Have you ever stopped to think about why we say we “build” websites?
Traditionally, when we think of building something, we have very physical connotations. A hammer, some nails and a little glue, and a bit of wood can become a birdhouse by the process of building.
On a larger scale, the process of building a home involved gathering what the home’s residents will want, creating blueprints and mockups, then getting to the physical acts of laying the foundation and building from there.
Building a website works the same way: gathering information, creating a sitemap, designing, then developing from a foundation up.
For any website, we create a sitemap to act as the website’s blueprint.
A sitemap has three main purposes:
- Organize and clarify a website’s content.
- Make sure all necessary information has a home.
- Eliminate unnecessary content.
It’s often displayed visually in a hierarchical chart.
You may also hear the term sitemap used in another context. It can also refer to an SEO tool that collects and displays pages hierarchically for a search engine to crawl. For our purposes here, we’ll refer to a sitemap as the initial content planning tool, sometimes called content architecture.
In this article, we’ll go over everything you need to know about how we think about, talk about, and create a sitemap.
- Parent/child: for anything but a very basic website, pages will be organized in a hierarchy. The top-level page is called a parent, while the one below it is called its child.
- Grandchild: in more complex websites, there may be a third level to the content hierarchy. A page underneath a child is called a grandchild.
- Ancestor: in more complex websites (typically four or more levels), the top level page is often referred to as an ancestor for clarity.
- Masthead: a bar sometimes used above the header to provide extra navigation to important content.
Who Should Create the Sitemap?
If you’re working with an agency, you’ll likely have four main categories of people you’ll work with:
- A project manager (sometimes called account executive)
- A content lead (along with a content team)
- The design team
- The development team
The sitemap is under the domain of both content and user experience. The content lead will usually take primary responsibility for creating the sitemap, with input from the lead designer on the project.
Of course, the client has the final say. Your agency will walk you through the sitemap, understanding that you have the most knowledge of the subject matter (your business).
How to Create a Sitemap
Map Out Existing Content
Before creating a new sitemap, it may be helpful to map out the existing content structure.
At PHOS, we use a powerful tool called Slickplan where we map out content, notate important features, plan what content lives on a page, and more (but we’ll get to all that later).
We will always begin by mapping out the organization of the old website. This helps us get an idea of what content exists, which can then be matched with analytics data to decipher how users are navigating the old site – and where the content structure is failing them.
Here’s what we typically find:
Lack of Clear Planning
Many businesses simply have never put any thought into how users navigate their website. A semi-common symptom of a failure to plan is having a ton of links in the navigation with no content architecture at all.
An Overgrown Sitemap
As businesses grow, websites tend to grow. That’s a good thing! But even with good up-front planning, a website’s navigation can quickly get out of hand.
Often, different departments each want to add pages for different subcategories of content that they think merit their own home. That, and everybody wants to be on the homepage.
The result is the shell of a once beautifully-planned structure that’s been bogged down by more and more content placed in the wrong spots by people with entirely good intentions.
Case in point: for one recent website we launched, the client came to use with stories about how each department had free reign over the website. Over the years it grew into a disorganized array of poorly-thought-out content that became almost impossible to navigate.
When they came to us, the website had over 1000 pages. After the entire sitemap process, we were able to determine just 300 pages that were the right content to be on the site, in a clearly organized and easy-to-navigate content architecture.
Do you know about the hidden pages on your site?
Yes, really. There may be pages you didn’t even know about on your website (the same pages from the situation above) – or pages you know about, but didn’t know were hidden.
We’ll sometimes find that not every page is easy to find. Either it’s not linked in the navigation, or it’s only linked to by one obscure link on a particular page, or it’s not linked at all.
The solution is to rely on more than just the navigation. When we’re mapping out existing content, we use the main navigation, but we also look at each page for links, and crawl the website to find any hard-to-reach pages.
User Personas and Goals
The next step is always to define and record user personas, their goals on the website, and the client’s goals for each user persona.
Human enjoyment optimization is a mindset shift in SEO. The future of marketing involves a shift in how companies, marketers, and content writers plan, structure, and create content.
Note: although this is arguably more important than the simple-ish act of mapping out existing content, it’s my preference to get that out of the way first to help define a user persona’s goals. If a certain page sees a comparatively large amount of traffic, it’s important to note that users expect to be able to easily access that content.
For each user, along with their goals, decide on the specific content that’s important to them. Ask yourself:
- Why are they visiting the website?
- When they see a basic description of the company, what do they want to know next?
- What questions do they have about the company, its products/services, or its industry?
- How does the user need to engage with the company (purchasing, contacting, reading, attending, subscribing, requesting, etc.)
Remember: It doesn’t matter how much the content organization makes sense to our team or to yours. What matters is how much it makes sense to the user.
Begin the New Sitemap
Finally, about 1000 words later, we’re ready to begin the new sitemap.
This may mean beginning by reorganizing the existing content, or starting from scratch if necessary.
Before getting into too much detail, it’s important save the new sitemap as a new version in Slickplan.
Note: throughout the process, making liberal use of version control is a good idea. When deciding to go a different direction on a part or the whole sitemap, save a new version. When the agency team or the client gives feedback and suggestions, save a new version. This helps recall past versions if needed for reference, and helps explore different angles.
Parents and Children
Begin with the top-level parents. Reference the user goals, important content, and the existing content to group information into easy-to-follow categories. Then, plan out content that fits into each category.
Avoid Duplicate Content
Duplicate content comes in two forms: first, if content from one page is very similar to another without important distinguishing factors, combine the pages.
Second, one page in may be in multiple spots on the sitemap. It’s sometimes ok to have one page under multiple parents, especially in a complex website. This may be necessary if users expect to find the content under both parents.
When this is the case, make sure you have the right parents (are the content categories distinct enough?) and notate that they are the same page somehow. In Slickplan, an easy way to do this is by changing the color so the duplicates match each other.
The First Child
Here’s an interesting question: why are the first child of a parent the same as the parent in some sites?
On some sites, you may want users to be able to click on a top-level page in the menu, but not want them to see a dropdown and go to a page and miss important content from that top-level page.
This is more common in small to medium-sized websites, generally with less than eight pages under any given parent.
This is mix of strategy and preference. If you want users to dive into specific content, the top-level items in the menu may not be pages at all, but categories for pages underneath them.
Masthead and Footer
Use the masthead space to add pages (or external links) that are particularly important. These will typically be more action-based, potentially even direct calls to action. If the website requires a search function, this is typically a natural place to include it.
The footer varies widely. It may include important forms of engagement such as a link to the contact page or a list of resources. It may also mirror content from the masthead or links to the parent pages.
Note: while footers also have some content within them, such as an address or phone number, it’s not necessary to include these in the sitemap. Those are important user experience elements, but not part of the content organization.
Notation is one of the most important ways to increase efficiency and collaboration between the content planning stage or a website and design and development stages. Notate pages that will have special design considerations or functionality. Some examples include:
- Pages with an image gallery
- Pages centered around a form
- Portfolio pages
- Team pages
- Calendar page
- Videos pages
- Interactive pages
The more specific a sitemap is, the easier it will be to communicate with designers and developers how a specific page or set of pages is supposed to look or function.
Plan Basic Content
With the basic sitemap in hand, use comments on your sitemap tool (built into Slickplan) to plan out content. This may be as simple as a few bullets that explain the topics on the page. This will help create content that’s aligned with the strategic content architecture.
Feedback and Suggestions
Get feedback and suggestions from the team! Particularly involve the lead designer. Include other team members who are important to the project as well. Incorporate suggestions as needed in a new version.
With the created, finalized, and approved sitemap, you have your blueprints for your websites! Now it’s time to design the house, lay the foundation, and start building.