Is it acceptable to use off-site links, also called outbound links, in your navigation? There is no rule that says that an item in the main navigation should never link off-site. However, outbound links should be used carefully and judiciously, as there may be unintended consequences.
A good navigation structure is an essential component of a website. Good navigation allows users to find the information they’re looking for quickly and easily. It can help them find information they didn’t even know they needed or that was available. The question is, “Will sending the user off your website to another website make it more likely that they will do business with you?” That is the point of having a website, isn’t it?
Not Everything Belongs in the Main Navigation
From a UX/UI perspective, a navigation bar should be used for navigating the sections of your site. It can be tempting to want every single page to be in the top level navigation, but the more links you have there, the more confusing it can be for users. With too many menu items, your visitors are likely to scan right past important items. If something does not deserve its own page, it most likely does not belong in the main navigation.
The Main Navigation is Like the Table of Contents in a Book
When someone new lands on your website, the first thing they are likely to do is try to decipher what the site is about. Is it what they expected and does it have what they’re looking for?
To figure this out, they will probably glance at the content at the top of the page they landed on, and then they’ll probably scan the main navigation to see the titles of the main pages.
This is somewhat similar to what a person might do when they open a new book, particularly a reference book. They may scan the table of contents to see if they can jump right to the thing they are most interested in or they may familiarize themselves with the topics that will be addressed throughout. It’s even possible that they may notice something in the contents and think “hmmm, I should learn more about this.” In this case, they’ll open the book to the chapter that sparked their interest.
Problems Arise When the User Doesn’t Know a Link Will Take Them Off Your Website
Imagine you are a new visitor to a website. You scan the page and then browse the main navigation titles. One of the links grabs your attention, so you click on it. What do you expect to happen? It’s pretty likely that you will expect to be taken to the page that addresses the subject of the link. But if it is an outbound link and actually takes you to another site entirely, how will you feel? Surprised? Confused? Stupid? This is not how we want our site visitors to feel. They should feel comfortable, safe, and at ease.
Many of your site visitors landed on your site after searching for something specific. They may not be familiar with your business. And if they were off your website before they really took stock of where they were, what the company name was or where it was located, it’s pretty likely that once you’ve sent them off-site, they won’t come back. You may have lost them.
What is an Alternative to Sending Users Off-Site from the Navigation?
Any time you think you might like to use an outbound link in your main navigation, ask yourself, “Why do I want to do this? Why is it so important to link to someone else’s website right in the navigation?”
One reason you might think to link to another website is to promote a service for your customers. For example, let’s say that you own a shoe repair business and your cousin owns a dry-cleaner. To cross-promote your businesses, customers can drop off and pick up their dry cleaning at your location and your cousin’s dry cleaning business acts as a drop off point for shoe repair.
When building your shoe repair website, you want to promote the dry cleaning drop off service. So, you thought you’d add Dry Cleaning link that goes directly to the dry cleaning company website.
Why would this be a problem?
Your site visitor will have no idea why they are being sent off your site.
Instead, we recommend adding a page about dry cleaning. Explain how the service works. Give all the details that you control: when they can drop off/pickup, if they have to deliver the clothes in a bag, etc. Then, once you’ve provided enough information, you can offer a link to your cousin’s service for the details that you cannot control, such as turn around time, cost, etc.
The main point is to include enough information on your website to explain the core details of the service, and then link off-site. Try to make it clear that they will be going to another website by wording the link appropriately. You could say, “Visit the Dry Cleaner website” or “For more information…” or “Details available at…”
There Is No Rule Against Using Outbound Links in Your Navigation
There is no indication that Google will penalize your website if it has off-site links in the navigation. However, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. It may be simpler for you to drop in a link than it is to create the content for an entire page, but getting the most from your website doesn’t mean only considering what’s simplest for you.
Consider your customer. What would they find easiest to use? How can you present the information in a way that convinces them to do what you want them to do, which is do business with you.
In Many Cases Off-Site Links are Good
External/outbound links have many benefits. By including high-quality, well-trusted links, you’re providing your site visitors with even more valuable information about their topic of interest. It can help you establish a sense of authority, boost your credibility, and improve a user’s trust in your company. In addition, sharing information demonstrates that you are part of an active community. Search engines like when you link to related, authoritative, external websites. However, outbound links in the navigation can be problematic.