Recently someone mentioned to me the main navigation on cnn.com. I've read that site every day for about 6 years, but I couldn't tell you what even one of the main navigation items was. Lorem? Ipsum? No idea. What's interesting about this to me is that it was never a conscious decision on my part. I never realized that I never used it - I just didn't because, apparently, I didn't need it.
Now that I'm paying more attention, I'm noticing all kinds of creative ways that online publishing sites are de-emphasizing main navigation in favor of robust and well-designed homepages, user-driven navigation, and tag linking techniques. Much of this isn't new - tags, inline links, and "most read" lists have been all over the web for years - but now, I'm seeing these sites take it even further. Editors are trusting their readers to find what they need without hierarchical information architectures and traditional navigation bars. Don't get me wrong - the information is highly architected - just in a way that isn't so obvious.
Let's look at some examples:
One of the web's fantastic sources of cool information, wired.com, has main navigation, but it's pretty obvious they don't think anyone really uses or needs it. On their homepage, they dump any number (it changes daily) of featured story teasers above the main navigation - a really fresh and bold move, in my opinion. Below that, their stories are presented in such an enticing way that I trust them to pick the best stuff for me to read. And then, if I just want to cruise the latest, the tabbed listing below is about all I'd ever need to dig into their content. So, unless readers have really specific interests at the time they are viewing the site, I suspect the main navigation links go unnoticed much of the time.
Another example of site editors pushing the best content to you without the need for traditional navigation is slate.com. They have main navigation, but are using much differently than most sites. Slate uses the main navigation dropdowns to list links directly to featured stories. It's easy to avoid the landing pages.
I realize that gawker.com is basically a very polished blog, but there are some really modern elements here that are relevant to other more serious online publishing outlets. They basically have no traditional navigation at all. The entire site is rendered as a form of customized content list. You can filter to your liking, but essentially, there is no concept of sections or compartments behind a homepage. Assisting in your navigation are nicely styled tags which filter the list for you. Intuitive and simple. Also, they have a great example of editorially selected content taking front and center above the header.
One of my favorite sources for great music is pitchfork.com, which recently completed a redesign. They have main navigation, but it's only a handful of links and it isn't really necessary if you go to the site at least once every couple of days. The only time I use it is if I feel I missed something. Otherwise, the homepage is a one-stop shop and does an excellent job of summing up everything interesting that I would ever want to read during a typical site visit. Above the fold? Below the fold? Who cares! If it's good content, I'll find it.
Even one of the most read news sites on the internet, nytimes.com, has such a decreased emphasis on main navigation that it's barely noticeable. If you are a sports junkie you know where the Sports section is, of course, but it doesn't have to be presented to you in a very obvious way. Rather, they save page real estate for content they want you to read.
I think the best information architectures are the ones the strike the balance between letting me choose my own adventure and putting the best content front and center so I don't have to look very hard for it. So, online publishers, don't get lazy and just slap a big navigation bar on top of your site because you didn't have time to really think about your content and how it should all be tied together. Once you've done that, give me the benefit of the doubt. If your content is good, I'll find it. If it isn't, I'm a dot and you can find me in your Top Exit Pages under "/."