LearnSitemaps – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

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Treehouse
writes on February 16, 2010

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.

The Good

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.

The Bad

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.

The Ugly

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.

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22 Responses to “Sitemaps – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”

  1. Hi

    Out of interest do the Mac owning users out there use iGooMap for XML site map generation? I personally find it quite useful:http://www.pointworks.de/software/igoomap/

  2. I guess sitemaps are good for bots ; but i wonder why there is so much difference between the number of indexed pages in Google webmasters and the number is can check if I use SeoQuake with FireFox.

  3. interesting… does the good outweigh the bad with sitemaps? do people actually use them? i thought they are more to appease search engines like google.

  4. I love how CMS’s have removed the need to even worry about sitemaps. I use modx and have been using the google sitemaps for abut 3 years now. So much easier then manually updating a central page every time a client adds a new article.

  5. Tom Something on February 18, 2010 at 6:10 pm said:

    I have an xml file that keeps track of page url’s, titles, hierarchy, and a few other useful things. Breadcrumbs, title tags, primary/secondary navigation, page-specific contact info, 404 redirection suggestions and some other stuff all rely on this one xml file, so stuff manages to stay fairly consistent site-wide. I have another script that translates this into the xml format that Google likes, so whenever Google sends a robot over to visit, the server cooks up a fresh sitemap.

    Does anyone else do something like this, or is my approach really strange?

  6. Very Nice Article. I saw the sitemap of Winter Olympic Games 2010 site last day, it’s really “The Ugly” 🙂 http://www.vancouver2010.com/sitemap/ 1000000 chilometers long.

    • Well I would categorize it as ‘The Bad’ as well, can’t find anything! Let’s go for the Apple alike ;-)!

    • Hey,

      I agree with you both, ugly and bad. Isn’t it ironic that something that is meant to be helpful and useful is anything but.

      Is the fact that so many sitemaps are bad or ugly, a sign that their days are numbered?

      I still think sitemaps are needed but not when they are like that Olympic one.

      Good example, thanks for sharing.

      Rob.

  7. Interesting article…
    I have to say I don’t often use them and was losing interest in having them except for indexing on search engines.

    It is clear though that my assumption that no one uses them was incorrect.

    I would argue though that there is a difference between a sitemap for a search engine and one for a user. (apart from the file format)

    If your site has over a hundred pages a search engine would thank you for pointing out every page I am pretty sure a user would not.

    For the users sitemap maybe a manually created version with helpful titles descriptions of large sections of the site would be of more use than a dynamically created one with everything.

    Additionally I did smile when Nicole wrote ‘ if you’re a smaller website or single-paged website, I wouldn’t even bother’. I would like to see a site-map for a one page site, well two counting the site-map 🙂

    • Now that I think about it, I can see a single-page website having a sitemap, but it would be focused on the different “sections” of the page. Maybe explaining what each one is and how it is important to the viewer.

      Wow, I wish I came up with this thought earlier. I would have applied it to my old single-page portfolio design.

  8. Great and useful post, will definitely use it for future reference.
    Thanks for sharing 😀

  9. Sitemaps are never bad or ugly unless it’s unusable or not there.

    If you have a large website, a sitemap that clearly lays out where everything is would be essential for SEO and for the user in general. What if the user is lost and doesn’t know where to go? Oh look, a handy sitemap!

    Now, if you’re a smaller website or single-paged website, I wouldn’t even bother because both types of websites are very easy to navigate if everything is placed in front of the user’s view.

  10. An interesting article. As a UX Designer, I must confess to having overlooked sitemaps in the past. I had always assumed that they were only useful for search engines, or as a fallback for poor navigation design. To test my (baseless) theory, I put a quick poll together (http://twtpoll.com/4hj1dt). Not a huge response so far, but I can see that my assumption was incorrect – around 25% of people do use sitemaps when browsing a website. This is a significant percentage so mustn’t be overlooked (a lesson learned, for me at least).

    The article seems to suggest that the better sitemaps rely less heavily on presenting the architecture in a traditional tree-style hierarchy. Users don’t think of a site’s structure as a tree, so why present your site map like one?

    I’ve recently been rather taken with the emergence of the so-called “Mega drop-down”. These present the user with a lot more information than the almost ubiquitous typical drop-down menus and can be (according to Jakob Nielsen) quite usable – http://www.useit.com/alertbox/mega-dropdown-menus.html. Like Apple’s sitemap, these can be used to present sections and sub-sections in an aesthetically pleasing and useful way which doesn’t need to be constrained by the cascading, tree hierarchies we’re so used to seeing.

    I for one will spend time on future projects looking more closely at sitemaps – perhaps we’ll have to stop hiding the sitemap link in the footer from now on?

  11. I resort to browsing through sitemaps if the site has difficult navigation, or coyly skirts around the information you want to find. With small enough websites I wouldn’t use a sitemap, even for SEO purposes, unless the content lends itself to similar-looking pages, perhaps data. With larger site, such as a site with an e-commerce section, I would be more likely to use a search, thinking that the sitemap would list every product. Overall though, I’d love to see sitemaps and search functions used more.

  12. This is one often over looked aspect of building a website.

  13. I think that once a site reaches a certain size, and has a lot of pages, then you are going to need either a search function, a sitemap or both. Sitemaps can become large and complex, but then they are usually a last resort anyway, a user will probably try to use the main navigation and searchbar first!

  14. I use XML Sitemap generator for my site maps. On their site, http://www.xml-sitemaps.com/, you can generate a site map of up to 500 pages for free of buy the full version for something like $20.

    Once I have generated a site map I always submit an XML version to Google which I think is an excellent way to get indexed. Recently a client site had only 46 pages indexed out of a possible 300. After I submitted an XML sitemap every page was listed very quickly.

  15. I build the site map as an XML file that search engines can crawl easily, but also provide an XSL file (http://www.w3schools.com/xsl/) that styles the XML data to match the website. That way you get the best of both worlds.

  16. A good tool to help create more attractive sitemaps is Slickplan.

  17. Sitemap is for usability, and SEO as a second. If the site is so small, you can reach each page at top tier from the main menu, its hardly worth the trouble, if its larger, it can be worth it, if its huge, you’ve got to ask yourself to what extent you’ll need one.

    Google recommends that if your sitemap is over 100 pages, you should split it into subpages – not xml sitemaps, the real physical pages. Partially usability, and partially because too many links on a page make it look like a farm?

    Also as a project manager, I like to draw out hierarchy and/or sitemap when seeking content or having received content for a new site, as more often than not, there’s been scope creep, and you’ll find the client has sent content for a part of the website that was only expected to be a page long, and is now six, and that you have no content for the most important areas.

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