Mega Menus were all the rage back in the 00′s. Sure, there was some usage of them before that time frame, but they really exploded in popularity around then. I have the sneaking suspicion it has something to do with Jakob “the king of usability” Nielsen’s blog post in 2009 that explained and advocated the use of them:
[Mega Menus are] big, two-dimensional drop-down panels group navigation options to eliminate scrolling and use typography, icons, and tooltips to explain the user’s choices.
Given that regular drop-down menus are rife with usability problems, it takes a lot for me to recommend a new form of drop-down. But, as our testing videos show, mega drop-downs overcome the downsides of regular drop-downs. Thus, I can recommend one while warning against the other.
He does a great job of explaining the goal and also makes a good case for for using mega-menus, even if you aren’t completely convinced by the title bestowed upon him. I can see his point.
But when has it gone too far?
Even Mr. Nielson himself spent most of his article qualifying his support of them, and in a later article pointed out how easy it was for them to go wrong. The main point that pops out at me is this one:
Keep it simple
As time has passed, we all have gotten more or or less used to these simple mega menus, and it’s almost natural for us to try to “spice it up” a bit, or to try to push the limit of their usefulness. I think this is where mega menus have gone wrong. There was a time when Amazon.com had at least 100 links in each sub menu, probably 500 or more links in all. Even today, Staples.com is nearly as bad, and has gone so far as to place a banner ad in each of their sub menus. These are retailers and they want to make access to all their different product lines easier, but in reality they have made it more difficult to find what you actually need.
Sometimes upon mouseover the user is presented with a gazillion links or a thin horizontal strip that they must try to navigate to open yet more boxes of links. Sometimes it’s almost like a game. After about 3 times of failing to thread the needle, the user goes away angry, taking with them your conversion, your sale, your potential loyal customer, etc (you get my point). A great illustration of the thin “hover tunnel” issue that can be seen in a blog post at UXMovement.com.
I recently came across AJ Kohn’s post “Mega Menus are Mega Awful” over at Blind Five Year Old. I have to say that I agree with almost every word of it. He hysterically declares “Mega menus are the Where’s Waldo of navigation“. I think he makes an even more convincing argument why we should all tread very carefully in this Mega Menu abyss.
One of the arguments for these rich mega menus is SEO. Perhaps in the past a large chunk of text/markup added to the top your document might have helped make your content/pages more visible to search engines. But AJ Kohn also does a good job of arguing against this:
Now, I’m not saying that PageRank is the end all to be all, but you’re doing yourself no favors by splitting trust and authority into 400+ pieces.
This goes back to the keep it simple point I made earlier. While some relevant navigation at the top of your document is helpful to UX and SEO, overkill can cost you big. The recent trend with Google is to penalize “over-optimization” techniques. While nobody outside of Googleplex knows for sure what the formula is, you have to think that putting hundreds of links at the top of your page might possibly show up to a bot as a potential problem.
Personally it would look like a link farm to me if I just looked at the first 100 or so lines of anchor tags before I got to any real content. According to this forum post at WebMasterWorld.com, even as far back as 2008, there were rumblings in the SEO community about the potential for disaster when over-using this technique:
Why could this create a problem? I have two ideas. First, we know that anchor text is a heavily weighted element in the algorithm. All that opportunity to go over the top with keywords in anchor text cannot be a good thing. And second, Google reps keep repeating the advice not to go beyond 100 links on a page. Even if more links are now spidered, just think of the pile of semantic confusion that this can throw at the relevance calculations.
All of this added together, I think we can put to rest the myth of the unquestionable usefulness of mega menus. While there might be situations where they can be used in moderation, in my opinion the evidence indicates the need for careful consideration before implementation.
In my evaluation, a good starting point for implementing mega menus would be to make them perpendicular to the first level, simple, easy to use and so they do not interfere with the normal operation of the site. Having a large landing area for the first level, and restricting them to two levels at the most.
What’s your take on mega menus? I’d love to hear other views on this.