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Give Visitors A Map

by Larisa Thomason

Everyone needs a map sometime. A useful map shows your current location in relation to where you've been and where you need to go. As websites grow larger and more complex, it's no surprise that both humans and search engine spiders tend to get lost. Help them out by providing a site map.

Site Maps Have Many Benefits

We can break out the benefits of a site map into three major categories: usability, accessibility, and promotion.

  1. Usability: Believe it or not, some people will get lost no matter how carefully you design your site navigation system or how explicitly you label it.

    Visitors looking for one particular thing get irritated if they can't find it quickly. Don't rely on their patience: how long do you stay at a site that isn't giving you what you need? A site map - like a site-specific search function -gives frustrated visitors an alternative to leaving your site entirely.

  2. Accessibility: Screen readers, Web page readers, and other assistive technologies often have problems following links in image maps or in DHTML scripts.

    While accessible navigation always includes text links on every page that mimic an image or script-driven navigation system, sometimes it's just not possible to include a link to every page especially if the site is very large. A site map full of text-only links helps visitors with disabilities find the information they need.

  3. Search Engine Promotion: Search engine spiders often don't care for script-driven navigation either. If they can't follow the link, they can't index the page. Spiders like to feast on text, lots of text, and have lots of text links to follow.

A site map is full of all the things a spider loves: text and keywords combined with hyperlink text with keywords relevant to the link. A good site map helps get your website fully indexed by search engines and it can help increase your page's relevancy in search engine results.

NetMechanic's Search Engine Power Pack contains several tools to help you optimize the rest of the pages in your site. Use it to select your keywords, create effective META tags, and optimize your page content to appeal to individual search engine algorithms.

Creating A Site Map

Ok, so now you're convinced. You need a site map, but how to get it?

Ideally, you should consider the need for a site map as you're designing your website. When you lay out the pages and directory relationships on paper during the initial design process, you're also creating a rough site map sketch.

But it's always easiest to solve a problem before it's a problem! What if you have a large site now that badly needs a good site map?

In that case, you may have an easier time working with a software program that automatically generates a site map.

If yours doesn't, there are a lot of software applications that will generate site maps for you. The free ones offer limited functionality. Paid versions give you lots of choices for layout, DHTML effects, etc.

  • Linkno: free site map generator
  • XTREEME: Create static or DHTML site maps.
  • SmartDraw: Choose from various layouts, special effects, etc.

Before you spend a lot of time and money though, look carefully at your site's directory structure first. If you've carefully structured your directory for easy maintenance, then you're well on your way to a working site map. All you need to do is put the site directory in HTML format.

A site directory doesn't have to be fancy, it just need to be clear and easy to use.

What Makes An Effective Site Map?

Unfortunately, according to Jakob Neilsen's January 2002 Alertbox column titled Site Map Usability, a good site map is easier to describe than it is to create.

Getting visitors to use one is even more difficult. Neilsen found that only 27% of users in his study turned to a site map when they had trouble on the site.

Why? Probably because they weren't expecting to find one: less than half of websites offer them and those that do often bury site maps deep inside their sites. Make the link to your site map obvious and place it on every page in your site.

If it isn't obvious and clearly labeled as a site map, visitors won't use it. As Neilsen dryly notes:

"Users won't search out the site map on their own. Forcing them to navigate to a navigation aid when they are lost adds insult to injury. Thus, we strongly recommend having a clear link to the site map on every page. Call the link Site Map. This label worked well in our study, and is the one used by 63% of sites with site maps."

Other characteristics of a good site map:

  • It's linked to every page with a prominent link description that clearly indicates that it's a map of the site. You may even want to add it to your main navigation system.

  • It should display several levels of the site, organized as basic text links. A dynamic site map that expands and contracts in response to use actions defeats the purpose.

  • It should use standard link colors to show visitors the links they've already visited.

  • It should give a quick overview of the entire site without requiring any horizontal scrolling and very little vertical scrolling.

Creating a useful and effective site map is mostly an exercise in common sense, but it can be incredibly useful in many ways. It takes just a little effort to increase the usability and accessibility of your site for both spiders and human visitors.

Larisa Thomason is Senior Web Analyst at NetMechanic, Inc.

 

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Monday, 18 Dec 2017 07:43 AM

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