Sticking up for the humble site map

Paul Boag

I was working on a site map yesterday and realised how little thought I give them. They tend to be an after thought in the design process. Vowing to repent of this half-assed attitude, I set out to learn all I could about this under appreciated site tool.

Why site maps are cool

Perhaps it is a sad reflection on the state of my life but I have come to consider the humble site map quite cool. I used to add them to a site mainly because they were required if the site was to be Priority 2 compliant. However, I was to discover they have many hidden benefits:

  • Site maps are a lifeline if users are lost or frustrated with a site. Users often turn to them as a last resort. This means they are a great opportunity to save a visitor who would otherwise be lost to your competition.
  • Site maps can often be more successful than a homepage at directing a user to the content they require.
  • Search engines love them because they give quick access to the most important sections of the site.
  • Users who require a speech browser find them incredibly useful too as they can skip directly to the content they require without navigating through the sites hierarchy.

How to build a great site map

So, what did I learn about how to make a decent site map? Well there are a few simple tips you can follow to guarantee success:

Don’t be shy

Do not hide your site map away. According to testing carried out by Jakob Nielsen 85% of users were unaware that sites they visited regularly had a site map. Avoid this by not hiding your site map down in your footer and by clearly naming it "site map"

Keep it clean

Make sure your site map is clean and simple. Do not over design it or make it a navigational challenge in its own right

Don’t try and be clever

Do not use JavaScript to make your map expand and contract like windows explorer. This undermines the whole idea of a site map which is that you can see an overview of the whole site in one go.

Show where they have been

Use link colours to show users which pages in the site map they have already visited.

Show where they are

If you can use server side coding to show the user where they were in the sites information architecture before they entered the site map. This is the same principle as using a "you are here" marker on a map.

Don’t go overboard

If you have, a large site do not show every page on the whole site. A site map should not be more than a couple of screens in depth. More than this overwhelms the user.

What have I missed?

So there you have it, my guide to the perfect site map. If you have any additional ideas of how the humble site map can be improved please let me know.