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Despite NNGroup's praise, I notice none of the big players (StackExchange, Facebook, Google, YouTube) use breadcrumbs. None of the big ecommerce players either. Why is this?

Possible guesses:

  • Users aren't stupid, they know where they are
  • Breadcrumbs add clutter, and give off a 90s feel
  • Breadcrumbs are only helpful if the site design itself is bad and the pages that would normally appear in breadcrumbs are otherwise hard to reach
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Breadcrumbs aren't much use for a blog structure, a sequence of posts organized by tags. But for more hierarchically structured sites their still as useful as ever. –  obelia Jan 17 '13 at 0:13
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8 Answers

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Breadcrumbs Rock!

And I think you have a personal bias against them rather then making a clear observation about their use.

I notice none of the big players (StackExchange, Facebook, Google, YouTube) use breadcrumbs.

  • StackExchange uses tags. Those are like breadcrumbs, but it's an associated way rather then structural.
  • Facebook uses AJAX inplace loading for most user content (so you never leave a page the info is related to), but the rest of their website uses breadcrumbs. For example their online help.
  • Google uses page numbers in search results, and their portal sites are very AJAX driven, but for the rest of the website. They have a breadcrumb at the top as in this example.
  • YouTube displays mostly a feed of videos, but if you browse channels then there is a breadcrum as in this example.

Users aren't stupid, they know where they are

They know how they got here, but not where here is. That doesn't make them stupid, but they can still get lost.

Visitors will be required to use alternative visual information to discover what the parent article is for the current article. Either the menu navigation or some other navigating method.

Breadcrumbs are consistant and common.

Breadcrumbs add clutter, and give off a 90s feel

Another way to say the same thing.

Breadcrumbs have been a consistent navigational tool since the early 90's.

Breadcrumbs are only helpful if the site design itself is bad and the pages that would normally appear in breadcrumbs are otherwise hard to reach

The effectiveness of a website's design, the structure of it's articles and their accessibility have absolutely nothing to do with breadcrumbs.

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Good answer, especially for listing that there is a reason based on the content and technologies that dictates the use of breadcrums on the given example "big players". –  kontur Jan 17 '13 at 14:45
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I think it depends on how you have organized your site's data structure. If your site presents information that is hierarchical in nature then breadcrumbs can help navigate 'up' a level to similar data from a leaf node.

of course, it's possible to organize some data into a hierarchical manner even if it isn't necessary.

Nowadays though, sites are trying to keep a shallow data set so most of the time breadcrumb menus don't make sense because they're only 2 or 3 crumbs large. This partly has to do with how targeted some sites are becoming.

Facebook using breadcrumb makes no sense with all the menus they have available in the app. They tried to make their data 'shallow' by exposing a lot of the things up front.

I haven't gone into facebook privacy settings in a while but the times i have used it I would have greatly benefited from a breadcrumb menu because it seemed like I was in a completely different section after clicking on one or two links that seemed to be related.

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You make a good point about breadcrumbs sometimes being useful in particular areas of sites rate then globally. They don't have to be an all or nothing feature. As a secondary point; Having just had a quick check of Facebook settings pages they don't use them though, but then they've simplified the settings pages recently so probably don't need them here. –  JonW Jan 17 '13 at 0:06
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In my experience breadcrumbs are useful on sites that have some depth in the page hierarchy. The trail shows where the user is in the site hierarchy. Not only that, it also reveals nearby possibly-related content. Third, it's good for search engines so they understand where in the site they are, and can show context of search results.

Use of a breadcrumb shouldn't be taken as a sign of poorly-organized content; rather, it shows that the author has taken some effort for the end-user's benefit.

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Our SEO consultants recommended them -- whether or not you expose them to the user, they can help keyword crawl. More here: http://usabilitygeek.com/12-effective-guidelines-for-breadcrumb-usability-and-seo/,

(I posted this article mainly for it's SEO benefits).

Current eCommerce sites: Gilt, Target, Amazon & Zappos (though inconsistent). I prefer Gilt's subtle implementation.

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Doing things just for the benefit of SEO doesn't correlate to a benefit to user experience. Also they article is over 1 year old and tastes change quite fast in the world of the web. Is that article still valid now? (Especially considering the main question is about whether breadcrumbs are currently relevant. –  JonW Jan 17 '13 at 0:00
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Fair point. But SEO is an important tool for user outreach, if no users can find your product, then you have zero users to experience it. –  user24822 Jan 17 '13 at 0:02
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What do you mean by keyboard crawl - a user pressing tab or other keyboard input to skip to links? Maybe you could also sum up the main points of the article for the benefit of future readers. Stack exchange sites are trying to serve answers, not links to answers. –  kontur Jan 17 '13 at 6:45
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What I think is that portal style sites created with categorized "pages" are "out". And breadcrumbs are gone with them. Take this 5 month old site, http://qz.com/ (This is an example, not an endorsement of the UI). They roll through their entire content on essentially one page.

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First of all, I feel that breadcrumbs are still a part of web design and still in for most of us. You mentioned in your post about the big players not using them anymore. I agree that they are not used by larger sites, however those sites have way more familiarity and traffic than the majority of us get. People are more used to those iconic interfaces and know how to get around. Secondly, breadcrumbs aren't just for knowing where you are, but being able to backtrack without having to re-track how to you got a page. If you are only interested in going back to a category page for example, you can click on a link in the breadcrumb instead of having to retrace your steps on how you got to that area in the first place. Those are my two cents :)

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Personally, I like breadcrumbs or their equivalent and can think of two immediate examples where I use them a lot. 1) searching for a product from the Amazon homepage, going through a couple of other steps and arriving at a list of products with breadcrumbs showing me where I am (even though I didn't get there via that route). The breadcrumbs allow me to navigate up to other levels easily to try different branches, e.g. other categories or departments, without having to start the search over again. 2) The use of breadcrumb-type items in the address bar of Windows Explorer to get back to higher levels immediately (without going back through each higher level one-by-one). And better still, using a dropdown from a higher level to jump to another folder that branched off completely from how i got to my current location. But I'm guessing that not everyone reading this is a Windows fan... more amazing still is that this feature was a product of Vista!

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Breadcrumbs makes user to imagine site structure which is too complex and not so regular now. Better to keep history of his session - user easily can find a page he visited 5 minutes ago with all his filters/search results/etc.

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