Have you ever gone to a website, looked around for a few seconds then said to yourself, “Ummmmmm, where am I supposed to go?” No need to worry. Whether you’re 25 or 65, if you’re having trouble properly navigating a website, just know that it isn’t your fault. You’re probably just a victim of Poor Sitemap Structure Syndrome.
Symptoms of Poor Sitemap Structure Syndrome Include:
- Users not knowing where to go on a website
- An inexplicably large amount of links in the top-level menu and/or in the dropdown menu
- Page hierarchy that makes absolutely no sense
- High bounce rate
- Loss of hope
Disclaimer: Poor Sitemap Structure Syndrome is a fictional disease I made up for the sake of this blog post, so you can save the trip to WebMD for a time when you’ll really need it.
In all seriousness, navigating through a website with a poorly scoped out sitemap is an issue worth discussing. A sitemap is a hierarchical model for the pages on a website that easily lays out the navigation for a site, but also allows search engines to easily crawl the site as well. In any website project, the sitemap sets the foundation for the website as a whole. Sitemaps sometimes do get a bad rap, however. I mean, they’re not the sexiest part of a website project (not to say coding a website is necessarily a sexy topic to begin with). It’s a phase in a project that can easily get overlooked, because your designer(s), developer(s), and team just want to jump straight into design and development.
Although the sitemap is probably the most under-appreciated part of a website project, it’s essentially the groundwork for the architectural marvel that is your website.
If you think about your website as being a building, ideally, it’d require a blueprint, right?
However, you wouldn’t build a building without a blueprint, so building a website without a sitemap would be just as irresponsible.
It’s not enough to just put the sitemap together, too. There’s a good amount of strategy involved, which has a profound impact on the design, user experience, and SEO value for your website. Putting together a sitemap shouldn’t be a quick ordeal, but should rather be a thoughtful and collaborative effort between your team and the client on the best strategy to allow users to properly navigate your website.
How to Create a Strong Sitemap:
The purpose of a sitemap is twofold, as it optimizes both:
- Usability & Navigation: It might be hard to realize it at first, but the sitemap controls users; it steers them in the direction you want them to go, whether it’s to buy a product, generate a lead, etc. So, it’s in you and your users’ best interest to create a sitemap that is as easily navigable and frustration-free as possible.
- SEO Value: As mentioned before, the sitemap allows search engines to crawl and index your website as accurately as possible.
With this in mind, below are a few tips on creating an ideal sitemap that’s good for the flow of your site and helps with its crawlability.
A Little Bit of Planning & Collaboration Goes a Long Way
As with anything, really, taking time to plan something out can prove to be highly beneficial for you in the long run. Same thing goes when putting together a sitemap. At the start of a website project you’ve got an entire bank of pages that either your team or a client has put together. Your next steps are to organize those pages into a strategic and cohesive way in the form of a sitemap.
For the most part, there are two tiers of pages you’d want to include in the sitemap: top-level pages and secondary pages. Top-level pages are the main drivers for your site; the pages that you want to direct users to the most and will create the main navigation for your site. Secondary pages, or sub-level pages, are more specified tiers within a top-level page. For example, if I had a top-level menu item titled Furniture, my secondary pages would probably be titled Couches, Desks, Bookshelves, etc.
There’s also a third tier, which are your tertiary pages (basically pages that go 3 levels or more), but I’d advise not including those pages into your sitemap. Keeping your sitemap drawn out to two-levels, max, is usually the sweet spot for users to be able to easily find what they need without hit with too much information. Excessive pages in a sitemap can be obtrusive and distract users. If you need to include sub-pages within sub-pages on your site, maybe consider setting these pages up as internal links or sidebar navigation items to establish some hierarchy.
Understand the What’s & Why’s
Before you even think about organizing and planning out your sitemap, it’s imperative that you understand a few important What’s and Why’s about your website. Some of these What’s and Why’s include:
- What is main objective of this website?
- Why should users come to my site instead of my competitors?
- What is the unique selling proposition of my product(s) and/or service(s)?
- Why should users continue to explore the rest of my site?
- What (I know, it should be Who instead) is my primary audience?
(Via Beats by Dre)
By answering these questions, you should be able to compile a strategically-built sitemap that can guide users to where you want them to go.
For example, if the purpose of your site is to sell products or contact you, then set both of those pages as top-level links, and make them as easily accessible as possible by placing them at both ends of your sitemap.
It’s typically best practice, according to Nielsen Norman Group, to have the pages that are most frequented at the ends of your menu, because those get noticed the most and are the easiest to get to.
The URL Structure of Your Site Matters
Often overlooked as well, the URL structure (or sometimes lack thereof) is an important element to keep in mind. It’s good practice to always keep a hierarchical naming convention in your URLs, as this helps search engines easily crawl the site and also helps users know the exact path they’ve taken on your site.
In this example, it’s clearly laid out as to which pages are sub-level pages under others. The subfolder structure makes it easy to know that the hierarchy is as follows: Services (top-level) > Search Engine Optimization (sub-level).
Creating a sitemap shouldn’t be a quick stepping stone into the next phase of your website project. But it also shouldn’t require a ton of time to put together either. With a bit of research, collaboration, intuition, and foresight, you should be able to put together a cohesive sitemap that makes sense for your business and your users.