So if you’re writing a story or some other content that follows a logical chronological order, time and date based navigation make sense for usability.

They’re still not all you should have, however.

Consider someone who loved a particular romantic scene. Do they have to memorize what Part of the story it was in? Wouldn’t it make more sense to offer some thematic navigation too, based on your story arcs?

It’s no secret I’m a fan of Least I Could Do, a popular webcomic. And they get this storyline navigation just right:LICDs storyline navigation

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  1. Your images are broken! I run a calendar based site which relies strongly on date based content, but we've worked hard to avoid relying on date based navigation whenever possible. Looking forward to launching and seeing how it does!

    Comment by Jono Alderson - November 19, 2009 @ 4:42am
  2. Thansk Jono! I don't get that - they worked find when I was drafting the post...

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - November 19, 2009 @ 12:29pm
  3. Look forward to seeing Days Of The Year go up, Jono!

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - November 19, 2009 @ 8:59pm
  4. I know it's bad etiquette to ressurect an old post, but I thought that it might be interesting to get your thoughts on how I've handled this date based system over at Days!

    Comment by Jono - April 2, 2010 @ 5:27am
  5. The overlay describing the day does a good job, imho. I also like it's not immediate, because that would be aggravating to anyone who accidentally rolls over, if they suddenly got lots of description boxes appearing. You used DHTML?

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - April 5, 2010 @ 5:24pm
  6. No, it's all shiny shiny jQuery :) I'm wondering how best to handle it when I've got multiple events per-day, and thinking that I might have to add another layer of date based nav for month/week/day level, which is where it might start getting murky!

    Comment by Jono - April 8, 2010 @ 3:58am

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