Sitemaps are like Marmite (Ed: yeast extract spread that divides opinion, very popular in the UK). You either love them or hate them. OK maybe you don’t ‘love’ them but they do seem to create an obvious divide between those that use them and those that don’t. I rarely use them but they are part of my day job and that got me wondering, what are the good, the bad and the ugly examples of sitemaps.
As well as looking at sitemaps in relation to those three criteria I will also discuss Google sitemaps, a whole new world for sitemaps.
Let’s start off on a high note. Sitemaps are a safety net. They can be a last resort for users before they abandon ship and leave your site having not found what they needed and vowing never to come back.
Another advantage in line with the above is that they are often the only full overview of your site (depending on the size and scope of it). All of the pages may be listed in the main navigation but if this is structured using drop-down menus for sub pages then your sitemap remains the only full overview and therefore serves an important purpose.
Much has been written on the SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) advantages to having a sitemap. They are cited as being a good method for getting your site listed on search engines and if you use Google Sitemaps it provides details of errors within your site such as broken links. Of course, there are other SEO methods so the advantages of having a sitemap for this purpose alone are perhaps questionable.
For me, as a Project Manager, sitemaps are useful for scoping projects when providing costs to potential clients and they are valuable when a project kicks off and the project team and client come together to discuss the information architecture of the site. In my experience, they also help some clients better understand the importance of how content is grouped, the hierarchy and the links between content.
Last and by no means least, sitemaps are simply helpful to some and no harm to others who choose not to use them. Let’s not assume everybody is adept at using the web, some people need more help than others and a sitemap can be the helping hand they need.
Before I move on to discuss the bad and the ugly, the sitemap on the Apple website (pictured above) is one of the better examples of one I have seen, many sites could learn a lot from this.
No rose is without its thorn and unfortunately many sitemaps and prickly things. Let’s be blunt, most sitemaps are difficult to use. This can be because of the way they look or because of their sheer size. There is some sort of irony in sitemaps being difficult to use isn’t there?
Another solid argument for the slaying of sitemaps is that if a website is designed well with considered thought to navigation and information architecture then the user will have no difficulty in finding what they want and therefore a sitemap isn’t necessary.
This raises the question of at what point will user’s look at a sitemap? I already mentioned that they can be a last resort safety net, perhaps when there is no search function on the site but that again is linked to the design element. Include a search function and not a sitemap. Cover all bases perhaps and have both?
Depending on the site in question, if your content/structure is changing regularly then your sitemap will need to be amended in line with this. This can be a time suck but if ignored it will mean your sitemap is inaccurate so you might as well not have one anyway.
The sitemap for the Cardiff Council website is so big that it becomes impossible to use. It is a rather huge list that uses dots to represent the hierarchy. It would benefit enormously from having the sections divided up like the Apple example and thus making it easier to find what you are looking for.
Finally, let’s look at one ugly sitemap that suffers at the same hands of many others, it is too big to be both pretty and usable.
The Google way
And so to Google sitemaps. They differ from the standard visual sitemaps like the ones discussed above. Google sitemaps is a protocol that is an XML based system which helps Google crawl your site. It is seen as being one of the best ways to get a search engine to learn about your entire site, though it is by no means a guarantee of being indexed.
A lot of CMS’s have plugins and there are numerous code libraries to generate these. If you are savvy with XML you could use this approach to not only keep Google happy but to also generate a HTML version.
Over to you
What do you think? Are sitemaps good, bad or ugly? I’m sure there are many more pros and cons to this topic so please share them in the comments below.