1. Remember a sitemap has a dual purpose
At Coast Digital we’ve always advocated the use of website sitemaps. As a sitemap.html/.xml file has historically been the best way to inform search engine robots of all – or at least, the most important – web pages on a site.
Placing a sitemap link in the footer of pages is simply good practice search engine marketing, but it’s also worth remembering a sitemap can function as a powerful user navigation tool too.
In the same way that as users we expect to find a homepage link at the top-left of a web page (or linked from a company’s logo), and an ‘about us’ link in the top navigation bar towards the right-hand side, we may also reasonably expect to find a sitemap link in the footer.
We don’t write the rules though, and as Jakob Neilson helpfully points out in his book ‘Homepage Usability’, your website will almost certainly not be the first a user has visited. In fact chances are they’ll have visited thousands before they arrive at your site.
Over time web users inevitably build up preconceptions. So it’s worth remembering that the less a user has to think about your layout the more time they can spend accessing your information and products. Why distract them with a convention-breaking design when all you are going to do is provoke frustration?
2. Remember to display a link to your sitemap
When optimising a website for search engines it can be easy to lose sight of your objectives. Sure, it’s great to get a good position in the search engine results pages (SERPs), but the ultimate goal is for users to easily find the most relevant pages on your site.
Sitemaps are often hidden or put ‘behind’ a website because they generally appear as a series of categorised links, and the visual value isn’t immediately apparent. In fact sitemap layouts often don’t reveal a hierarchy of importance.
If certain pages are more important than others or contain account or profile details requiring frequent access, then developing a visually appealing sitemap or even a mini-sitemap to signpost on every page is a good solution.
3. Use sitemaps and mini-sitemaps to assist navigation
You’d be amazed at the usage website footers get in terms of navigation. There are reports of 65-70% of a website’s total navigation being via sitemap footers.
If you think about it, it makes sense; header navigation is often used to promote products. Instead mini-sitemap footers such as the examples below – from Apple.com, LinkedIn.com and Waterscape.com – help new and existing web visitors quickly identify the important parts of a website.
- In the case of Apple, the user is shown a link to important Apple products, accessories and software.
- For LinkedIn, important service elements such as how to find an individual’s profile, or set-up/manage an account are given emphasis.
- In the Waterscape example, the sitemap footer is used to promote specific regions and activities.
4. Think about the added benefits of a mini-sitemap
More and more websites – especially blogs – are using streamlined or mini-sitemaps in their footers. Personally, I think they provide some solid benefits:
- By incorporating only relevant links, mini-sitemaps provide a great user experience.
- A mini-sitemap quickly enables new users. It makes clear what a website does and the content it contains.
- A mini-sitemap acts as a quick-link navigation tool for existing users.
- Links on every page inform search engines about which pages – in the opinion of the website owner – are the most important.
- A footer sitemap will help the webmaster to quickly add more links to a page.
- The links in a sitemap can contain helpful anchor text describing the linked pages, which will further assist with SEO.