Though many online marketers send emails that are very similar to their websites in terms of navigation and linking, major differences in the way consumers view emails vs. websites indicate that emails should be designed differently to achieve the best results, according to a recent report from Smith-Harmon.

The report, which is based on an analysis of website and email data for 100 top retailers (non-real estate) collected in March and April 2009 by the Retail Email Blog, found that horizontal navigation bars, emails with fewer links, HTML coding (vs. images) and special tactics to highlight sales, seasonal specials and featured departments work best in emails.

Key highlights from the study:

  • Horizonal navigation bars more visible: The study found that horizontal navigation bars are much more common in emails than vertical ones, which are used by fewer than 5% of retailers. This is because horizontal navigation bars are more likely to be seen in their entirety because of preview panes, according to Aaron Smith, co-founder and principal of Smith-Harmon and author of the blog. “This helps account for their effectiveness in email.”


  • Fewer links work better: Smith-Harmon found that differences between email and website navigation and the length of time consumers view email generally mean fewer links should be included in email navigation than in website navigation. Currently, the average number of links in retailers website navigation bars is 8.9 and the average number of links in a horizontal email navigation bar is 8.1, with the number of links ranging from just 3 up to 19. Vertical email navigation bars average 23.2 links, ranging from 6 to 50. Smith said that rather than loading up a navigation bar with too many links, it is more effective to pick the top five or six best-performing site destinations and include those.
  • HTML preferred for nav bars: Though there is an ongoing debate about whether to construct navigation bars from images or HTML text, Smith-Harmon said that it is better to use HTML so the links are be readable by the growing number of viewers who block images in emails by default. Currently 28% of horizontal email navigation bars use HTML text, up from just 15% last year. HTML text is much more common in vertical navigation bars, with 60% of vertical navigations created in HTML, the analysis found.
  • Other navigation links helpful: Using navigation links to help email viewers find other parts of a retail site and locate items of interest quickly – such as sales, stores, featured departments and seasonal merchandise is often an effective tactic, Smith-Harmon said. Among the most popular links:


  • Site Search is a minor player: While site search is a critical component of websites, its a minor player in email and often makes for a negative user experience, Smith Harmon found. While 93% of major online retailers include a navigation bar in their emails, only 19% include any form of a site search in their emails.

“Weve found that a search form usage rarely justifies the space required,” said Smith, adding that this does not mean that site search should not necessarily be ruled out of the navigation section.