Should the top level menu items be links to a 'main' page or should they just be text to hover over to show the pop up menu? What about menus with combinations of simple links and pop up sub-menus? If there is a link to a 'main' page, what should be on that page?
Sounded like a job for ResearchMan!
Here are my informal results...
For the most part, hover menus are not that popular. I looked at about 90 sites (Amazon, eBay, CNN, etc., etc.) and only about 20% used hover menus. That's not to say that they are a bad thing; they just aren't as common as we might think.
MSNBC uses hover menus that list major news categories. The first item in the menu is "[Category] Front Page". Clicking on the hover text takes you to the category front page. Time uses similar functioning drop down menus. Clicking on the menu item takes you to the main page for the news category.
A number of other sites follow a similar model, though these do not have the main page listed at the top of the pop up list.
- Science Daily
- The Wall Street Journal
- Career Builder
Geek.com uses a visual aid (an arrow) to indicate which menu items are pop ups. There are actually a couple of sites that do this.
A few sites use a model where menu items with pop ups are not themselves links, but menu items without pop ups are links.
Pop up menus are about as common on university home pages as they are on commercial sites.
Of the 40 or so university sites I reviewed, this was the only kind of pop up that I found.
The contents of the 'main page' under a link varied, from 'Welcome' pages filled with happy talk, to links to other sites, to pages of links that essentially repeated the contents of the submenus. On some sites, all of these were present on different links. Some sites included single links as well as pop ups in the same menu, without distinguishing between them (e.g., FSU and Syracuse).
- Strayer University
- University of Michigan
- University of Texas at Austin
- New York University
- Florida State University
- Syracuse University
RecommendationsIt seems pretty clear that the clear majority of sites make the top level menu items links to some sort of main page. I think it almost approaches a 'standard' practice. I do like the idea of visually distinguishing between simple links and links that have pop up sub-menus.
The destination of the top level link varies. With news sites, it typically goes to something like the "US News" or "Sports" front page. With shopping sites, it might be to the "Electronics" main page.
For university sites, it's a bit less clear, and the destination of the link should probably be determined on a case-by-case basis. Ideally, it would link to a page with relevant information, but there are cases where there might not be much information to put under the main category (this might be particularly true with smaller departmental sites).
So, it might end up linking to a page that just repeats the list of items in the sub-menus. This is sub-optimal, however, and every effort should be made to make the 'main' page contentful (new word!) and relevant. One thing is clear, though... as Steve Krug says in Don't Make me Think, "happy talk must die"! No one reads "Welcome" pages or "Message from the Dean" pages. eliminate them! A list of links is more useful.