(October 10, 2017 - Updated May 2, 2019)
You’ve decided to update your website. Congratulations!
Right now, you’re probably daydreaming about your new homepage and accent colors. You’re probably not thinking about how to develop a sitemap. But you should be.
An effective or ineffective sitemap can make or break a website, regardless of your design.
Developing a Website Sitemap: The Basics
What is a sitemap? A map that visually represents a site’s pages with a consistent taxonomy. Like the blueprints of a house, the sitemap is the guiding document for your website. It represents the various areas of content on your site and how they relate to one another.
(Do not confuse this with an XML sitemap, a file that lists the pages on your website. Search engines crawl the XML file to better understand your content. Most content management systems automatically create an XML sitemap.)
Your sitemap should reflect the way visitors think about your content or groups of content, such as product families. It should use the same words, terms and language your visitors use.
The sitemap should also incorporate your users’ search intent. If you sell items online, for example, your sitemap should be developed with transactional intent in mind, and with the transactional pages front and center.
On the other hand, if your users are likely to land on your site as part of an informational query, ensure these types of pages are front and center. Also consider the pages and user flow necessary for your conversion strategy, if you also sell products or solutions.
Most sitemaps have a parent/child, drill-down structure ideal for websites that are both broad and deep. The downside: Such maps can become lopsided if many items nest under one heading but only a few nest under others.
A simple graphical representation of a parent/child relationship sitemap:
You do have options other than parent/child. Learn more about the types of sitemaps in our information architecture blog.
Regardless of which sitemap option you choose, be sure to tie each page back to data points while highlighting the types of content that make the most sense based on that data.
In the example below, our recommendations focus on what types of content to include under the Products section of the client’s sitemap.
We also recommended content the client could use to develop a message that would resonate with the target audience while incorporating target keywords and audience preferences.
Drawing a few boxes and sticking words on them might seem easy. Developing an effective sitemap is hard, and more complex than you might expect. Why? Because an effective sitemap is based on data, and data must be collected and analyzed.
Use Your Current Data
As you develop your website sitemap, leverage your current site’s analytics. Do important pages on your site lack traffic? Consider elevating them to the top menu on your updated site. As you evaluate the data, compare your traffic over multiple periods, to account for spikes related to product launches, email marketing campaigns and such.
As you develop your sitemap, leverage your current analytics. Do important pages lack traffic? Consider elevating them to the top menu on your updated site. As you evaluate the data, compare your traffic over multiple periods, to account for spikes related to product launches, email marketing campaigns and such.
Don’t neglect pages that do get traffic, especially those that drive leads today. Account for them on your map and maintain their prominence.
Another great data point to consider: The Google Analytics Behavior Flow report. This visual report shows you how users move through your site, where they drop off, and how the drop-off rate compares among key pages. (Bonus tip: If you can create custom segments that align with your target personas, the behavior flow report becomes especially powerful. Through it, you can account for your personas and user flow as you create your sitemap. More on personas and user flows later.)
Keyword and Query Data
The language of internal shop talk can be continents apart from the search terms users type as they seek your products, goods and services. If you label key web pages and menu items with office slang, you could mislead users. Keyword data and search pattern insights can help with this. Don’t guess. Use a keyword tool -- Google Keyword Planner, SEM Rush, keyword.io, et al. -- to shed light on users’ search terms. Applying these terms in your labeling and menu structure ensures that your sitemap will resonate with your audience. It also might boost SEO.
Review your site’s query data and internal organic performance data within Google Search Console. This will highlight the terms users enter into search engines to land on your site.
Internal Site Search
You do have an internal search on your website, right? Are you tracking your visitors’ internal search terms? If not, you’re missing out on a wealth of data.
Analysis of internal search patterns tells you, literally, what your visitors want. Respond to those explicit wants by creating pages (or sections of your site) aligned with the internal search terms your visitors already use.
You can use Google Analytics to track internal site search data, but it will not track historical data. If you’re on Titan CMS, we’ve been collecting internal search data since your site launched. Learn how to access it.
As visual representations of click patterns, heatmaps shed light (literally) on users’ interests, as expressed in click and scroll patterns. (Bonus tip: If you use HotJar, our favorite heatmap tool, you can generate videos of visitors’ moves through your site, which also provide lots of insights.) Heatmap data can also reveal user confusion. Identify the points of confusion and address them on your new sitemap.
Personas and User Flow
Align your sitemap with your personas. Consider the unique needs of each persona and the ideal user flow for each as a given persona moves through your site. Content should align with every persona on your site. You should have an idea of how each persona will move from a landing page to your home page to a product detail page before reaching out to your customer service department.
Although site maps don’t extend an opportunity to create a true prototype experience for your target audiences to click through, you can use them to develop a sample user flow:
The best way to validate the user experience outlined by our site map? Ask your target audiences if the user flows you outlined make sense. Or compare your targeted user flow with the behavior flow report in Google Analytics. Does this seem like a reasonable pattern? Have you accounted for any key page drop-offs? If not, it might be time to go back to square one.
Realistic Content Goals: Clients too often bite off more than they can chew when they embark on a website redesign, especially during the sitemap phase. It’s too easy, when pages are simply boxes on a page, to create countless new pages or sections. Be realistic, especially if you’re working against the clock.
Don’t add sections to your site (and sitemap) if you can’t support them with robust, worthwhile content. This is especially true if you’re considering an information-driven resource section (say, a blog) that needs fresh content to stay relevant.
Sitemap Tools You Can Use
After you’ve decided what pages to include in the sitemap, create a visual representation of your thoughts so you can review it with key stakeholders.
Many tools stand ready to help you develop a sample visual sitemap. I like Visio, InDesign and even PowerPoint, but many free, online tools are available, including GlooMaps and WriteMaps.
Redesign, Redirects and Your Sitemaps
So, back to your website redesign.
Once you’ve developed and started to execute a robust, effective sitemap, be sure to put the appropriate redirects in place, so that pages on your old sitemap redirect to pages on your new sitemap.
As you set up these redirects, use server-side 301 redirects. They guarantee that users and search engines are directed to the correct, updated page on your new site. For example, a visitor has bookmarked the webpage www.yoursite.com/Blogs/best-blog-ever.html in his or her browser, and you update that page to www.yoursite.com/Blogs/bestest-blog-ever.html on your new sitemap. A 301 redirect ensures that the old bookmark will continue to work.
Google has some great tips on 301 redirects, if you need help getting started.
You should also submit any new XML sitemaps to Google through Google Search Console. (Submit XML sitemaps to Bing through Bing Webmaster Tools.) This will ensure your new site is effectively crawled, so your new content can start appearing on SERPs ASAP. (Learn more about how to submit a sitemap to Google from our technical SEO checklist.)
Once you’ve done all that, it’s time to daydream about a nice shade of blue for those sitemap boxes.