Nailing the Perfect Navigation for Your WordPress Site

Nailing the Perfect Navigation for Your WordPress Site

It’s a funny thing. We often place a large emphasis on the creation of great content and on the development of an effective design to wrap around that content. But without as much effort or thought put into your website’s navigation, your visitors may never be able to enjoy all that your website has to offer.

A B2B Web Usability Report released last year uncovered some interesting facts in support of the importance of well-made website menus:

They asked: “When you get to an internal page on a vendor website from a referral site or search engine, how do you orient yourself?” Nearly 50% of those who responded to the survey said they use the main navigation. In addition, 36% said they expect the company’s logo to take them back to the home page.

They also asked: “Which website elements annoy you or cause you to leave a website?” A total of 37% of respondents claimed a poor design or navigation as a source of frustration.

That being said, menu design and planning doesn’t have to be difficult. But like with any other element of your website, it does require serious planning and special tools in place to pull off a well-executed menu. Here are just some of the questions you may need to ask yourself:

  • Where do you want the menu to be?
  • How many menus do you need?
  • Will there be a home button or do you trust visitors to know that the logo is the link?
  • Do you need a hamburger menu design?
  • Do you want a static menu to be visible at all times?
  • Which pages need to be on the top level of the navigation?
  • Do you need to use color in the menu?
  • What sort of animation should be applied to the menu?
  • How do you want to organize the pages?

As you can see, there is a lot to consider in terms of building out a menu and each one of those features are open to customization. As a developer, you’re responsible for making sure that whatever you choose aligns well with the rest of your website’s style, functionality, and purpose.

Think of menus as a visitor’s map or tour guide of your website. In the end, it won’t matter how great your website looks if visitors can’t figure out how to find the information that’s the most important to them.

Planning Your Menu: Start with the Basics

Site Map Builder

Website navigation needs to do exactly what the name implies: help visitors navigate through the site. Here are some tips to get your planning off to a good start:

  • Identification: Identify all of the different pages that will need to exist on the website.
  • Optimization: Using the keyword research you used in writing content for the website, apply those same guidelines and principles for naming your website’s pages. It’ll also be important to strike a balance between optimizing a page’s name for SEO with something simple and straight-to-the-point.
  • Visualization: Use a visual mapping tool to lay out the pages of your website. For smaller websites (less than ten pages and a singular menu bar), Excel or PowerPoint would work just fine for your purposes. For anything larger, consider using a free trial with Slickplan or Power Mapper.
  • Minimization: When planning the levels of navigation, it’s best to keep the amount of clicking visitors need to do to a minimum. Ideally, there should be no more than two or three levels of navigation within a single menu. If so, consider multiple menus instead.
  • Organization: Navigation needs to be logical, from top-to-bottom and left-to-right. Introduce who you are (About), what you do (services, products, etc.), what resources you offer (blog, white papers, free consultation, etc.), and your contact info (Contact). The pages of your website will of course be tailored to your specific business, but the basic logic remains the same. Educate, speak to your audience’s pain, demonstrate your expertise, and then offer a point of contact.
  • Location: Place your menu in an easy-to-find location. No one should have to hunt around to find the menu that is going to help them explore the rest of the site.
  • Omnipresence: Consider making a menu “sticky” so that as visitors scroll down through a long page, the menu is ever-present. And if you do make the menu sticky, make sure it shrinks in size so that, while always there, it doesn’t distract from the rest the content.
  • Truncation: If you’ve got a very large menu, consider instead forcing it inside a hamburger menu or mega menu, and save that prime real estate on your site for something else. Hamburger menus are easily recognizable these days since they’re the standard menu for mobile devices, so you shouldn’t have to worry about visitors not knowing where to go on their desktops to find it.
  • Consistency: Any design or stylistic touches you make to the website should align with what is done to the menu. Complimentary colors, animation, and website CTAs should all be inspiration used to create the look and movement of a menu.
  • Mobility: The menu, like anything else on websites, absolutely, positively needs to be mobile-friendly and responsive.

Setting up Your Menu: Consider the Options

As with everything else in WordPress, you’ve got options when it comes to setting up your website’s menus. We’re going to review each of these options and then provide you with some basic knowledge that you’ll need to make the most out of each.

Option 1: Theme Menu Setup

Many WordPress themes will include a Menus module for simple setup and customization of your website’s theme. If you want to start within your theme’s settings, here is what you’ll want to do:

In WordPress, go to the Appearance tab and click on “Customize.” This will take you to your theme’s customization settings and provide you with a live preview of any changes you make.

The Customize sidebar that appears to the left of your site’s live preview.

From Customize, you’ll then see a sidebar to the left of the live preview of your site. Click on the Menus tab. (Interestingly enough, you’ll see that WordPress has done a great job of setting up their own menus logically and with simple labels for easy navigation.)

The options in the “Menus” menu in “Customize.”

You’ll have two options from the Menus tab. Start with Main Navigation since this will allow you to define the setup of your main menu.

The Main Navigation menu in "Menus"
The Main Navigation menu in “Menus”

From the Main Navigation tab, you can then add new pages, remove pre-defined defaults, rename navigation labels, and revise the hierarchy structure, all through drag-and-drop. At the bottom, you can also define where the main navigation should exist on the website.

The Menu Locations option in "Menus"
The Menu Locations option in “Menus”

Click on the back arrow and then navigate to the Menu Locations tab. From here you’ll be able to define which menus will exist on different parts of your website. There are two important things to note here: 1) Your view and options will differ based on the theme you’re using. 2) If you’re planning on having more than one menu on your website, you’ll have to define those other menus through a different process before you can assign them a location. (Steps for that can be found below.)

Regardless of which of the setup options you pursue, the theme customization modules are an important tool to have when setting up the basics of a website. For information on WPMU DEV’s Upfront theme’s menu customization, check out this article.

Option 2: WordPress Menu Setup


If your theme doesn’t come with a menu customizer or you’re just in need of more control over how each of your menus will look and function, WordPress has a default menu setup tool for that.

Before you begin, make sure that any content or links you want to include in your navigation have been created.
Then go back to your WordPress menu. Navigate down to the Appearance tab and select Menus.

There will be two tabs on this page that you can work with: Edit Menus and Manage Locations. Your view will automatically default to the Edit Menus screen.

Under Edit Menus, you can see that the screen is broken up into two sections. Start with the left side.


On the left is where you have the power to add different types of content from your website into your menus. Basic web pages, blog posts, custom links (like if you have a customer portal or white paper PDF), and blog categories or tags are the basic content types. Depending on other content you’ve enabled on your website—projects, testimonials, portfolios, social media, etc.—you’ll have the ability to add those as well.

When you’ve found something you want to add, click the checkbox next to it or define the element (if it’s a link), and then hit the “Add to Menu button.” You’ll see that the new element(s) has dropped down to the bottom of your menu on the right-hand side of the Menus page.

Once your new element is in the menu, you can revise the navigation label, placement, redirect location, or hierarchy by dragging and dropping them into place within the visual map or you can click each element open for further customizations.

When you’re done, scroll to the bottom and define where this menu will exist on your website.
Click “Save Menu” when you’re done.

Within this Menus page, you can also create new menus. So, if you want something different to appear in the footer, in a sidebar, as a secondary menu above or below the main navigation, or somewhere else, click on “create a new menu” and set it up from scratch.

The Manage Locations tab on this page will accomplish the same goal as step 8, though the purpose of this page is to give you universal control over all menus on your website. (They’ll need to be set up first, of course.)

Keep in mind that if you should create a new page or post on your website and you want it included in any of your menus, you’ll need to come back here to add it in.

For mega menu creation, the WordPress Menus tool is not going to be enough. You’ll need to use a mix of widgets and plugins in order to achieve this effect. (More on that below.)

Option 3: CSS Styling

For those of you who prefer to go the route of coding, you can use CSS styling to set up menus as well. For more information on that, read on.

Customizing Your Menu: Turn to Plugins

Plugins… where would we be without you? Sure, coding could help us achieve some additional functionality and stylization of our menus, but that’s not always so easy. That’s why we love to turn to plugins. If you’re considering a new idea, look, or animation for a menu, chances are good that a developer has created a plugin to help you make it a reality.

These plugins will take your WordPress menu design to the next level:

  • Menu Icons

    Many websites these days are turning to icons for a clean and consistent visual experience throughout their site’s design. They provide websites with a simple way of breaking up a lot of text or presenting bulleted lists in a new, more interesting way. If you’ve used icon imagery on your website and want to maintain that visual flair in your navigation, this plugin will do just that.

  • Page Specific Menu Items

    Have you ever wished you could more easily assign customized navigation settings to different pages without having to create multiple (but similar) menus in order to achieve the effect? Well, this plugin will allow you to do that. Setup your menus as you normally would and then you’ll have an extra variable to define, granting you the ability to easily hide certain menu items from view on specific pages.

    Interested in Page Specific Menu Items?

  • WP Menu Cart

    It’s important for e-commerce websites to clearly display their shopping carts in the top corner of the website. Thanks to e-retailers like Amazon, it’s where visitors immediately look for it. For developers who don’t want to code a shopping cart-related icon into the top of a site’s design, you can instead use this plugin for easy integration into the navigation menu.

  • Widgetize Navigation Menu

    Have you ever seen a website that has a mix of elements laid out in a clean, columned navigation and thought it looked great? Well, you can thank widgets for that. This plugin will help you add complexity to your website’s navigation while keeping everything neat and organized in one place.

    Interested in Widgetize Navigation Menu?

  • Max Mega Menu

    Mega menus are exactly what they imply: very large menus that require the use of a whole host of tools (plugins, widgets, images, video, animation, and more) in order to achieve the desired effect. That desired effect is a menu that will appear once a visitor has hovered over or clicked on an element in the top navigation of a site. The big reveal usually comes as a drop-down menu full of images or videos, columns of pages, search functionality, and more.

    Interested in Max Mega Menu?

  • Responsive Menu

    Last but not least, you’re going to need something to help you create a responsive menu design. This plugin offers over 120 customizations to help you create that perfect menu design, color, and layout regardless of what type of device it’s viewed on.

    Interested in Responsive Menu?

Menus in the Wild

If you looked at this guide and thought, “Okay, that seems pretty straightforward,” take a look at what some other companies have done with their website menus. It’s pretty inspirational if you ask us!

Food Network

Food Network Menu

This is the perfect example of a well-structured, multi-element mega menu.


Waark Menu

When you first arrive at this website, you see the hamburger menu icon in the top-right. Clicking that open then reveals a full-page menu that contains contact info, social media, and navigation links.


Racket Menu

The Racket website also makes use of the hamburger navigation, but theirs is on the top-left of the website. Once you click it open though, you’ll see what looks like a simple navigation bar drop down. Visit any of those pages and the navigation bar hides away in order to maintain focus on the content.

Brindisa Tapas Kitchens

Brindisa Menu

Restaurants are just one of those business types that are expected to have lots of cool imagery on their website. Brindisa, however, has taken that use of imagery to new heights with their vertically-aligned, icon-laden, pop-open sidebar.

Wrapping Up

There are definitely more ways you can take your menu designs to the next level—especially if you want them to match the fantastic websites you’ve designed the menus around. But this should act as a good primer for immersing yourself in the world of menus and making the most of their power on your next WordPress site.

Let us know in the comments below what sort of tips and tricks you’ve used to achieve new, creative menu designs in WordPress.

Brenda Barron

Brenda Barron Brenda is a freelance writer from Southern California. She specializes in WordPress, tech, and business and founded WP Theme Roundups. When not writing about all things, she's spending time with her family.