If you had to guess what the most under-appreciated part of a website was what would you say?

If your answer was “the sitemap”, then you deserve a pat on the back – and maybe a place on our team.

A website’s sitemap, or page structure, is commonly overlooked, hardly ever planned out and continues to get ignored when it comes to website and content development.

For these reasons we are going to help you understand why a good website sitemap is so important, how to plan one out and the best ways to implement an effective one for your website.

Sitemap Tips

Wait, What’s a Sitemap Again?

The best way to understand a sitemap is to think of it like a tree.

The trunk of the tree is the base, which has branches extending from it. These branches sometimes have leaves growing from them and sometimes also have other branches extending off of them. Your website’s sitemap is just like this.

The tree trunk is like your homepage.

The few large branches that extend from the trunk are your top level pages (e.g. Company).

The mini-branches represent your second level pages (e.g. Company > Team).

And the leaves that sprout off of some of the branches make up specific pages that fall under that level’s theme (e.g. Company > Team > About John Smith).

Who Cares About the Sitemap?

We certainly do. Your visitors absolutely do (although they may not know it). And you most definitely should too.

Your sitemap is an integral part of your website for many different reasons. Unfortunately it doesn’t get treated as such as it requires some actual research, planning and execution. It kills us every time we come across a website that was built without an initial sitemap. This tends to be the case more often than not.

You wouldn’t build a house without blueprints so why would you build a website without a sitemap? It’s strategically the same thing.

Back to the original question about who really cares about the sitemap…

Reason #1
Without really knowing it, website visitors are controlled by the website’s sitemap. That’s right…something as simple as a sitemap can make visitors do what you want them to do, go where you want them to go and click on what you want them to click on.

Reason #2
Not only does your sitemap control visitor flow, but it also helps search engines to crawl and index your website as accurately as possible. A clear, well-planned sitemap leads to more efficient crawling and more accurately displayed search results for your website.

Reason #3
Even if you have a small website (in terms of number of pages), if you start with a well-planned sitemap, then you’re going to make it very easy for you, or your marketing team / agency, to build out and grow your website’s content. This saves time if you ever need to move your website, rebuild your website, add / remove pages or even to find new ideas for additional content.


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What does your website’s sitemap look like?

Can you decipher whether or not your sitemap is flat or has a clean, organized hierarchy? If you’re not sure, then let us know in the COMMENTS BELOW.


Your Guide to a Structurally Solid Sitemap

Sitemap Tree Example

Creating and implementing a smart sitemap is not rocket science. It really just requires a little bit of research, planning, common sense and some foresight.

We’re quite certain that once you go through our planning and implementation steps below that you’ll find the process to be quite simple and very enlightening for your business.

How to Plan a Sitemap

If you’re ready to build a new website, then your first step, even before getting a quote or starting design, is to map out the page structure of your new site.

Sitemap Planning Questions

You need to start by answering some very important questions …

  1. What does the buyer persona of your ideal customer look like (e.g. demographics, characteristics, likes, dislikes, habits)?
  2. What is the primary objective of your website (e.g. generate leads, build brand awareness, sell products)?
  3. What is the unique selling proposition of your website versus your competitors (e.g. experience, inventory, prices)?
  4. What information do you consider to be your strongest (e.g. product info, company history, local information)?
  5. What information do you consider to be your weakest?
  6. What changes to your business are you looking to make in the coming months and years (e.g. grow the team, consolidate services, add locations)?

If you can’t answer these 6 questions, then you’re not ready to dump time and money into a new website for your business.

If you decide to proceed anyways, then there’s a very good chance that you’ll end up spending more time and money rebuilding and/or optimizing the site in the future.

Sitemap Tips and Planning Steps

Once you’ve answered the 6 questions above you can then start mapping out a smart page structure for your website.

Navigation Menu Example (Apple)

Step 1: Plan out your primary, top level pages

Your top level pages are typically going to be the ones that make up your site’s main navigation menu – the one that will be present throughout every single page of your website.

TIP:
Keep your main navigation as simple as possible. The more options you add the more distractions you’re providing for your visitors. Remember what your site’s primary objective is and use your top level pages to push your visitors to that point.

 

Step 2: Add your secondary pages (or dropdowns)

With your primary pages established it should be relatively easy to start adding your secondary, nested pages. These pages typically work best as more detailed, specific versions of their parent pages.

TIP:
Stick to your most necessary secondary pages if your menu is going to use dropdown menus. Too many dropdowns can become frustrating to use and distracting for visitors.

 

Step 3: Leave room for content expansion

If you’ve planned out the first two levels of your page structure correctly, then this should leave plenty of room to add more, relevant pages to your site in the future.

TIP:
Tertiary page / options usually don’t work very well in drop down menus. Having to navigate drop downs with more than 2 levels does not make for a good user experience. Instead of adding them to a dropdown link to these pages from 1st and 2nd level pages instead.

BONUS OFFER

Starter Sitemap Template

To make it even easier for you to start with a smart sitemap we have created a SITEMAP STARTER TEMPLATE and we want to give it to you for FREE. All you have to do is request the template here. Once you receive it from us go ahead and complete it to the best of your ability.

And if you have any questions or get stuck, then feel free to contact us or leave your question in the COMMENTS BELOW.


Sitemap Implementation Steps

Although it’s a fantastic step, completing the planning of your sitemap is only half of the equation.

Proper implementation of your sitemap is essential to its success. Here are some steps to stay on track…

Mega Drop down menu example (Best Buy)

Step 1: Establish a URL Structure

A commonly overlooked element of on-page SEO is the site’s URL structure. It’s important that URLs remain consistent througout the site (e.g. keeping all words in the URL lowercase), use an optimal naming convention (e.g. matching the title of each page) and maintain a clear hierarchy (e.g. Company > About > Our Team = /company/about/our-team/).

TIP
Keeping stop words (e.g. a, the, to, of) out of the URL is a common best practice although we have not experienced any issues using them in the URL. We’ve also found it effective to make the URL the same thing as the title of the page (e.g. About this Company = /about-this-company/).

 

Step 2: Code the Menus

The majority of websites we work with are WordPress based. Since we work with WordPress so much we come across many different ways that people have coded navigation menus into WordPress. In our opinion, there’s really only one optimal way to code these in – use the native menu function and don’t hard code them. This typically applies to other content management systems as well.

TIP
Please, please, please, remember to update menu links to use the live absolute URLs or the relative versions instead of leaving the staging URLs as the menu links. If your site still has staging URLs on it after launch, then fire your developer immediately.

 

Step 3: Use Alternative Navigation Menus (Top, Footer, Sidebar)

Sometimes you want to create and manage menus other than your main navigation. For example, perhaps you want to have some SHOP specific links in your site’s footer or maybe you need a quick navigation menu for visitors to jump back to a certain section’s pages. WordPress makes this very easy as long as you follow STEP 1 above.

TIP
If someone is building your WordPress website for you, then make sure to request and check that they have built your menus correctly so that you can easily manage them yourself through the WordPress admin panel as needed (APPEARANCE > MENUS). You don’t need to pay someone to add, change or remove a menu on a WordPress site if they’re coded properly.

 

Step 4: Stick with User-Friendly Drop downs

Have you ever used one of those websites that has 3–4 levels of drop down menus requiring perfect placement of your cursor to avoid losing the drop down?

We see these all the time and continue to cringe on each of them. Please don’t use these on your site.

Instead, stick with 1-2 levels of dropdown menus and leave everything else as an internal link within the content of parent and child pages.

TIP:
Consider using mega drop down menus if you have found that certain links or content elements perform best from your navigation. These have become more common on eCommerce sites as they act as mini-sitemaps for heavy sections that need quick, easy navigation.

 


Sitemap Optimization Steps

Although it’s ideal to build a sitemap from a blank slate not everyone has that luxury. Fortunately there are ways to rebuild and optimize an existing sitemap.

Sitemap Optimization (Google Webmaster Tools)

Step 1: Take Inventory

The most important first step is to take inventory of your website’s existing sitemap and all of its indexed pages. You should never make changes to your sitemap or URLs without doing this first.

TIP
Before you remove or redirect any pages it’s vital that you review your website’s analytics to get a clear understanding of (1) which pages your visitors interact and engage with the most / least and (2) how visitors navigate your website and jump from page to page.

 

Step 2: Map It Out

Your next step is to map out your new sitemap, which is hopefully simplified per our tips above.

Once you have your original sitemap and your new sitemap logged, then (and only then) can you put them side by side to figure out what existing pages are changing or being removed and what new pages are being added and where they will be going. This step is essential for whomever is going to be handling the necessary 301 redirects to mitigate the loss of any established SEO value.

TIP
Try to limit the amount of redirects that your new sitemap is going to need. More importantly, try to avoid “chaining” redirects (e.g. Page 1 redirects to Page 2 which redirects to Page 3). Possible SEO issues aside, a cleaner sitemap will make for an easier migration and future sitemap management.

 

Step 3: Go Slow

If you’re going to spend the time and resources to properly optimize your sitemap, then don’t leave it as a last minute task that may get rushed due to others’ priorities.

Instead (if possible), do the optimization and migration in phases, especially if you have a very large site with a good amount of established SEO value.

TIP
Use Google Webmaster Tools, Google Analytics and your server logs to monitor affects on traffic as you gradually optimize and implement your new sitemap with its included redirects. For more information on this process check out Google’s documentation on moving a site.

 

RECOMMENDATION: If you have a site with established SEO value (rankings, organic traffic, links), then it is highly recommended that you consult an SEO professional before making any changes to your sitemap. Improper migration, consolidation or optimization work can tank a website very quickly. We see this happen a lot when businesses switch website providers to get a new website. Don’t let this happen to you.


A Little [Sitemap] Structure Never Hurt Anyone

Simple Sitemap Example

Talking about sitemaps is not exciting or sexy.

The reality though is that it’s one of the most important things to discuss before a website is ever built or optimized.

So, you’ve got some work to do now. With the knowledge, steps and tips available throughout this post you should have no problem perfecting your next sitemap.

And, of course, if you get stuck, then we’re here to help. For a more efficient consultation, be sure to have your answers to the 6 questions asked in the section above.

Need help planning, implementing or optimizing your sitemap?

SCHEDULE A CONSULTATION

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Vinny La Barbera

I’ve been working in online marketing since 2000 and have helped thousands of companies improve their online presence and grow their business through better web / mobile design, development and online marketing.Learn more about me or follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or LinkedIn.