Are Sitemaps a Thing of the Past?

The goal of many Web professionals is to produce high quality work that makes the most of their medium. Products are designed to be both aesthetically pleasing as well as elegantly useful. There are many tools and techniques that can be used to make using any website that much easier to use. One thing I don’t find myself running across very often any more are sitemaps. Have sitemaps become a thing of the past?

The original purpose of sitemaps

When I mention sitemaps, I’m speaking of a document that outlines the entire structure of a website in an effort to help readers find what it is they’re looking for quickly and efficiently. While the term sitemap could refer to a wide variety of documents (such as flow charts or other graphical documentation), I mean to describe your typical sitemap available to any reader of your website.

Thinking back to years past, sitemap links were far more common than they are today in my experience. It was said that many readers relied on sitemaps to find the information they sought as quickly as possible using the myriad of links provided to them on a single page. It was also said that sitemaps can prove to be very useful when it comes to getting your site indexed by search engines if you were using, say, Flash or JavaScript for your site navigation. Time has told, however, that it is more appropriate to offer useful alternative content when working with Flash or JavaScript.

Where sitemaps fall short

The intentions behind creating a sitemap were good, but like many ideas on the Web, sitemaps weren’t used to their full potential. They usually evolved to be outdated, unorganized, confusing documents for readers to use. Many times they were included as an afterthought which was apparent in their shortcomings. Sitemaps came to be nothing more than a glorified (and usually inaccurate) reproduction of the site navigation, which simply isn’t necessary. The redundancy in navigation would prove only to further confuse readers of the website.

Trouble with sitemaps can trail back for quite some time, mostly as a result of poor implementation. Jakob Nielsen wrote an Alertbox piece on the subject when he discussed Site Map Usability in which he wrote:

Most site maps fail to convey multiple levels of the site’s information architecture. In usability tests, users often overlook site maps or can’t find them. Complexity is also a problem: a map should be a map, not a navigational challenge of its own.

While many people have issues with what Nielsen writes, he brings up very good points. Although this particular piece is quite old and dated, there is still relevant information that applies to today’s Web.

Do readers prefer to search?

The abundance of information provided on websites today can make a sitemap appear daunting at first glance. A page with hundreds of links won’t help your readers much. Many large scale websites prefer to rely on search capabilities as opposed to a sitemap. Good search functionality allows readers to generate a targeted listing of resources with topics consisting of keywords they choose. In my opinion, a resource such as that would be much more useful than a sitemap should I be looking for something in particular. I’m much more likely to give search a try than try to find a link in a sitemap (if there is one). A plaguing problem here is a sub-par search, which can be the most frustrating user experience of any.

Do site maps force you to question your navigation?

Many times, a sitemap will be a reproduction of the site navigation itself. There are other times, however, where the sitemap is completely different. It is within those circumstances that your site navigation itself should be re-examined. The purpose of a sitemap is not to help readers make sense of your jumbled site navigation. The intent is to help them find what they’re looking for. Unfortunately, this can also lead to show the redundancy of sitemaps. If your site navigation is put together well, a sitemap including the same exact information proves to be of no more worth than the navigation itself.

Where sitemaps shine

A sitemap feature could prove to be exponentially useful to any readers using assistive technology. Having a text-based outline of an entire website can be very beneficial, under the assumption that other markup was present to help the reader determine the structure of the sitemap. A well constructed sitemap could end up being a very large asset to a website when put together well.

Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), many websites are put together poorly. Navigation is seriously lacking and search results are completely cryptic. I find myself resorting to sitemaps on various large scale corporate websites that haven’t had professional attention in quite some time. Using a combination of a sitemap and Find in a Web browser is sometimes my best bet when dealing with a horrible user experience.

Sitemaps behind the scenes

A new trend has been gathering steam for some time: XML based sitemaps based on the Sitemap Protocol. These XML based sitemaps can be [easily] generated by websites employing one of the many CMS options available and can prove to be a nice addition. It’s also fairly easy to put them together by hand, although time consuming. What’s nice about the XML sitemap initiative is that many search engines have come on board in support of the protocol, allowing you to both submit your XML sitemap as well as put its URL on record in an effort to have your new content indexed ASAP.

Personally, I like the way the Sitemap Protocol is heading, and I think it will continue to be a useful tool. Having the ability to update your sitemap as well as submit the changes to search engines behind the scenes of working with your CMS seems like a good idea to me. Currently I’m using the Google Sitemap Generator WordPress plugin to automatically generate an XML sitemap and submit it to various resources each time I make changes around here. I’ve been very pleased with it thus far, and thanks to a 9rules note, I’ve upgraded to the most recent beta release which adds a few features. If you’re able, I’d suggest checking it out. While it doesn’t produce a sitemap for use on the front end, it’s a nice way to automate things behind the scenes.

All in all, I’m a fan of sitemaps

Personally, I don’t see any problem with choosing to include a sitemap on your website. As with anything, an honest look must be taken at the circumstance to determine whether or not a sitemap is truly needed. If a sitemap doesn’t do much more than duplicate the site navigation, perhaps you’re better off without it. Should the site truly benefit from a sitemap, it would be great to see them used to their fullest potential. That is to say that more is offered than a link. Groups of links can be separated by headings describing various areas of the website. Descriptions can be provided with the links to give that extra bit of detail your reader may be looking for. There are lots of other things that would be quite useful in a sitemap beyond a reproduction of your navigation.

What else do you think would be useful to provide within a sitemap?