Sitemaps and User Experience

Last Edited October 23, 2015 by Super User in UX

Sitemaps and User Experience

The Importance of Sitemaps

User-Experience, Credibility and Administrator Collaboration

Many website owners have an idea of what a sitemap is, but they don't necessarily understand how imperative a sitemap is for the success of their website, ensuring that the site is both search-friendly and user-friendly. With that said, it's apparent that sitemaps can be useful in a variety of ways. First off, sitemaps are a protocol that allows the webmaster for a website to inform Google and other major search engines about the URL's on a website that are available for crawling. They are also an important step of the user-centered process, ensuring that website content is in places users would expect to find it.

This user-centered process is imperative because if a user can't find what they are looking for on your website, it's more than likely that they will leave and never return—which is the last thing any website owner wants. How information is organized and presented on your website is vital for good usability, in addition to well-formatted content that is easy to scan.

Why? Well, reports have shown that the average Internet user skims through the content on a website instead of reading each and every word from top to bottom. Users tend to scan through key parts of the page quickly to determine if it's relevant to their needs.

Sitemaps allow search engines to find all of your webpages that they might otherwise miss while indexing. The XML sitemap allows you to specify additional information regarding each URL such as:

  • When the website was last updated.
  • How often the website changes.
  • How important the page is in relation to other pages on the website.

Having this information within one document will help search engines understand a website and crawl it more intelligently and efficiently. Sitemaps are an inclusive protocol where Robots.txt files are exclusionary.

The websites of today need both an HTML Sitemaps and XML sitemap in order to clarify the website's purpose and goal, avoid duplicated data and to minimize the number of steps it takes to travel from one page to another. Additionally, a sitemap will communicate the website's architecture and hierarchy.

HTML sitemaps are created and available for viewing by website visitors to help them navigate through a website. Usually, they are setup with a linear structure showing the hierarchy of the site from top level pages to lower level ones. They provide the user with a very easy to read outline of content, making their navigation to their desired content easier.

XML sitemaps are a little different from HTML sitemaps, because they are intended for search engines and spiders not website visitors. XML sitemaps can be visible with any web browser, but their main function is to provide the URLs of a website to search engines. They even show data on how often a page has been changed compared to other URLs on the same site. This information is very important for search engines because the more links they are provided with, the more a website will appear in search engine results.

When you have a sitemap and submit it to the search engines, you rely less on external links that will bring some search engines to your website. Sitemaps can even help with messy internal links—i.e. if you have broken internal links or orphaned pages that cannot be reached in any other way.  In fact, a sitemap can solve any usability or accessibility issue that a website might have, including fixing any broken links or other issues.

If your website is new or if you have a significant number of new (or recently updated pages), using a sitemap can be vital to your success. Although it's possible for a website to go without a sitemap, it's very likely that sitemaps will become the standard way of submitting a website to search engines. Not only that, a sitemap generator will allow users to perform content inventories as well as audits to ensure that their website is performing as it should.

Additionally, a sitemap generator will permit collaboration with team members, other administrators and individuals who are responsible for the maintenance of your website—all of which is partly responsible for a positive user experience. After all, if a team is working together to ensure that a website is as best as it can possibly be (for the user and for search), the website will be a success in all respects.

The steps you need to perform in order to have a sitemap for your website are simple—you need to generate it, upload it to your site and then notify Google about it. Notifying Google will include adding the site to your Google Sitemaps account. If you don't have an account with Google, it's recommended to open one.

As of now, Yahoo! and MSN do not support sitemaps in the XML format that is used by Google. Yahoo!, however, will allow webmaster to submit a text file with a list of URL's, which can actually be a stripped down version of a sitemap, while MSN doesn't offer even that (but there are rumors that it is indexing sitemaps when they are available onsite. This situation is likely to change in the future, though, because user-submitted sitemaps are a powerful SEO tool that just can't be ignored.

All of this is well and good—but just how do you create a sitemap?

Well, depending on your technical skills there are a few ways to generate a sitemap. You can download and install a generator or use an online sitemap generator tool. The first is more difficult, but you will have more control over the output. There are also a variety of free online tools that will get the job done for you such as DYNO Mapper.

Sitemaps can be useful in a wide variety of ways. First and foremost, sitemaps can show how the navigation of a website should be structured. They can also help identify where content will sit and what needs to be produced, and they can show the relationship between different pages. Additionally, sitemaps provide a structure upon which to begin estimates for developments. They are the first tangible deliverable showing what you will be creating.

As mentioned, when it comes to planning user-experience, sitemaps are very important because they are the only feature that provides users with a true overview of everything on a particular website. Sure, one could argue that a site's navigation serves the same purpose. For example, some navigation offers drop-down menus that let users see the options available in each site section but even with these menus, users can only see one section of content at a time.

There's no way around it, without a proper sitemap, some of your priority pages could be missed by search engines. s As a website or business, this is the last thing you want to happen as you will not be able to rank higher than your competitors in the search engines. If you want to compete with your competitors in Google, Bing and Yahoo! submit your sitemap—this alone will make a world of difference when it comes to project management and auditing your website.

A sitemap lets users see all available content areas on one page, and gives them instant access to those site pages. Sitemaps can also help users find information on a cluttered site, providing a clean, simple view of the user interface and the available content. Sitemaps are not a cure-all, however. No sitemap can fix problems inherent in a site's structure, such as poor navigational organization, poorly named sections, or poorly coordinated subsites.

If sitemaps required a major investment to design, they wouldn't offer sufficient ROI to be worth doing. But because all of our guidelines call for sitemap simplicity, making a good one doesn't require a lot of work, and it will help some of your users. More importantly, it will help users at a critical time: When they are lost and might abandon your site if they don't get that last piece of assistance to find their way around or find just what they have been looking for.

Sitemaps are best developed at the outset of a project but they can be created and utilized at any time. Creating, testing and refining one should help to ensure:

  • Pages and blocks of information your website should contain are identified.
  • Pages and functions are aligned to your user's priorities.
  • All content has been categorized appropriately.
  • Your website is easy to navigate.
  • Redundant or duplicate content is removed.
  • All project stakeholders understand how a website and the information it contains will be structured.
  • The sign-off process on navigation menus, labels and site-wide terminology is not hampered or compromised by internal politics.

Taking the above into consideration it's obvious that sitemaps are the best way to make sure that a website is not only user-friendly, but search focused as well. Without that, how would a website perform up to par or even exceed its own initial standards and its competitors? After all, you want search engines to be able to navigate your website more easily because they will be able to index your content better—boosting your credibility and search engine ranking.

A website's credibility is imperative to its success. Almost all but the biggest companies (i.e. Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, etc.) have an uphill credibility battle ahead of them every time a new visitor lands on their website. In a recent article, BJ Fogg (the world's leading researcher on web credibility) said that website credibility is all about making your website in such a way that comes across as trustworthy and knowledgeable. There's no denying the fact that your website is often the first point of contact for customers—customers who are responsible for first impressions and of course, revenue.

Hence the importance of sitemaps as they will help to ensure your website is jammed packed with the best up-to-date information and solid, good links. But that's only the beginning.

Let's get back to credibility for a moment. According to Fogg, there are four main types of credibility:

  • Presumed credibility—general assumptions (i.e. a brand we've heard of is more credible, unknown brand-less).
  • Reputed credibility—third party reference (i.e. your husband said it was good or your friends say the website and/or service is awful).
  • Surface credibility—what we find on simple inspection (i.e. the website looks high quality or "this seems confusing").
  • Earned credibility—personal experience (i.e. friendly customer service or text full of typos and factual errors).

By considering the above, surface credibility and earned credibility are usually the top ways a website can become credible. While it's true that many website owners have spent hundreds of hours going through their website to ensure that their website is high quality, delivering the best content, high-quality links and keywords, we are only human. Unfortunately, we make mistakes and we miss errors. A sitemap generator tool, on the other hand, will swiftly move through your site, helping to ensure that it is error-free and in the end, user and search friendly.

If you have yet to create a sitemap for your website, it's highly recommended that you create one. After doing so you will also have the ability to perform a content inventory and audit of your website, one that will ensure that all of your content is relevant and up to date—another key to the success of your website. If you'd like to learn more about sitemaps and how you can create one relatively easily, stop by DYNO Mapper and check out their 14-day free trial. Their free trial offers complete access to their sitemap generator tool as well as their content inventory and audit features.

Author: Super User

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