Value of Breadcrumbs

Jared Spool

September 26th, 2005

Our friend Nathalie recently inquired:

I would like to know your opinion on the use of breadcrumbs. According to your research, is using breadcrumbs adding value or not or ?? what?

There are actually several types of breadcrumbs, each with different value propositions. (Tip of the hat to Keith Instone for his thoughtful analysis of breadcrumbs.)

The most common use of breadcrumbs are called “location breadcrumbs”, which reflect the optimal path where a user can find the current page of information (independent of the navigation they used to get to that page). The other types include “path breadcrumbs”, which show the actual path the user followed to get to the current page, and “facet breadcrumbs” (Keith calls them “attribute breadcrumbs”), which are used in a faceted navigation scheme to show the current facets chosen. I’m going to guess that Nathalie is asking about location breadcrumbs.

In our analysis, breadcrumbs are mostly used when users lose the scent of the information they are seeking. They work their way through the navigation, choosing the links that have the best scent. At some point, they realize that they’ve lost the scent and now wish to back track. It’s at this moment that they turn to breadcrumbs.

In this context, breadcrumbs are only a little better than the back button (or links labeled “back” or “previous”). Users only pay attention to the breadcrumb when they have lost the scent or somehow need context as to where they are in the site. If users are looking for breadcrumbs in this context, it’s likely that it’s because the scent is poor. Instead of making the breadcrumbs robust, it’s better to invest the development effort in improving the scent.

Where breadcrumbs are useful is in a context we call teleporting. Teleporting is what happens when a user suddenly finds themselves in the middle of the information architecture, often because of a search result. For example, a user we observed on eBay typed “accoustic guitar” into the search engine and found several guitars, all listed with this incorrect spelling of the word “acoustic.” The user, realizing that there might be more guitars, clicked on the eBay’s breadcrumbs to see all of the listed guitars, regardless of spelling.

These days, where users teleport in because of Google searches and internal search requests, breadcrumbs give the user a way to find solid ground after they land.

12 Responses to “Value of Breadcrumbs”

  1. Barry Welford Says:

    I’m a very strong advocate of breadcrumbs for exactly the reason explained in the final paragraphs on teleporting. That’s a very common situation now. You may well be helping say 10% of people who visit that page, but if they want to get somewhere else on the website, likely they could be classified as ‘warm’ prospects. They’re important people not to lose.

  2. Jared Spool Says:


    Not all sites have a huge amount of teleporting. Sites behind firewalls or content stored in databases may not fall victim to that at all.

    We recommend to our clients that they look at their logs and see what the entry pages are. Only where you’re seeing a lot of non-home-page entry points, do you want to think about that context for breadcrumbs.

  3. Keith Instone's IA blog Says:

    Star Trek and breadcrumbs

    Keith agrees with Jared, using pages about teleportation as examples.

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  5. Jan Says:


    Could you offer some opinions on whether you think that breadcrumbs can be used to protect copyright material?

  6. Jared Spool Says:

    Hi Jan,

    I’m not a lawyer, but my father and my sister are both intellectual property lawyers. So, I’ve picked up a little over the dinner table.

    Copyrights protect the expression of an idea. When content is copywritten, it means that the owner wishes to retain the rights to that expression.

    When you talk about “protecting copyright material”, you could either be referring to (a) the elements that contribute to the unique expression of the material, thus making it copyrightable or (b) the act of enforcing the copyright (such as the placement of a copyright notice).

    Theoretically, breadcrumbs could be (a). Years ago, Lotus won a lawsuit against Borland because Borland violated the copyright of Lotus 1-2-3 by copying the menus for it’s own spreadsheet (Quattro Pro). One could argue that the breadcrumbs are like menus in that the information architecture is an expression of the idea of how you’ve chosen to implement the information — someone else could be creative and implement their own way.

    But, as I understand copyright law, one of the protections is that someone could express the content a different way. If there’s only one way to organize the information (such as their might only be one way to list the ingredients of an apple pie), then the expression is not as protected as situations where there is a lot of author license and freedom of expression.

    For (b), I don’t see immediately how breadcrumbs would act to actually protect a copyright. I don’t see how you’d march in front of a judge and say, “Sir, we have breadcrumbs so, therefore, they aren’t allowed to copy this.”

    Of course, my amatuer knowledge of copyright only extends to US copyright law (where it represents facts at all). I have no clue about how copyright works anywhere else.

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