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The Role of Breadcrumbs in Web Design & UX

A website with it's connected breadcrumb links trailing behind it

Summary: Breadcrumbs are important in website navigation, SEO, and user experience. Developers use breadcrumbs to map where a page lives on a website. Here is what you need to know about breadcrumbs and their role in web design.

A website can be its own vast world made up of hundreds or even thousands of separate pages, and the bigger the site, the easier it is to get lost in it. When site visitors can’t figure out where they are within a site’s architecture and can’t navigate options, they are likely to get frustrated and leave.

To combat this frustration and bouncing, web developers use a set of common standard practices. First, most websites with layered hierarchies (categories, subcategories, parents and children) have a main navigation system like the menu items at the top of a site. Second, many websites use breadcrumbs, which map out where a given page lives within the site.

While breadcrumbs on websites are almost exclusively used as secondary navigation, they play a significant role in your site’s usability and search engine optimization (SEO).

Website hierarchy reading Category > Sub Category > Current Page

What Are Breadcrumbs?

Breadcrumbs are a website navigational scheme that displays what page a user is currently on and the path that leads to said page. Think about someone being lost in a thick forest. Had they left a trail of breadcrumbs behind them, they would have a path back to where they started.

There are some standard practices for breadcrumbs and user experience (UX). Typically, breadcrumbs are placed toward the top of a page, somewhere below the main navigation bar and above the title (h1). Breadcrumbs are usually in a smaller font size so that they are unobtrusive and do not get confused with the main navigation. They are also typically written out in one line from left to right with the current page on the very end and a “>” symbol between each page. The full title of each page in the breadcrumbs should be listed. 

Three types of navigational breadcrumbs: Location-based, Attribute-based, Path-based

How Breadcrumbs Are Used to Navigate a Website

Navigation with breadcrumbs depends largely on how website developers use breadcrumbs. For the most part, breadcrumbs allow users to navigate to other pages or sections that are closely related to the page they are currently on, or back to pages that led them there. Breadcrumbs can help a user get to pages more relevant to them without having to comb through the site’s main navigation, which often includes other sections of the site that aren’t relevant to the user. 

There are three types of navigational breadcrumbs:

  • Location-based
  • Attribute-based
  • Path-based 

Location-based Breadcrumb Navigation

Location-based breadcrumbs show you what page you are on and where it lives within the hierarchy of the site. For example, if you are looking to make dinner and you’re on a site’s recipe for spaghetti carbonara, you might see the following breadcrumbs: 

Home>Food>Recipes>Italian>How to Make Authentic Spaghetti Carbonara 

The article “How to Make Authentic Spaghetti Carbonara” lives in the Italian subcategory of the Recipes subcategory of the site. If, let’s say, you change your mind and want to make tacos, you could use the breadcrumbs to navigate back to the Recipes section of the site, then find the Mexican subcategory to locate the “How to Make Tacos” article. 

Attribute-based Breadcrumb Navigation

With attribute-based breadcrumbs, various elements of the page are included in the breadcrumbs. This usually applies to search result pages where you can add filters to the page to affect the results. Attribute-based breadcrumbs are often combined with location-based breadcrumbs. 

An attribute-based breadcrumb might look like this:

Home>Electronics>TVs>Under $1,000>60 inches>4K UHD

In the above example, everything after “TVs” is an attribute of the page. All of the TVs being displayed on the page should cost under $1,000, have a 60-inch display, and feature 4K UHD resolution.

You should be able to click on any of the attributes to see a page with all the results that fit it. Also, many sites will give you the option of removing any attribute from the breadcrumb, thus deleting that filter from the page. Either of these options could be easier than starting your search over again. 

Path-Based Breadcrumb Navigation

Path-based breadcrumbs show you where you currently are on the site and the path you’ve taken to get to your current location. Most commonly, you’ll find path-based breadcrumbs in the checkout process of e-commerce sites or in Wizard tools that have you fill out forms step-by-step. 

A path-based breadcrumb could look something like this:

Cart>Shipping>Payment

In this case, you are on the page where you input your payment information (credit card and billing address). Let’s say, while you are here you decide you don’t want one of the items you were about to purchase. This is where you can go to breadcrumbs and navigate to the cart to remove that item. This is simpler than having to click on the back button twice — especially on a site where hitting the back button might take you out of the purchasing process completely. Perhaps you realized that you need to update your shipping address.

Why Breadcrumbs Benefit SEO

For some time, SEO has been linked to breadcrumbs. Websites that use navigational breadcrumbs for SEO could have an edge over competitors when it comes to search rankings. The main reason for this is to appease Google. The search giant likes breadcrumbs, and that means your SEO should as well. 

The reason why Google is so fond of breadcrumbs is that they help its bots understand the overall structure of your website better. It is beneficial for your site when the bot can easily scan it. 

Also, Google likes to display breadcrumbs in its search result listings. In a place that was once reserved for a page’s complete URL, the site now displays that page’s breadcrumbs. Take a look at this sample of a Google search engine results page (SERP):

Web search for Best 4K TV for Gaming 2021

The gray text next to each of the main domains comprises breadcrumbs for that particular page. The fact that Google is using breadcrumbs in its results clearly indicates that they are important.

Role in Web Accessibility

Breadcrumbs can be very helpful in making your site more accessible to users. Under its Success Criterion 2.4.8, the Website Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) state that sites should “provide a way for the user to orient herself within a set of Web pages, a Web site, or a Web application and find related information.” This will help users who rely on assistive technology, such as screen readers, to navigate to related parts of the website.

Using breadcrumbs in web design is one of the techniques that WCAG lays out for providing a way for a user to know where they are within a website and the site’s hierarchy. For more information about these guidelines, visit our guide to WCAG compliance.

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