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Cupcake photo credit: Easybaked.net

A bloated ratio of links with little value to human visitors placed at the top of the page is like an oversized sugary topper with no nutritional value.
Bruce Clay – The Cupcake Effect

(Mmmmmm, frosting. Good on cupcakes, not so good on most web pages.)

I discovered this fantastic analogy (Thank you Bruce Clay!) for how to describe the effect of too many links at the top of a web page. Links that serve virtually no purpose to the site visitor, other than to get in the way of her ability to orient herself and explore the page.

It all began with a request for a page-level, contextual menu component be able to display up to 80 links. 80 LINKS. Not a mega menu (and even then I’d balk) or a filter menu, not an index page or site map. Instead, a content rich page with a menu component linking to corresponding top sub-categories (keyword here: “Top” not “All”) in addition to contextual navigation throughout the page.

There is a ginormous concern with this request.

To begin with, try rendering this in a mobile scenario. Since this is page level and not a global navigation menu, one option (albeit a bad, terrible, horrible one) is to list all the links on the screen and let the user just scroll away and away and away from the site. Option 2 is to concatenate the section with a “more” functionality in order to view the remaining links.

A third option is to adapt the list into a single call-to-action (CTA) component that, when tapped, opens up a menu on a second screen with hide/reveal functionality or links to secondary menu screens. At least with this option the list isn’t perceptively long and difficult to scan through, to a point.

Regardless, can you say, “link-gate”?

Imagine how much scrolling up-and-down or back-and-forth the visitor is going to have to do to find what she wants, much less understand what the links and the page have to do with each other.

More links on a content level category page do not help. They don’t help to orient the visitor to the section, the page and/or its contents. Instead, they have the opposite effect. The links add more noise and create more chaos. Dropping the visitor into a page with a menu of 80 links is a bat-shit crazy if you think it’s going to be helpful.

Which brings me to the looming issue with the request – no matter what device – the additional cognitive load the links WILL ADD to the visitor’s experience. That’s a bad thing.

Cognitive load is defined as the amount of mental resources or brain power required to understand and operate the system. Dropping the visitor into a page with a menu of 80 links is bat-shit crazy if you think it’s going to be useful or helpful.

Human brains have limited amount of processing power, and when the amount of information coming in exceeds our ability to handle it, our performance suffers. We may take longer to understand the information, miss important details, or even get overwhelmed and abandon the task. Says Nielsen Norman Group.

The best recommendation for this request is to approach the links in terms of quality, not quantity. The better the links or labels, the better the chance of the visitor exploring the page, finding what she’s looking for, and having a positive experience.