What is a sitemap for a website? (& what they do for design & SEO)
Aside from showcasing what you do masterfully, the overarching goal of your website is for it to be human-centric. What does that mean? In short it's creating a user-friendly and easily navigable experience for your visitors. Something infinitely consumable.
As they'd say on Jeopardy, “what is a sitemap?”
Site mapping isn't just about navigation and design however; to define the sitemap is to unleash the ranking potential of your site by making it far more easily accessible to search engine crawlers and helping you remove roadblocks to SEO success like dreaded duplicate content.
What does a sitemap do?
A sitemap gives you the 30,000-foot view of your website.
- It's the outline.
- The floorplan.
- The roadmap.
- The blueprint.
You get it.
Creating one in the form of organized lists or flow chart diagrams, clearly and cleanly shows you the connections between web pages, web page trees and website content.
Therefore, a visual sitemap is a very effective method for both planning and communicating ideas about a website's structure. As a 2D representation of a website, sitemaps allow designers and developers to efficiently plan and collaborate on website projects by offering a bird's-eye view of the entire project in one place.
We'll go into the details of how it all works below but utilizing a dedicated sitemap creator goes a long way in simplifying the process.
What are the different types of sitemaps?
As you now know, a sitemap is a dynamic tool that needs to be understood by multiple parties – human and, um, not – to yield the greatest benefit in planning.
To that end, there are different sitemaps that serve different purposes.
A 2D image or drawing representing the structure of a website. Pages are represented as blocks and cells linked together in a hierarchical organizational chart. Visual sitemaps are often created with a computer by manually drawing and linking each block or they're reverse engineered by crawling an existing website.
HTML formatted sitemaps are generally used for human interaction and understanding of page content locations within a website. HTML sitemaps should be included as a page on a website as a navigation aid in addition to the menu, they're commonly found linked in the footer. Moreover, search engine spiders are big fans of seeing HTML sitemaps alongside their XML cousins because it shows your commitment to a user-centric site.
An XML formatted list of pages readable by search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo. Submitting XML sitemaps to search engines allows for better and more comprehensive website indexing. Important because if your pages aren't being indexed by Googlebot and the like, it means they won't come up in search results.
XML Media Sitemap
Essentially an extension of an XML sitemap, XML media sitemaps allow for better indexation of non-HTML content such as images, video, PDFs, audio files, etc.
RSS Feed (Rich Site Summary)
An XML formatted feed that can be used easily to distribute and read timely website and blog content. These are typically files on a server that are auto-updated when new content is published to a website.
Slightly different from an RSS feed, a news sitemap is a specialized XML based sitemap used by search engines to aggregate fresh newsworthy content. These sitemaps include additional metadata about news content, sources, etc.
What’s a sitemap look like?
The physical structure of a sitemap will of course vary depending on its intended use.
Just like you'd want your final site to be fit for human consumption, sitemaps for project planning are visual 2D displays or images that are meant to be quickly and easily understood.
Webpages are represented as blocks or cells connected by lines that represent an internal link or path that the user would take.
It's an incredibly intuitive way for a person to get the big picture.
Sitemaps optimized for robot consumption aka web crawlers or search engine bots will typically take the form of an XML sitemap file; a structured list of information enclosed in standardized tags forming an outline of key and value pairs. Sounds complex, but it ain't that bad.
XML sitemaps may also contain additional information about individual pages and content that can be easily interpreted by computers that quickly read it from top to bottom.
What are sitemaps useful for?
Clearly there are quite a few types of sitemaps out there, but what is a sitemap on a website actually good for? To get a better understanding, it's helpful to look at specific use cases for each.
Excellent for establishing user journeys, internal and external links and sharpening the overall user experience.
Good as an additional navigational tool for visitors as it's quite literally a page that shows all the pages on your site.
Search Engine Sitemap
Required for getting your website properly indexed and optimized for search.
XML Media Sitemap
Great for websites that are heavy with rich media content.
Fantastic for websites that are constantly creating new content like news outlets or an active blog.
Good if you're publishing content that you want to appear in Google News results.
Why website sitemap planning is important
If a clunky, confusing website that doesn't come up when people search for it is what you're after, skip the sitemap.
If, however, you believe in your brand, take pride in the work you do and want people to know it, a sitemap is a key to success on the web.
A major benefit to planning websites using visual sitemaps is that it forces your designer to adopt best practices in creating website structures. Pre-planning in this way is a critical way to ensure that proper steps are taken to organize content for optimal search engine indexing and user navigation. Sitemaps are important for sites of all sizes but are particularly vital for planning large websites.
Additionally you'll find that sitemaps help facilitate:
Insight and communication
Since they don't require much clicking or reading of long, tedious strings of computer code to get the full picture, visual sitemaps are the best conduit for generating deep insights amongst your team. Website plans and strategies can then be more effectively communicated to developers, team members and clients — resulting in greater end-user satisfaction, more efficient development with less mistakes and more accuracy and usability in the final product.
Scaling and flexibility
Using sitemaps to plan websites in conjunction with a modern CMS like WordPress allows for greater flexibility as well as future scaling. New pages can be easily added to existing navigational structures rather than the frequent, common and painful full-site redesigns of yesteryear. Properly organizing a website's page structure allows for websites to grow organically over time.
Planning websites using sitemaps helps drive innovation and brings the ability to rapidly test new ideas. In the earlier days of website planning, designers would frequently piggy-back off other sites which meant that design structures had little variation because it was just quicker and safer to copy (yikes). Planning websites with sitemaps allows the designer to test out a variety of website structure scenarios before coding actually begins. This creates the opportunity to visualize and optimize user flow and interaction in advance.
A brief history of sitemap web design
Oddly enough, building sitemaps as a planning strategy for websites is a relatively new concept that came about in the mid 2000’s. As web designers shifted to a content-first philosophy, the need to pre-plan became much more pronounced.
Prior to this time, most websites were planned and designed as graphical mockups, page by page, based solely on business requirements. Website project plans consisted of image files representing what each page looked like with additional documentation stored in text files.
Typically navigation structure was an afterthought and was simply a way to link together all of a website’s pages. It was more utilitarian than anything else.
So what is a sitemap in web design then? What’s changed?
With the shift to a content-first strategy, the user became the primary focus of website design planning and the internet is better for it.
Content is now broken into categories and organized to provide the user with peak relevancy and accessibility; intuitive hierarchical organization has become the goal and really the norm nowadays. This strategy naturally requires the considerable pre-planning of a website's page structures but doing it well is something that's become richly rewarded by search engines.
Designers and developers in effect borrowed tactics from software developers and created the specialized flowcharts we now call sitemaps. Sitemaps have evolved from these rudimentary hand-drawn flowcharts to fully interactive visual diagrams.
By 2012, site mapping as a process was widely adopted by the web design and development industry.
Taking it into the future, moving the site mapping process to the cloud as we have at Slickplan has allowed us to offer a richer feature set as well as easier collaborative workflows.
The pre-sitemap era
While sites were still planned and designed (worth a Google), the sitemap itself was a byproduct at the end of the build.
The internet gets its sh*t together
Google introduces Sitemap Protocol 0.84 in 2005 (now 0.90) formally defining sitemap attributes and allowing developers to publish lists of crawlable URLs.
2009 – Slickplan beta released
The first drag and drop sitemap builder ever created as a web application
The rise of content-first planning
Sleek, gimmicky websites aren’t enough, users demand quality content above all else – design and planning follow suit.
2011 – Slickplan version one officially released
A clean interface and features that allow developers to finally work with tools built specifically for website planning.
2015 – Slickplan adds content gathering and diagram tools
Hearing the content-first call, Slickplan makes it easier to incorporate content into site planning and adds more sophisticated diagramming functionality.
Mobile takes over
With over 50% of web traffic coming from mobile, it’s become imperative to plan for mobile.
2021 – Slickplan version two released
Even more highly refined tools purpose-built for site planning, improved access for your whole team to simplify collaboration and straightforward integration with your favorite apps/software to streamline workflow.
Do you need a sitemap on your website?
Listen, having a blueprint is imperative for building a house, a sitemap is the equivalent for your website and without one you're basically building blind.
From design to SEO, the sitemap plays a massive role through the entire evolution of your site. It's something you'll constantly refer to in the development stages to stay on track and once you're up and running, you'll update and submit your XML sitemaps to stay relevant in search.
Whether you use our free sitemap generator or go for a 14-day trial of the whole Slickplan suite, a sitemap truly allows you to get the most out of your design and development team en route to crafting a site that's a joy to visit and ranks well; saving time and money in the process.
Frequently asked questions
What is a sitemap URL?A sitemap URL is the domain at which you'll be able to find the xml version of your sitemap. There are quite a few ways to locate it but in most cases you'll be able to track it down in common locations like: yoursite.com/sitemap.xml or /sitemap_index.xml.
How do I find my sitemap URL?
Once your sitemap has been submitted, finding the URL is a piece of cake. Between checking common locations, utilizing tools offered by popular search engines, adding plugins to your CMS or using advanced search operators, you have plenty of ways to find the URL for your sitemap.
Here are the specifics on how to get it done:
Check the common locations in which the ordinarily live, trying punching in these in after your domain:
- /sitemap.xml (this is where ours is, for example)
- Use a tool like Google Search Console or Bing Webmaster Tools if you've have them setup
- Pop into your CMS, which will generally generate a sitemap for you. If yours doesn't, add the Yoast SEO plugin to help find yours
- Look at the Robots.txt file, it might have your sitemap location labeled. Ours is https://slickplan.com/robots.txt
- Utilize advanced search operators on Google to find submitted sitemaps. Try something like site:nameofwebsite.com filetype:xml
- Check the common locations in which the ordinarily live, trying punching in these in after your domain:
What is sitemap submission & how does it work?According to Google, a bit of an authority on search, "'submitting' a sitemap means telling Google where to find it on your site." That's it, that's all. You can do it via Google Search Console by going over to the "Sitemaps" under "Index" in the menu on the left.
Get some helpful information on designing sitemaps with Slickplan including features, strategies, tips, tools and more.