Building a good site map can be challenging (for clarity’s sake, I need to point out that we are not talking about the Site Maps protocol here, but an on site, site map). But I find that there is a lot of confusion out there about what makes a good one. People are locked down on the notion that they need to have one page on their site that has links to every other page on their site. There is also confusion on when one is needed – not all sites need one.
Let’s start with the objective: Minimize the number of clicks from your home page to your content. That’s it. Many sites have simple enough architectures, and really clean navigation systems so that adding a site map does not reduce the number of clicks to your content. If that’s the case with your site, then you don’t need to waste your time building a site map.
However, other sites are more complex in their very nature. You may have a site that has content that takes 4 or more clicks to reach through your standard navigation. If this is the case, you may be a candidate for a site map file.
With all the “design for users, not search engines” discussion going on, I do have to note that a site map file is an example of where you actually do want to design something for the search engine. You can think of it as spider food. Done properly, it has never proved to be a problem in our experience.
There are pitfalls – I have seen tons of site maps with many hundreds, or even thousands of links on them. Not going to fly! You still want to limit the number of links on the page to 200 or less (other people say its 100 – your mileage may vary)
The way to deal with this is to divide your site map into multiple files, on a topical basis. So if you have a site selling thousands of different kinds of “widgets”, you might end up with multiple site map files:
- Widgets by color
- Widgets by size
- Widgets by location
- Widgets by manufacturer
This gives you a site maps files that are topically relevant, and potentially valuable search tools for use by your user.
These types of site maps files work. It was a major element of our Videomaker Site Redesign that resulted in 60+% traffic gain in the first 3 months, and traffic appears to have more than doubled since then. Cool stuff, and it’s cheap and easy to do for most sites.