School Website Navigation Best Practices

Private school website visitors (prospective parents, current students, alumni) all come to the site with a singular focus—there’s something they want to know. The navigation is their roadmap from inquiry to answer, and the faster they travel from point A to B, the better. In the same way that a beautiful design persuades prospects to apply, poorly constructed navigation serves as a roadblock. 

The following best-practice tips will help you avoid navigation gridlock so visitors can happily find the information they’re after. 

1. Don’t think outside of the box.

Private school navigation is typically similar from school to school, creating a temptation to be different. Many schools with good intentions have tried thematic navigation structures such as “Live,” “Learn,” and “Play,” only to convert back to a standard information architecture due to inevitable usability issues.

Here’s the thing: Navigation isn’t about what you want the user to think or feel about the school—save that for the design, imagery, and copy. In fact, the navigation isn’t about the school at all. It’s about users and what they want to learn about the school. Understanding this subtle difference will vastly improve navigability.

In reality, having a similar navigation structure to a competitor is good. Most admissions prospects will visit both websites, and the familiarity they’ve established with the navigation will help them quickly find information on your site, building confidence in your school.

2. Start with the school navigation blueprint.

The blueprint for K–12 private school navigation looks like this: Admissions, About, Academics, Programs, and Giving. Admissions is listed before About because Google prioritizes from a top-down standpoint, so this increases the chances that new visitors arriving from organic search will do so in the Admissions section. It also signals the starting point for prospective families. 

Academics is separated from Programs to send the message that education is the school’s top priority. Depending on what’s important to the school’s audience, Athletics and Arts can also be top-level items. Just be careful to avoid creating a navigation structure that restricts growth. Therefore, it’s always good to have a Programs section (the actual title can vary) to serve as the catch-all for future pages.

This navigation structure is tried and true, but that doesn’t mean it’s a finished product for your school. Starting here will get you planning in the right direction, and you can add or subtract from this base as appropriate for your school’s programs.

3. Create a secondary menu.

The main navigation can be supplemented with a secondary menu typically found at the very top of the design for calls-to-action links such as “Apply Now” or important programs that reach a broader audience like “Summer.”

The key with the secondary menu is brevity—too many options can be overwhelming. How much is too much is dependent on the design styling, but if your secondary menu becomes congested, it’s likely a sign that the main navigation needs work. 

4. Conduct usability testing. 

You may be surprised what you can learn from usability testing. In the blueprint above, Giving was the chosen title over Supporting because testing revealed that the latter can be mistaken for academic or tech support. “Community” is another title that can introduce ambiguity. Does it refer to community outreach programs? Facilities that are available to the community at large? Or is it a login area for the school’s internal community?

Blackbaud K–12’s service team offers a navigation consultation service with usability testing, or you can do it internally through Optimal Workshop. You’ll want to test at least two possible navigation structures to have a comparison. The key is to ask the same questions in each test and to keep the total questions in the 10-15 range. Avoid sending people into a navigation section more than twice because the results will become less of a gut reaction and more of a learned behavior.

5. Plant seeds for the on-site search feature.

Keep in mind that people will navigate the site differently. Some will gravitate to the main navigation but others will use the built-in search as their compass. In Blackbaud School Website SystemTM you can improve their experience by seeding pages with related keywords. For example, on the “Careers” page, you can add keywords for “jobs,” “employment,” and “work” so the page appears in these on-site searches even if the terms aren’t on the actual page.

Pro tip: You can also configure Google Analytics to capture the keywords users enter into the on-site search feature. This report is great for improving the navigation because terms that appear repeatedly are likely missing from the site or are in a hard-to-find location.

Our services and support teams can help you configure these options.

6. Don’t forget about SEO.

Included in a great navigation strategy is the ability for users to find pages through external search engines. In content management systems such as Blackbaud School Website System where the page’s navigation title also determines the URL and the on-page title—two important topic signals in search engine algorithms—you want to use the terminology that will drive the most traffic.

Sometimes that’s easier said than done on a private school website. Changing “Residential Life” to “Boarding School Life” to better attract search traffic is an easy switch, but will your school be willing to go with “Elementary School” instead of “Lower School” and “High School” over “Upper School?” By conducting keyword research, you can have an informed conversation with decision-makers to reach the conclusion that’s best for your school.

You’ll also find in usability testing that top keywords perform best in site navigation. Users are fixated on these terms, so while it’s reasonable to expect visitors to realize that “Affording Our School” refers to the Tuition and Financial Aid page, actually calling it Tuition and Financial Aid will win in a landslide. 

7. Ask the experts.

Don’t have time for usability testing and keyword research? Blackbaud K–12 can help! We offer navigation and SEO services to put your school website’s best foot forward. Please inquire with your Blackbaud account representative to learn more.

Want to learn more? Review our free eBook, How to Design the Best Private School Website, for more tips on school website development best practices. 


About the Author

Daren Worcester

Daren Worcester has been a member of the Blackbaud K-12 team for 17 years, assisting hundreds of independent schools through a variety of website development roles. A former copywriter and a published author with an appetite for SEO, Daren currently serves as the senior content marketing manager for K-12.

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