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The Right Way To Think About Site Maps

Site map, sitemap, or site index? Which one is more important for the SEO and the searcher experience?

Site map photo

If you asked 100 search engine optimization (SEO) professionals to explain a site map and show you what an effective one looks like, chances are you will get 100 different answers.

To many SEO professionals, a site map is an XML sitemap that one submits to Google (and other search engines) containing URLs to every web page on a site. To others, a site map is a single web page with a semi-organized list of blue, underlined text links with keywords. For larger sites, a site map is a site index — maybe a series of web pages (with only 100-150 links per site-map page) with a list of blue, underlined text links, usually organized in alphabetical order.

Which example of site map is most effective and why?

Site Map = Accessibility

According to Google, an XML sitemap (1 word) provides access to all URLs on a website. It is a file where you can list the web pages of your site to tell Google and other search engines about the organization of your site content. There are also video sitemaps and image sitemaps.

Access to information is exactly what a sitemap should provide, right?

A single page with an organized list of blue, underlined text links also provides access to all URLs on a web site, as does a series of alphabetical pages that constitute a larger site index. Therefore, the main purpose of a site map, XML sitemap, and site index is content accessibility, right?

Somehow, the concepts of usability and user experience (UX) was lost in the interpretation of "site map." Here is how we see the difference:

  • XML sitemap (1 word) = primarily for technology
  • Site map (2 words) = primarily for users
  • Site index = primarily for users

For some odd reasons, search-engine friendly web design, site architecture, and site maps have come to mean accessiblility only. SEO professionals and even search engine software engineers need to stop thinking only about search engines only and think about humans (also known as users or searchers).

A wayfinder site map should be developed first and foremost for human beings but also accommodate search engines.

Wayfinder Site Maps

An effective site map does not only provide access information. It should also provide a strong information scent and help put that information into context. Keywords and keyword phrases are certainly part of that equation.

I like to think of site maps as a pathfinder or wayfinder, which are actually library science terms. So I gave Gary Price of Resource Shelf a call to talk to him about site maps as pathfinders. According to Gary, a pathfinder or wayfinder has the following characteristics:

  • Adds context
  • Is subject specific
  • Compiled or written by a human
  • Provides a scope of information
  • Has annotation to actual entries
  • Provides access to further information

Gary gave me some good examples of librarian pathfinders, such as Ice Cream Resources from the Library of Congress (short one) or Tracer Bullets, also from the Library of Congress (long one). Even though these pathfinder examples are not site maps specifically, they contain many characteristics that an effective site map should have.

First and foremost, many of the links are annotated, meaning that the pages do not contain a list full of blue, underlined text links. Every single link on a site map should not be annotated, but we do recommend that the main ones have some short description. What type of information will a site visitor (and a search engine spider) be able to find if that person visits that section of your web site.

Additionally, in our opinion, the First Rule of Search-Engine Friendly Web Design is that the content on your web pages should be easy to read. Pages of blue, underlined text links (or however your developer has chosen to format text links in Cascading Style Sheets) are difficult to read. There is no visual interest, no extra formatting to bring your eyes to specific areas of a screen. Whenever we have usability tested site-map pages, all participants found the annotated site maps much easier to read than a page full of hypertext links.

Site map content should provide a strong scent of information. Any person who uses a site map to help them find information on a web site is looking for visual cues (both textual and graphical) to help them get to the information they desire. Annotation, with keywords, helps provide that scent of information. In addition, those keywords also provide strong context, especially for web files in which search engines currently have a difficult time extracting information (such as images and video files).

A Sense of Place = You Are Here Cues

Site maps should also give both search engines and site visitors a clear snapshot of how you, the web site owner, have organized the information available on your site. Do not mislabel a site index as a site map. Think of an index many people are familiar with — an index at the back of a book. It is organized alphabetically. A site index is organized alphabetically, and it can be an effective way of presenting information to site visitors (especially on a larger site) to help them more quickly find desired information. The Center for Disease Control has a very useful site index.

A site index, however, does not provide a hierarchy of organized content, which is what site visitors desire. When site visitors arrive on your web site from a search engine results page (SERP), they usually land on a page in the middle of the site, not the home page. Users immediately try to establish a sense of place, where they are within your web site. A quick click on a site map link should reconfirm the sense of place on a site, something an alphabetical site index does not do.

On larger sites, I tend to combine a site index with topical, or subject-specific, guides. The topical guides are annotated, of course, based on the users' language and the site's business goals. If a site contains graphic images that site visitors desire, I will create an image library and have an "Image Library" link within a site map. The combination of search-friendly URL structure, navigation scheme(s), relevant cross-linking, site index, and topical site maps provides everything both search engines and site visitors want:

  • Access to desired information
  • Strong information scent (which increases user confidence because user expectations are being met)
  • Context
  • Sense of place

Remember, search engine optimization is optimizing a website for people who use search engines. Searcher behaviors are a known part of search engine algorithms. So to ignore searchers is to discount an important part of search engine algorithms.

Even though many SEO professionals do not have nor desire library science or usability training, these types of courses and books are really helpful for search engine optimization. All too often, I see site maps used as a band-aid for a site's poor information architecture and corresponding navigation system.

Try your own usability test or observe one. Watch how people actually use a site map and/or a site index. You might be surprised at the results and, like me, learn to create more effective site maps.

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