April 17, 2007

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.


Anonymous said...

a couple of those links are broken .. the file extension should be .php not .html; you might want to fix that.
sorry to reveal this in a comment, but i couldn't find any contact info for you. pls delete this comment.
i did enjoy the article.

Lyle said...

Thanks...looks like sitemaps.org decided to change URLs on me.

Paul Doncaster said...

Your analysis is incredibly incomplete, in that it does not take into account the special- needs user. In many cases, these text-only representations of site structure may be the only way for certain user types to navigate with any degree of confidence -- for example, those who rely on screen readers, or those who have trouble with sites containing high levels of rich media (navigation in Flash, etc.) Site maps may indeed be fairly useless for "normal" people, who have good vision and/or a reasonable degree of computer literacy, but their presence on web sites seems to me to be a very small price to pay to ensure that the content is accessible to as many people as possible.

Jermayn said...

Yeah totally agree with your comments, I also hate having to update them when they have included every page

Nebraska Web Design said...

There are very valid uses for site maps, but we all know the primary reason site maps are used is for SEO purposes. Dynamic pages can be linked since they probably aren't linked off the home page. Some sites get carried away with site maps and have hundreds if not thousands of pages referenced on the site map. This is clearly not in the best interest of the user and the only purpose is for search engine spidering.

Anonymous said...

I was at a seminar recently that suggested that for people working in "corporate silos," fiddling with the site map is a way to test different ways of organizing content. I thought this was an interesting take.

www.boylen.com.au said...

The results you get from testing of users varies between cultural and socio-economic groups ... not to mention age demographics. This applies to web site design and also functionality. A one-size-fits-all approach not only does not work any more, it is becoming more and more irrelevant as the market fragments.

TCreatives said...

So True, Nice post by the way Keep it up!!