The term ‘breadcrumb’ is a reference to the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel —where the titular children leave a trail of crumbs to find their way back out of a forest.
As noted by Steve Krug (among others), there is unintentional irony in the nomenclature.
In the Brothers Grimm original, the breadcrumbs are eaten by birds—making them a less-than-ideal navigational aid.
Breadcrumb navigation (also referred to as a ‘breadcrumb trail’), locates the current webpage in the context of a navigation path.
Aside from the common form, use of the term ‘breadcrumb’ then diverges:
In addition, topic-path navigation is often presented as a breadcrumb.
The topic-path for this webpage, presented in the form of breadcrumb navigation, is located at the top-left of the screen and reads:
Taken literally (and without sophisticated supporting logics to reconcile multiple accesses of a single page, or preserve information hierarchies), breadcrumb-navigation-as-transcript is of little practical use:
A form of transcript is of use, however, when navigating a directory-based website. As the user makes a series of selections to find information of increasing granularity, the transcribed breadcrumb illustrates how this content has been classified—a taxonomy. This classification can help create a mental map of the chosen topic. It also enables the user to retrace their steps to follow a different taxonomic ‘branch’ without needing to re-evaluate the options provided by the formal top-level navigation.
Transcript breadcrumb navigation is also useful when an item is assigned multiple, nonhierarchical classifications, in other words, when there are a number of different, equally valid paths to the same webpage.
For an example of transcript-breadcrumb navigation, see the New Zealand Consultants website. A consultant listing can be found from the homepage by selecting a broad business skill type (General Business Skills or Technology Expertise) and then a specific skill. When a user selects a specific skill, the breadcrumb navigation changes to reflect the most recent path followed. This functionality supports the likely task of the user evaluating/comparing possible candidates.
A topic path shows the location of the current page in context of the website information structure. This form of navigation can help the user visualise how content has been structured, and easily move from a specific-, to broad- content grouping.
For example, the topic path for the Motive guide to web typography is:
The link to the Guides section suggests both what type of content ‘Web typography’ is (a guide) and also where users might find similar information (other guides).
Topic path navigation tends to be static rather than dynamic. It shows how the website owner has classified the content, and how the webpage can be relocated using the global navigation, rather than necessarily showing the path the user has taken to reach the page.
While secondary, this navigation technique is increasingly beneficial to users.