Sitemaps are Stupid
(Guides are good)
I've thought that sitemaps are a Bad Idea for about 10 years now. Ten year later I finally got around to writing a blog post about why I think they are stupid. Here are a few things to consider:
1. A sitemap is usually just a replication of the existing site navigation. A sitemap (aka "site map") takes all the main navigation items, and maybe a second level of navigation items, and plops them onto a page called "sitemap". So a sitemap usually just replicates the sites existing navigation structure -- this doesn't help anybody.
2. A site should work without a sitemap. Between a site's main navigation and search options, most users needs should be fulfilled. If a site's navigation doesn't work for users, the ability to see all the unhelpful navigation items on one page probably isn't going to help much.
3. Heavy use of a sitemap is a sign of deeper problems. If a site's main navigation works well for users, no-one will click on the sitemap link.
One of the few times sitemaps help is when the main navigation labels don't represent the user's terminology. So, for example, if a user doesn't understand what is meant by "solutions", and they go to a sitemap page that shows the list of sub-topics under solutions, that might help them. So a sitemap can help if a site's structure, labels, or interaction design are getting in the way (i.e., they aren't very usable for those users). See point #3 above.
In my experience watching users during usability tests, I've observed a few patterns:
- Users don't look for sitemaps because not all sites have them.
- Users don't click on (or look for) sitemaps if the site's navigation and/or search satisfy their needs.
- Users who end up looking for or clicking on a sitemap link are rarely helped, often saying something like "that's just the same stuff I was looking at on the home page".
So, sitemaps are a type of page that usually have no value to site users*. Page types that seem similar to sitemaps, but that tend to have more value are indices, tables of content, and guides.
Other than the polar bear book, you don't hear much discussion of guides, so I thought I'd point to some examples.
Here are some examples of guides:
- CNet TV Buying Guide
- About.com - Taking Photographs
- Fool.com Insurance Center
- Mayo Clinic: Women's Health
- Fidelity: Retirement Planning
- Lowes: Doors & Windows
* Note sitemaps.org points out one valuable use of sitemaps for non-humans: search engine crawlers. They promote the idea of an XML sitemap that crawlers are pointed to from the ever-popular robots.txt file.