Information architecture vs sitemap what’s the difference?

Information architecture vs sitemap what’s the difference?
Sean LeSuer
Apr 05, 20228 min read

Right off the bat, you should know that information architecture, or IA for short, and sitemaps are both crucial for your website’s success. To answer the big question you may have, though — no, they aren’t the same. We’re going to discuss why that’s the case (and why not), and we’ll go over how they overlap. In this article, we’ll go over some common questions and some concepts you may not have thought to ask.

What is the difference between sitemap and information architecture?

The difference between information architecture and a sitemap is quite simple. A sitemap is a list of the actual pages and their URLs within a website. It’s the structure of the website’s pages and literally a map of how to get around, and it tells search engines what they need to know to navigate your site. Information architecture is the structure of the content within that website or family of sites and how users will interact with it. This isn’t something your customers will see like they can with a visual or HTML sitemap. It’s something they’ll experience but should never actually know they are. More on what users will see a bit later in this article.

Information architecture online store example

Online store checkout process (information architecture) example

Information architecture vs sitemap comparison chart

Sometimes referred to as site architecture vs sitemap, here’s a breakdown of how they stack up and some of the finer points that we’ll be digging into:

Comparison Information Architecture Sitemap
Who is this for? This is for the benefit of your users. This is mainly for search engines but indirectly benefits your users. More on this below.
Is this related to my content? This is absolutely content-related. IA is for the end-user. Sitemaps are created based on what the pages contain. So yes and no.
Can users see it? IA is experienced rather than seen. There’s a highly likely chance your users will never see your sitemap unless they’re looking for it.
What is each important for? User experience Search engine optimization
Should I focus on one first? Starting with a once-over on IA is a best practice before creating a layout of the site as a whole. Focus on IA to set the groundwork before considering site structure.
Who usually does this job? An information architect who may be your UX designer as well. Typically sitemaps are done by the person creating the IA and/or UX but can easily be created by anyone.
Do I really need this? 100% yes. 100% yes.

Sitemap vs information architecture: an in-depth look

Who is this for?

Information architecture and sitemaps are both, in the end, for the benefit of your site’s users. They’re just used in different ways. Remember, a sitemap is just a list of the URLs in your site that typically live in an XML file. Google and other search engines crawl that file to understand exactly what you offer and recommend it if it fits the search query best. A copy of that sitemap in HTML form may be linked at the bottom of most web pages on your site for people to view.

HTML sitemap example

IA is more directly beneficial to your end-users because your information architect takes the content and arranges it in a way that makes it easiest for people to consume. They create an experience, if you will, that takes into consideration user flows, user needs, interaction design, and more.

With that being said, you may see some similarities and some crossover, and you would be correct. Visual sitemaps, for example, graphically show a website’s navigation and how that website’s content is arranged on different pages.

Is this related to my content?

IA is absolutely content-related. The information architect takes all of the content, does a content audit to know what’s there, and uses many tools to determine the best way to arrange it to provide the best experience. One that’s directed at the target audience but is still usable and relevant to the masses.

Sitemaps are indirectly related to the content within a site. During the design process, the content that makes up those pages is considered when arranging website structure

Can users see it?

Users can’t see IA like they can see a photo. IA should never really be noticed. Not if it’s any good anyway. It’s about usability and the user experience. If the IA is done well, people won’t know it’s happening. If it’s terrible, they will. They just likely won’t know it’s called IA. They’ll just call it a crappy website.

Sitemaps in the way that search engines see them, as an XML sitemap, will likely never be seen by users because they usually aren’t published to the front-end of websites. If it’s published for viewing, it’ll be an HTML or visual sitemap. These are far easier to read for people but aren’t a high-traffic item. It never hurts to publish it to the front-end, though; just make sure to keep it up to date.

Which is more important?

As you’ve read along, you may have picked up on the relevance of both of these. They’re significant for different reasons, but they serve the same purpose. Results. More people showing up that are happy with your product. It doesn’t matter if this is e-commerce, an iOS mobile app or even a portfolio of your photography work. They both help with SEO (where relevant), and your web design should include them in the process.

Should I focus on one first?

This is a bit tricky, but ideally, you should look at IA first before attempting to make a sitemap. You can’t know how to map out the site structure if you don’t know anything about the potential content and content structure. Once you have an idea of the content inventory and the direction things need to be going — even if it’s with templates, you’ll have a better idea of how to build a sitemap. Which then leads you back to IA. In a sense, this is kind of like when your teacher used to tell you to read over the entire test before beginning, and then you’d find that they said only answer the odd questions. This avoids any surprises in your design process. But you’ve got to start somewhere. Lay down a homepage and get the ball rolling.

Who usually does this job?

An information architect will be doing the IA work. But here’s where things start to run together. Depending on how the work is assigned and even the size of the company that’s doing the work, the information architect may also be the one making the sitemap. Additionally, the architect may also even be the UX designer.

Do I really need this?

The short answer is yes. If you want to create a successful website or app, then you really need to be doing both IA and site mapping.

IA is necessary because you need people to enjoy using your product! Time isn’t just money to your business; time is money to everyone. People have stuff to do, and the faster they can do or get what they came for, the happier they are. IA helps that along and makes it easier for people to part with their money. If people can navigate and find things without issue, then you’ve won the IA game. In fact, everybody wins.

Sitemapping is necessary because it can help bring people to your product or website. Why wouldn’t you want Google or other search engines to know what your site contains, and wouldn’t you want it to be recommended?

Luckily, sitemaps are typically automated, at least the kind that search engines care about. Your CMS creates it as you go along when things are added or removed. The system then sends the info to relevant places. They can also be done manually or with a sitemap creator and submitted manually. So do you really need these things? If you care about functionality and achieving your business goals, then yes, 100%.

You’ll also want to go a step further and dive into user flow vs sitemap differences to enhance the user experience even more.

Our conclusion on the difference between information architecture and sitemaps

Information architecture and sitemaps, while they do have some overlap, just flat out are not the same. You may find that it’s easiest if they’re both done by the same person, with the help of or input from a team.

On the other hand, it can just as easily be done by multiple people as long as they can work together effectively. There are more tools than any one person could ever need for success. The big takeaway is the importance of both of these tasks, how they’re similar, how they’re not, and where they have overlap. It pays off to use your resources, and there’s no reason to skip over using tools like these to find success

Sean LeSuer
Written by Sean LeSuer

Sean is a Slickplan customer support specialist, social media manager, newly minted blogger and part-time trouble-maker at Slickplan. He enjoys all things Apple, loud music and anything electronic. He also likes Piña coladas and getting caught in the rain.