The name says it all–a sitemap is a map of a website.
However, it’s not entirely straightforward. In fact, the term “sitemap” can represent different things to different people.
In design, sitemaps are organized flow chart diagrams that help to better visualize how pages, content, and webpage trees are connected. Acting as a 2D representation of a website, they allow developers and designers to plan and communicate more effectively, providing instant access to a bird’s-eye view of the project in its entirety.
For a marketer, business owner or founder, though, the word sitemap may have different implications. For them, a sitemap more often refers to the file that lists URLs for a site to clearly show search engines the organization of content on a site. Not only does it inform search engines about URLs on the site, but also provides additional metadata about each URL–when it was last updated, how often it usually changes, and how important it is. This type of information helps search engines more intelligently “crawl” a site.
No matter whether you’re building a website from scratch or improving your current site, though, a sitemap is essential. Let’s dive deeper into sitemaps to figure out why you need to use them, no matter your position or company stage.
What is a sitemap?
What a sitemap is depends on who you ask.
For a designer, it is a planning tool–in most cases, they’d be referring to a design and UX sitemap. This tool showcases a list of website pages that are accessible to users, meaning it is essentially a diagram that represents the structure of a website. Pages are represented by labeled blocks that are linked together, and these blocks and connections show the hierarchy of a website.
A visual sitemap generally begins with a site’s homepage and then clearly illustrates how other pages link to it. Once all connections are made, you’re left with a visual map that shows all parent-child relationships.
Your sitemap will also display intended movement, showcasing how users may navigate a site. For example, a site’s “services page” may be broken down into three child pages, detailing the various services provided.
Here are some visual examples of design sitemaps. The first is essentially a 2D drawing that represent a website’s basic structure:
While this example also highlights the intended user flow:
Once laid out, it’s easier to build a website based on a practical navigation flow–one that makes sense not only for the end-user but also for search engines. These maps make it easy to see how each page relates to a website’s hierarchy and design with user flow in mind.
For a marketer or founder who already has a website built, however, a sitemap more commonly refers to the HTML or XML code that acts as a roadmap for Google. These HTML formatted sitemaps and XML sitemaps are used mainly for human interaction/increased understanding and search engines. HTML helps users better understand the structure of a site, while XML is created for bots.
XML sitemaps, the most common type, help search engines find and index pages quicker than they may have otherwise. However, the following kinds of sitemaps also exist:
International sitemap: Necessary if you have separate websites for different languages or countries, as it will help search engines display the correct version based on the user’s language or location
Subdomain sitemap: Each subdomain should have its own sitemap, just as it has its own Google Search Console property
Video sitemap: Videos are great tools for user engagement (just look at TikTok’s success), and a video sitemap helps videos to get crawled so that users can more easily discover them–providing search engines with the title, description, play page URL, thumbnail URL, the raw video URL, and more
Image sitemap: An image sitemap gives Google more information about the images such as the raw image file, URL of the image, title, geographic location of the image, etc–all of which increases the chance of your image being shown in search results
Now that we’ve covered what a sitemap is, it’s time to move on to the real question: why do you need one?
Why do you need a sitemap?
A visual sitemap is one of the most effective methods when aiming to plan and communicate around a website’s structure. This approach provides designers and developers with the big picture in terms of an entire website project, or marketers and search engines the organization of existing content. A well-thought-out sitemap is a visual, accurate overview of the entire site.
Here are just some of the ways in which sitemaps benefit developers and designers–which in turn benefits the end-user, as they will have a more seamless, positive experience.
When designing a website, a visual sitemap allows you to adopt best practices in terms of creating website structures early on. This preplanning step will provide you with greater insight, and represent an essential step in terms of organizing content for optimal SEO and user navigation.
By designing a sitemap, you are essentially clarifying your site’s purpose and goals. Understanding exactly what you want from your site will allow you to map it out easier and create a much more user-friendly site. This proactive approach will also allow you to save a significant amount of time, energy, money, and resources in the long-run.
Quick understanding and insight
A good sitemap illustrates the big picture instantly. When viewing a visual sitemap, you are not required to do a lot of clicking or reading in order to understand–you will quickly know which pages and types of content are needed to complete a site. What you see is what you get, which can help in terms of planning and overall productivity.
These insights will then translate across the entire team, allowing everyone to communicate more effectively–once again, enhancing user experience in the end.
Ability to test the user experience
Before coding begins, sitemaps offer a quick and easy way to test a user’s experience. Designers can then test a variety of structure scenarios, allowing them to visualize user flow and interaction from a high level. This will help you not only create a more optimal experience but also reduce your risk of duplicating content–which is both a waste of resources and a potential SEO issue.
The importance of a sitemap does not diminish once you have a website up and running, though. Instead, the benefits simply evolve:
Scaling and flexibility
Combining sitemaps and a CMS (content management system) allows for an enhanced understanding of flow. When new pages are needed (as they will be, whether sooner or later), they can be easily added to existing navigation.
Having an up-to-date sitemap and CMS will save you from needing to do site redesigns. Instead, the website can grow naturally over time.
Search engine optimization
In this day and age, SEO is more important than ever before. Creating an XML sitemap based on the visual sitemap allows search engines to “crawl” through a site, indexing the available pages. Using a sitemap to get your website indexed is even more important if:
You have a large site
There are few external links pointing to your site
Your site, or any part of it, is new
Part of your site is isolated or not linked well internally
Your site contains rich media such as images or video
Search engines such as Google then know the location of a page, as well as key pieces of information, including page importance, frequency of updates, and how pages are linked to other websites.
A good sitemap will improve your SEO–the lack of one, on the other hand, can lead to search engines reading pages on a site as duplicates, which will lower SEO ranking.
If you need to check your sitemap’s effectiveness at any point, Google’s Sitemaps Report is a great tool. And an additional pro tip? There are plugins available, such as Yoast for WordPress, that will help you automatically produce XML sitemaps for websites.
Whether you’re concerned about SEO, would like to ensure that the structure of your website is well-planned, or you want to work more smoothly with developers, sitemaps are your golden ticket. Have questions? Reach out to our team!
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Krista graduated from the University of Guelph where she studied psychology and neuroscience. Still active in her research, she now focuses on all aspects of health — both mental and physical. Based on her strong research skills, she is confident in a wide range of topics. Her specialties are health, nutrition, neuroscience, and business. She also owns a small business, which is most certainly her creative outlet!