Sitemap - Embarrassment or Godsend?

I'm having a problem with a developer right now. Which developer isn't really the point - the point (unfortunately) is that it's common with a disturbing number of developers. If you happen to be (or know) a developer that is an exception to the rant below, please accept my thanks for your hard work and be sure that the following is not intended towards you personally.

The sitemap. It seems to me that traditionally developers have ignored sitemaps all together, or stuffed them at the bottom of webpages beside the other links no one ever clicks on - like the privacy policy and copyright notice.

Many times, they don't even do any design on them! It's a script that creates a link list and stuffed in a template (if it even warrants one).

I don't know why, but I can hazard a guess - it's likely because after the developer spends all this time (and client money) developing a cool, cutting edge navigation structure for the site, that the site map is a reminder that someone might not think it's as cool as the developer thinks it is - and we can't have that, now can we?

Next thing you know, they might actually start testing to see if that nifty all-Flash navigation structure is SEO or user friendly - horrors!

I've got a request for developers who automatically place the sitemap link (if one is even created in the first place) at the bottom of pages - STOP IT!

The reasons that a sitemap is important and should be at the top (or at least in a more prominent position) are many, but here are a few:

  • Users with limited browsers (including mobile browsers, screen readers, and search engines) like to skip all that navapolooza and just go straight to the information and content - you know, the stuff the website is supposed to be about?
  • Search engines tend to place more link weight on links at the top of a page - this then passes on more link weight to the links in the sitemap (ie - your site)
  • On a related note, search engines usually treat links in the footer of a site (especially if it's in a smaller font than the rest of the site) as less important - since when is your site's content "less important"?
  • Many people like to use the site map to find things quickly in large sites. Sometimes it's easier to figure out where information is likely to be if you can see the site structure.
  • Sitemaps can save your site. Sometimes navigation changes create orphaned pages, leaving the sitemap as the only way to find what the visitor was looking for.
  • The anchor text in a sitemap can be VERY helpful for SEO (it's usually the SEO'd page title) - you want it to be noticed.

Sometimes (if I can get away with it under the context) I'll even do link building for a site directly to the sitemap rather than the home page!

IMO, the sitemap should:

  • Be well thought out and organized - use second and nested sitemaps if necessary
  • Be part of your site! It should look and feel like your site.
  • Use keywords in the anchor text and descriptions wherever practical
  • Be one language only - if you have French and English on your site, you should have 2 sitemaps - one for each language.
  • Linked to from high up on the webpage as viewed in text only mode. I prefer the upper right corner area, myself. This is also where people tend to look for search and country/language choices, as well.

Developers have to stop treating sitemaps as an embarrassment or afterthought and start treating them like the SEO and usability godsend they actually are.

End Rant.

ADDED: While writing a reply to one of the (much appreciated and thoughtful) comments below, it occured to me that another annoyance of placing the sitemap at the bottom of the page is that if you decide to use it because you are lost (possibly because you arrived from a search, rather than the home page) you have to scroll all the way to the bottom of the page to use it. Ugg.



BWelford said...

Ian, I hesitate to disagree with you but perhaps I can present an alternative point-of-view.

I very much liked the list you had towards the end of the post on what is desirable in a SiteMap. I can strongly agree with most of that.

Where I disagree is on putting the SiteMap link very prominently towards the top of the web page. I put it at the bottom mainly for the search engines. (.. and of course I can now send them an XML or equivalent file of all the URLs to really make sure they know all). However for human visitors, I want to work hard to make sure that they can follow the 'scent' as Jared Spool says and naturally find what they're looking for.

stoney said...

Ian, I agree with much of what you said but there is something to be said about putting things where people expect to find them. When I want to get to a sitemap, guess where I look first? That's right, the bottom of the page. If I move it from there then I suddenly fore my users to have to "look" for something they should have found within .5 seconds.

Ian McAnerin said...

I know the "no sitemaps at the bottom" stance goes against what many developers hold dear, but it really has to go, IMO.

It just doesn't belong there.

I know it's common enough. Apple has it at the bottom, for example. Of course, they also put the contact us and switch country at the bottom, too. And halt the loading of their home page while a quicktime video loads!

As Barry mentioned, Jared Spool isn't fond of sitemaps as well, since it's an indication that the navigation needs work:

But I think that's the point - without the sitemap or site search on that page in the first place, the user losing the scent would have been completely lost.

Looking at the Web Accessibility Initiative Site, you'll see that the site map is actually just under the normal navigation, not hidden at the bottom:

I'm much happier with this approach, myself. Look at the W3C site - the Site Index is in the middle of the top bar, not hidden at the bottom.

I disagree with Jared in that I believe that the site map IS part of the navigation of a site. I don't beleive that everyone uses a site in exactly the same way, or with the same goals and assumptions, and I think that the sitemap is a value-neutral navigation method.

I understand where he is coming from, in that it's best to design a site where the sitemap is not necessary, but I think that's overly optimistic.

It reminds me of someone advising that you should not wear a seatbelt because you should focus on driving better. That doesn't account for the fact that it's not always you that is the bad driver - sometimes it's the other guy! And even the best drivers sometimes make mistakes.

Stoney, I think that you will find that if the sitemap is where users automatically look to see the navigation already, then they won't even need to take that extra time to think about the sitemap being at the bottom of the page and then having to scroll down to find it - it's right there in front of them! Putting it at the bottom adds a step.

BTW, that's another annoyance about the "sitemap at the bottom" issue - you have to scroll down through a page to get to it, regardless of how long the page may be. As a matter of fact, I'm gonna add that to the list in the post right now. :)