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Sitemaps and User Experience: Enhancing Navigation and Usability

Learn how sitemaps can improve the user experience of your website by enhancing navigation and usability.

Website design is crucial if you want to compete against big-box retailers and other small businesses. But unfortunately, many small business owners don't realize all the work that goes into building and marketing a website that converts visitors into paying customers.

Your website consists of many key elements that enhance your marketing efforts and the overall user experience of your website. One such element is a sitemap. There are many types of sitemaps, but their main purpose is to help search engines crawl your website and rank pages effectively.

Once you have your XML sitemap, you can use Google Search Console to submit the sitemap index file and help bots crawl your website so search engines can effectively rank your website pages. Most website designers have heard of XML sitemaps, but other sitemaps impact your site's overall user experience, called user experience sitemaps and HTML sitemaps.

So what is a sitemap, and how can it enhance your marketing efforts? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about sitemaps and how they enhance navigation and usability while supporting other marketing initiatives.

What Is a Sitemap?

Sitemaps are files that list the pages on your website to help search engines determine which pages to index. Having a sitemap is crucial for marketing initiatives like search engine optimization (SEO) because it helps web crawlers find website pages faster and more efficiently than on their own.

Your sitemap serves as a blueprint that ensures your pages are indexed and tells search engines like Google which pages you deem most important.

Sitemaps aren't just for Google, though. They can help users navigate your website easily, acting as a map that helps them find relevant information and pages they're looking for.

Each website should have two types of sitemaps: HTML and XML. Both have unique purposes. For instance, XML sitemaps are for search engines; they help crawlers navigate your website and index certain pages. You can submit your XML sitemap in Google Search Console's sitemap index to ensure the proper pages are crawled.

On the other hand, HTML sitemaps are for users and improve navigation and website usability because they include every page on the website to keep the content organized. An HTML is readable by users, while XML sitemaps aren't. Instead, HTML sitemaps give website users clickable links on a website to organize content.

HTML sitemaps are often found on the website footer to provide navigation help to users looking for particular pages. Graphic designers use the principles of design to determine the right location for your sitemap to ensure it improves user experience and doesn't distract from the most important information on the page.

Another type of sitemap primarily used by website designers is a user experience sitemap. These are similar to wireframes, but instead, simply list and organize the content to create a hierarchy of information. Before you build a website, you can use wireframe tools to create user experience sitemaps to ensure your content is properly organized. These sitemaps are a low-fi, high-level view of your website and which pages will connect to one another. Designers and developers use these sitemaps and wireframes; they're not something search engines or website visitors will ever use.

Types of sitemaps

Apart from user experience sitemaps used by designers, there are four main sitemaps used by search engines and website visitors:

XML sitemaps

As we touched on, XML sitemaps are used by search engines, not users. They're written in a specific format for search engine crawlers. You can submit your XML to the sitemap index and tell search engines all the pages on your site. In addition, the XML file provides information about the site structure to help bots determine which pages are most important.

Additionally, sitemaps may contain information about when a page was last updated to help bots determine whether they need to crawl or recrawl it.

Creating an XML sitemap helps search engine bots properly index your website content so that search engine users can find it online when they search for any number of queries and keywords.

HTML sitemaps

HTML sitemaps are for users only; search engines don't need them and can't read them. HTML sitemaps differ from visual user experience sitemaps because they're used by the end-user rather than for planning purposes. Instead, users use these sitemaps for navigation purposes by providing links to pages within the website and descriptions of those pages if necessary.

HTML sitemaps are written in hypertext markup language (HTML) and act as a website's directory, allowing users to easily find what they're looking for by clicking on links in your website footer or a dedicated page on your website.

These types of sitemaps don't have an influence on search engines, so they won't help you rank higher in search results or ensure bots crawl your website. Yet, they directly influence your users and can enhance the overall user experience.

Image sitemaps

Image sitemaps are another type of XML sitemap that gives search engines like Google metadata or information about the images on your website. If you want search engine users to enter a query and see your website images in image search results, you'll need to submit an image sitemap.

Using Google image extensions in your sitemaps gives the search engine more information about the images you use on your site to make them more discoverable and crawlable.

Video sitemaps

Video XML sitemaps work the same way as image sitemaps; they provide additional information about the videos on your website to make them easier for bots to find and index. Creating a video sitemap can help search engines find and understand the content in your videos.

Without this type of sitemap, you run the risk of search engines being unable to find your video content with their usual crawling processes. However, when you submit a video sitemap, you tell them where to look and how to find your content.

You might wonder whether you should use XML or HTML sitemaps to improve the user experience and crawlability of your website. As mentioned, HTML sitemaps are for navigation purposes and directly influence the user experience. However, XML sitemaps are never seen by the user, but both are necessary for your marketing efforts. Let's take a look at a few of the benefits of using sitemaps.

Improved crawlability by search engines

Search engines use links to find web pages. If you have a large website, you probably have a large sitemap. If you want search engines to be able to find and crawl your site pages, submitting a sitemap to Google Search Console can help.

XML sitemaps also come in handy if your website is new because it tells search engines that they should crawl and index your website pages. Since search engines find new pages through links, if your website doesn't have any yet, having an XML sitemap can help alert search engines that you have new pages on your site they should crawl.

Better user experience

HTML sitemaps can provide a better user experience by helping visitors navigate your website. Better navigation means better accessibility, which may help improve your visibility in search results.

Additionally, creating a user experience sitemap before you begin building your website can help you properly plan the information architecture (IA) of the site. When you organize your website content before designing your website, you can start to determine which pages are most important, giving you a structure you'll need to create each individual page.

So how does a visual or user experience sitemap improve user experience? Ultimately, it can help you see how visitors will use your website. Are you providing them with the right information hierarchy to improve navigation and overall usability? Or is your content confusing to follow, and users won't be able to find what they're looking for?

While user experience sitemaps are for internal planning processes only and won't be seen by your end user, they're an essential part of the planning process to ensure your website's usability and accessibility.

Increased website traffic

XML and HTML sitemaps can increase your website traffic. With an XML sitemap, you tell search engines where to look for new or updated content they can crawl, index, and rank on search results. With an HTML sitemap, you can make it easier for search engines to categorize and crawl your content, understanding which pages are the most important.

Sitemaps won't directly impact your website traffic, but they can help search engines index pages faster, which means a higher potential for ranking well on search engine results pages (SERPs), which can increase website traffic.

Simply put, sitemaps provide a clear structure of your content for crawlers, allowing them to properly categorize and index your web pages. HTML and XML sitemaps help crawlers understand the hierarchy of your website content and determine which pages should rank for which keywords.

Better organization of content

Your business and website will grow together, and eventually, you may have hundreds, if not thousands, of pages that can be difficult to navigate for users. Your HTML sitemap will help categorize and organize content on the page to help users navigate throughout the website and find what they're looking for.

HTML sitemaps will act as the map for your website, allowing your visitors to find the pages most important and valuable to them. You can put your sitemap on the footer of each page or create a new page with links that help visitors find what they're looking for.

Many people use HTML sitemaps when they don't know where to go on a website. This additional navigational tool can prevent bounces and ensure your prospective customers can find the information they need.

Facilitation of website updates

HTML, XML, and user experience sitemaps can facilitate website updates by helping you categorize the content. For example, an XML sitemap can inform search engines that your pages have recently been updated and require crawling to properly index and rank them in search results. Meanwhile, an HTML sitemap will ensure customers can find your new pages once they're already on the website.

And finally, a user experience sitemap will be your planning tool for organizing new web pages within the content hierarchy and ensuring a better user experience before your website goes live.

Best practices for creating sitemaps

The best practices for creating sitemaps depend on which sitemaps you're creating. If you're creating a user experience sitemap before designing the rest of the site, you'll need different resources for creating a sitemap for search engines. Here are a few best practices to help you get started:

Consider website goals and hierarchy

When planning your website, you should have created a user experience sitemap, menu, and wireframe that allows you to properly categorize your content and each individual website page. Then, once your website is live, you can gather all your site's URLs and organize them based on the original information hierarchy to create an XML sitemap.

You should always consider your website goals. For instance, does your website sell, or does it inform? Whatever the case, you should have a list of parent and child pages that help users navigate through the website and find the information they're looking for. Your sitemap should have clear labels and a logical path from first, second, and third-level pages to help search engines crawl your website and visitors use it.

You should start with your homepage at the top level and follow the path to parent and children pages with categories, subcategories, and individual pages to make it easier for both search engine crawlers and users to navigate your website and understand which pages relate to one another.

Include all important pages and optimize for search engines

An XML sitemap is designed to help search engines crawl your website, so it must be optimized for search engines. Most website builders have tools to help you create optimized sitemaps for search engines, or you can work directly with a website developer to create one for you.

Your sitemap should include your homepage, category pages, product pages, and other pages that might be important to visitors. If you don't want search engines to crawl particular pages, or you have pages not meant for the public, you should leave them out of your sitemap. Of course, a sitemap only acts as a guide for search engines; any public website page can be found whether or not you include it in your sitemap before submitting it to Google Search Console.

Use descriptive titles and clear labels for pages

When you build a website, you must have clear titles for each page to ensure visitors know what to expect, and the same is true for sitemaps. Having clear labels for pages can improve navigation for website visitors by helping them understand the content of each page before they click a link. Clear labels will also help search engines understand the content of a page and improve the chances of it ranking for a particular keyword.

Organize sitemap by user needs and update it regularly

Your sitemap should be updated any time you make changes to your website. If you haven't made changes to your website, you don't need to create or submit a new sitemap. However, submitting a new sitemap to Google Search Console after updates will ensure that the most up-to-date version of the site is crawled and indexed.

Creating a sitemap improves crawlability and usability, but there are crucial steps you should follow to ensure crawlers can find and index pages and visitors can effectively use and navigate your website. Here are a few common mistakes to avoid:

Including irrelevant pages in the sitemap

If you don't want a page indexed, don't include them in your sitemap. You should also use the noindex tag to ensure search engines don't index your pages and show them in search results when you don't want them public. If you have any noindex website pages, exclude them from your sitemap so you don't confuse crawlers or use up any of your crawl budget on pages you don't want public.

Failing to optimize the sitemap for search engines and users

Your website visitors will never see your XML sitemap, but both visitors and search engines can use an HTML sitemap. Optimizing your sitemap for search engine crawlers and users will ensure search engines can find and rank your content and users can effectively use your website once they've landed on a particular page.

You can manually submit your sitemap to Google Search Console and test it beforehand to ensure it's properly optimized.

Regularly update the sitemap to keep it relevant

Updating your sitemap to reflect site changes is crucial for search engines and users. When you update your XML sitemap, you tell search engines to crawl and index the new pages faster. Meanwhile, when you update your HTML sitemap, you facilitate search engine crawling while improving navigation for your website visitors.

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