Whether you take a cross-country trip, a boat cruise along the coast, or a hike into the woods, it is important to know where you are, where you’re going, and how to make it back so that you don’t wander off and get lost. The same is true when you navigate through a web site; you need to be able to determine where in the site you are, where to find the information you need, and how to make your way back to square one.
The number one rule should be that from any page, the user could return immediately to your top-level index page. This may seem ridiculous, but there is a valid reason for doing this. If your site is referenced by another site, they may or may not send the visitor directly to your index page. Instead, they may go directly to a product document, your resume, or that recipe for lentil soup. If they want to explore your site beyond this link, they more likely go directly to your index page to get the overall scope of your site. However, they cannot easily reach this page if there is no link. Sure, they could try to edit the location in the address bar, but if it isn’t 100% clear what should be entered, they may not try and figure it out for you. More often than not, they will simply hit the BACK button and return to the site from which they came.
A feature that should be on every index page on your site, from the top-level index page to your sub-level index pages, is a menu that features common links to the main features of your site. This harps back to the importance of a common layout. From any of these sub-level pages, you should be able to reach the others with one click on the menu. You also need to make it clear where each menu item takes you; don’t just put a ambiguous picture that is suppose to mean PRODUCTS or SUPPORT. As the visitor goes further into your site, he or she needs to be able to locate a link that sends him or her back to that category’s index page (and don’t forget about the link to the top-level index page!).
A final feature that should be on every page on your site is a title. It is best to be brief and, at the very least, the name of your company or site should fill this space.