The time has come to clean the net from the prehistoric junk called breadcrums

One guy on the wordpress stackexchange asked how have to have breadcrumbs that show a different “path” the one he currently gets, and this reminded me that I hate breadcrumbs.

Breadcrumbs where created by Jacob Nielsen, and he describes the motivation in the article “Breadcrumb Navigation Increasingly Useful“. I was using the net on 2007 and before so I totally agree that at that point in time adding breadcrumbs to sites had improved their usability. But times had changed and we understand better how users use the internet the the importance of “in site” navigation system, and a catch all default like breadcrumbs have no place anymore on the net.

The problem with breadcrumbs is that they are based on the assumption that content is hierarchical and there is an hierarchical path from the home page to any page in the site. There are several problems with that assumption:

  • A lot of the content on the internet is not hierarchical. This post is categorized as “Rant”, but it is mainly because I don’t like to have an “uncategorized” category. Many blogs and small sites owners categorize because the CMS tools give them (and some times force them) the option to categorize and the end result is that there are totally unrelated content being categorized at the same way.
    Take a look at Jacob Neilsen article itself, what is its breadcrumbs? “ > Alertbox > April 2007 Breadcrumbs “. Right now the alertbox contains 457 links to artcles. If I want to find more information on an article I read there, it is better to leave the site and go for google to make a search then trying to guess which of the links on that page might actually contain the information I’m looking for.
  • For many pages (like in the question) there might be multiple hierarchical paths so which one should you use?
    For this post there is the path of the category “rant”, the tag “Breadcrumbs”, and the date it was published “2012” > “12” > “12”. For personal blog the date hierarchy is the most appropriate, but for technical hierarchy by categories makes more sense.
  • Site owners don’t want users to navigate by hierarchy, they prefer to direct user traffic to a more profitable pages, or pages that they think better serve your needs instead of overwhelming the user with information at an higher hierarchy level.
  • Most sites that care recognized that navigating by hierarchy is frustrating to the user as it requires at least 2 clicks to reach a destination (one up and one down) and improved their in-site search so the user will get to its destination in at most 2 clicks.

In 1995, when the idea of breadcrumbs was created, web sites followed the structure of file systems. The breadcrumbs solution is actually used in the windows explorer in windows 7 but it is just not good enough because yes it takes me 5 levels up in the hierarchy if I need to in one click, but it doesn’t help me to get down the hierarchy to where I need.
But modern OSs are trying to get away from the hierarchical organization of data, Iphone hides the file system from the users, and other OSs trying to analyze user behavior and provide built in search facilities. Sites, being more flexible should lead this trend instead of stick with the old ways.

But wait, what about SEO, isn’t breadcrumbs good for SEO? Maybe it was true in 2007 before search engines standardized on using site maps. Without site maps breadcrumbs where a relatively easy way to provide inter site connectivity that was required to help search engines discover all of the content in the site. Today if your site doesn’t have a site map you either don’t care much about SEO, or you are sure that your site is inter connected.

The only SEO related reason to use breadcrumbs today is that google might use them instead of the full URL in the search results when the URL is very long. This for sure improves the usability of the google results, but does it add value to the site owner? Even if it does, I would add bread crumbs either as RDF (ugly) or use the microdata way but just hide it with CSS. This way google has the data, and you have more free screen space on your site.

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