The other day, Rob Spurlock and I were talking, and an interesting question came up: “Is the user sitemap dead?”
We talked about the weaknesses of traditional sitemaps and whether they could be adapted to today's more dynamic and complex website designs. After that conversation, I did a little research and reached a surprising conclusion—one that I want to pass on to you.
What Is a User Sitemap?
There are two different types of sitemaps: user and XML. The XML sitemap is an outline of your website, designed to help search engines better understand and more effectively crawl your pages. Usually, users never see the XML sitemap.
A user sitemap, on the other hand, is an outline of your website that's designed for website visitors, to help them find what they're looking for when the site's main navigation isn't doing the trick. Though they're designed with people in mind, user sitemaps are crawled by search engines just like XML sitemaps are.
The Evolution of User Sitemaps
User sitemaps started out simple; in the early days of the Internet, they were usually just the XML sitemaps converted into HTML documents. In their infancy, sitemaps were relatively small. Websites weren't very complex, and users could easily scan the sitemap to find what they were looking for.
As time went on, websites and therefore sitemaps became more complex, especially with the introduction of large ecommerce websites and blogs. What used to be manageable and helpful was becoming ungainly and difficult to use.
This is where the discussion between Rob and myself turned into questions. Is the user sitemap dead? Does anyone actually use it? If so, how can user sitemaps be transformed to be more modern and useful? So I did some research, and came up with a few answers.
Does Anyone Still Use Sitemaps?
Google still claims that every website should have a user sitemap, but most people use the site search function when they can't find what they're looking for in the main navigation. I certainly don't use actual sitemaps anymore.
So, do we listen to almighty Google or our own users? Believe it or not, the answer is both. We can follow Google's advice by implementing a user sitemap, but we can do so in a way that actually helps our website visitors find what they need.
However, the organization of your sitemap isn't only about users. It can also improve your rankings in search results if you build it in a way that includes keywords, creates structure, and features your most important pages and posts.
Since Googlebot (Google’s web crawler) will use the sitemap to help determine how your pages and posts rank in search results, user sitemaps help visitors find the best content even if they never lay eyes on the sitemap itself.
Making Sitemaps More Useful
So it's settled—sitemaps can be useful. But how do you create the structure you need to get the maximum benefit? I suggest breaking the sitemap into sections, such as by category, tag, or even keyword.
Start with the most essential section, and create sections in descending order of importance. Do the same with the pages and posts within each section, listing the most important content first.
Depending on how much content you have, you can either list all the pages and posts in each section, or choose the most important 5–10 and add a "Read More" link to the full archive.
Sitemaps are a treasure trove for Google, because they help it know what's important. Once you have your optimized sitemap built, make sure it's accessible on every page, for example by placing it in the footer area.
So, to wrap things up, the user sitemap isn't dead. Even if they don't realize it, website visitors do still benefit from them, and there are ways to make them a desirable form of navigation for actual humans.
Are you as surprised as I was?