Oct 16 2008

Why You Need a Site Map

It may not be the prettiest page of your website, but it’s an essential one. Considered the directory of your online store, a text-based site map provides both users and search engines with a structured list of all of the sub-pages contained within the main domain of your site, along with links to each page.

Benefits of a site map

There’s a reason more than 63% of eCommerce websites include a site map. When incorporated correctly, it can provide online businesses with an array of revenue-boosting advantages:

• Increases the visibility of all pages of your website (for users and search engines) by presenting them in one cohesive location, with pages organized into logical categories
• Provides a straightforward alternative to more design-centric navigation structures, helping to ensure that customers find the product, service, or information they’re seeking
• Allows you the opportunity to embed targeted search keywords and phrases within each page link, helping to boost your site’s organic search rankings for those terms
• Promotes accessibility for users with disabilities, allowing them to access all links of your site without the barriers of images or script-driven pages
• Makes it easier for search engines to follow all of your site’s links, ensuring that all inner pages of your website are spidered
• Facilitates the monitoring and correcting of broken links

How do I get one?

Ideally, you and your web designer should include a comprehensive site map in your pre-launch plans. But if you’ve already got a website up and running and you need to append a site map, there are many different software packages on the market that can dynamically create a site map using your existing domain and sub-pages. In addition, some HTML editing programs include a built-in feature that automatically generates a site map for you.

If you just need a basic, no-frills map, you might want to try one of the free generators, such as Linkno, which have limited functionality but ultimately get the job done. If you need alternative templates or DHTML versions, you may need to shell out a few bucks for a paid system, such as SmartDraw or XTREEME.

Of course, if you’ve already got a detailed list of pages organized by category and you possess some basic HTML skills, you may be able to create your own site map. You don’t need any advanced design skills—just the ability to create text links and insert the appropriate meta content.

Tips for an effective site map

• Present all links in text format. It may not be the sexiest presentation, but it satisfies search engines’ voracious appetites for text, text, and more text.
• Position a link to your site map on the home page, as well as on other main pages of the site. Most sites place the link somewhere in the footer area (as Overstock does) or the top left or right corner, where it can be easily found without distracting from the site’s design. Be sure the link is placed in the same location and format on all pages. If a user is already lost, he or she will become even more frustrated if they have to hunt for the map, too.
• Don’t try to give it a fancy or cutesy name. Per industry standard, the link should be titled simply “Site Map,” making it easy for customers to locate the directory.
• Keep in mind that your site map should function as a supplement to your main navigation, not as a substitute for it. A majority of your visitors will access your pages via the more prominent links on the home, category, and subcategory pages.
• Feel free to include a brief descriptor beneath each link on your site map to give customers an idea of what they’ll find when they click on it. A short overview at the top of the page can also help increase relevancy for users who have directly accessed the site map from a search engine or some other context.
• Be sure your web designer adds code that changes the color of site map links as they are clicked on. This will make it much easier for customers to determine which pages they’ve already visited.
• Consider creating two site map versions, one tailored to human visitors and another for search engines. For people visiting your site, you can use a traditional HTML page to present the list of links. For search engines, an XML document can be used to communicate relevant information, such as the date of the last change made and the relative importance of each page.
• Consider including multiple versions of site maps targeted to specific target markets.
• Choose an organization style. Some companies, such as Amazon and Lands End, opt to sort links by category. Others arrange pages alphabetically. No matter what sorting style you choose, be sure the links are presented in a clear, intuitive manner.
• On your site map page, include strategic keywords within the title tags and other meta content sections.
• Limit scrolling whenever possible. Try to contain all links to one screen, so users can view a cohesive snapshot of the site in one glance.
• Although the site map should be text-based, that doesn’t mean you have to overlook your business’ branding strategy when designing it. There’s no reason you can’t incorporate your company’s logo and color scheme. The logo should always link back to your home page.
• Keep it current. A site map is virtually useless if it doesn’t reflect the most up-to-date listing of active pages. Monitor yours regularly and make any necessary updates.

Above all, a site map is intended to promote the visibility, search presence, and user-friendliness of your site. When planned and executed correctly, it can go a long way toward enhancing your customers’ shopping experience and increasing your flow of qualified search engine traffic.

Blue Acorn

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