What about Site Maps and Site Indexes?

Jared Spool

December 16th, 2005

Recently, I posted about our current thinking on on-site Search. I said it was, in essence, how users deal with the scent on the page failing them. Fix the scent problems and the need for on-site Search diminshes quickly.

Site maps and site indexes fall into the same issues.

In an abstract way, you can think of a site map or site index as a Search utility where all the functional search terms are already presented as links. Instead of requiring users to guess at the possible Search term, you list them out. In a site map, you typically list them in related groupings of content (as perceived by the designers of the site). In a site index, you list them in alphabetical order.

Our research shows that users will rarely turn to these things if the scent on the page is good. Investing resources in building an effective site map or site index is taking resources away from fixing scent problems. We recommend that our clients focus their resources on the scent problems before they turn to these devices as solutions.

Usage of maps and indexes are also a predictor that the scent on your pages is failing. (Here’s a nifty trick: If you find users are more successful when they visit your site index or site map, make that page your homepage and see what happens. I’m wagering they stop needing the site index or map.)

Building and maintaining a site map or site index is, like on-site Search, fixing the symptom and not addressing the true problem.

[Want to know more about how to improve the scent on your site? Check out the upcoming UIE Roadshow, where Christine & I will be sharing our latest research on the topic.]

11 Responses to “What about Site Maps and Site Indexes?”

  1. Eric Scheid Says:

    I’ve also used site maps and site indexes to teleport to a page I know they have (either saw a link, or actually visited the pag), especially if the page I want has next to no relevance to the current page (eg. I might have drilled down some category to some product page, and want to jump to their page of press releases, or take a look at the management team). This way I avoid trekking through however many intermediary pages, and even having to sniff the scent.

    So they can be useful.

  2. Heather Hedden Says:

    On what kinds of sites have you conducted your user research? I agree that on most typical corporate web-presence sites (with the objective of “this is who we are and what we do”) a site index is probably not needed if the navigational structure is well-designed. But for sites rich in informative content, serving repeat visitors (such as intranets, companies with subscriber-users, government agencies, educational institutions, libraries, professional and trade associations, and other membership organizations), a site index can be quite valuable for the users who want to access precise information quickly.

    Another issue specific to site indexes in existence is that they may not be done well. They might be mere alphabetized lists of site page titles (alphabetized site maps) yet labeled as an index. As such, they are not very useful. A book’s index is not a mere alphabetization of the table of contents, but some so-called site indexes get away with this. A good index has multiple access points/entries, each worded differently, which point to the same content, a structure of second-level terms or subentries, and cross-references. And on a web site the entries may point to anchors at headings within pages and not just to the top of the page.

  3. George Says:

    There is an interesting article on creating site indexes at Boxes & Arrows – http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/the_abcs_of_the_bbc_a_case_study_and_checklist.

    It explains very well how they BBC reworked their index but didn’t get into much detail why they need an index, why they needed to rework it, what efforts were put into accomplishing this task and the what were the results.

    So what do you think – could the BBC make better decision in helping their visitors find content instead of redesigning their site index?

  4. Jim Says:

    What do you say, Jared, to Heather’s and George’s questions?

    There may be many situations where a site index is a valuable navigation tool, more so than other mechanisms. I assume “it depends” applies to your conclusions to some degree?

    Heather’s contention that site maps and indexes are often poorly made and don’t do what they should is interesting. If a really kick-ass site index were presented to users, would they be more likely to use it? Maybe. But I think this is a broader usability issue here. Just putting a link labelled “Site Index” isn’t going to help people find things: people aren’t motivated to click on that link.

    It’s kinda like the usage of online “help”: people tend to try to figure things out themselves and don’t frequent help information very often, particularly novices. Experts use help more, but they often know what they are looking for. Seems to me sitemaps and site indexes might be too “passive” to have a broader reach. We need to reconceive them somehow. (How? I don’t know). But there is a definite interaction problem there in my opinion.

  5. Darrel Says:

    I have nothing to add other than that these are some great comments. Would love to hear some more discussion regarding them.

    As a .gov entity, we’ve spent the last year discovering that we have no easily identifiable set of personals to target our IA at on a broad level. It’s across the board, pretty much consisting of everyone within the confines of our state. Some user interviews have led us to the conclusion that having more links up front is ultimately what folks are looking for. More scanning, less clicking, increasingly approaching a site map. So, in a way, the more we focus on our ‘scent issues’ the more we’re working on our site map at the same time.

    Good job on pointing out the differences between a site map and a site index as well.

  6. New media: what’s new, thinking it through » Site indexes/maps/Search Says:

    [...] This is a good conversation. I think Jared makes some valid points. Jared has never liked search engines, and continues to think that search is “only necessary if you can ’t make the investment in ensuring the right links are on the right pages”. BUT this doesn’t address user preferences or the difficulty of anticipating what the “right links” will be in the future. There’s a paradox: the more information your site has, the more useful it is — and the harder to navigate! No matter how well we design our site navigation elements, visitors will need other ways to find what they’re looking for. Site search tools provide a powerful and familiar means to provide that access. In our case, we’ve got a broad range of users, with different, constantly changing goals (goals that even change mid-stride). The bottom line is, there is a need. And there are users who prefer this method of finding information. A search tool is especially useful for users in research mode (for archived content) for example. With that said, I do agree with Jareds concept of ’scent’. One thing i think we can say with a high level of certaintly: many, if not most, of our users want news. The new stuff, latest, most current stuff we’ve got. So, my vision for our new navigation strategy relies heavily on what we’ve been calling ’smart’ navigation components – or widgets – fluid and changing in relation to the topics the Monitor is covering, and thus more relevant and useful – because it more accurately represents what we’ve got to offer. My vision for our new site structure also includes a site index tool on every page - driven by our topics. The scaled down verion that appears on every page will include the most active, or current topics. with a link for more or all. ( An example of this – BUT just as concept, i don’t see us breaking out topics under such broad categories, but you never know  can be found at the bottom of this page: http://search.csmonitor.com/staff/christian/structure_HTML/ ) http://www.uie.com/brainsparks/2005/12/16/what-about-site-maps-and-site-indexes/   [...]

  7. kstruct » Sitemaps and navigational search Says:

    [...] There’s an interesting comment on Jared Spool’s Site Maps and Site Indexes, Revisited (a follow up to What about Site Maps and Site Indexes?) that site maps might help search engines ‘easily spider your site’. While I agree that site maps might make a good seed/starting point for a search engine, I don’t quite see how any crawling engine is going to be taken seriously if it can’t cope with a sitemap-less site. Getting a good starting point can useful in a multi-domain crawl assuming you only want one connection per domain at a time because it allows you to get up to the maximum number of threads quickly, but this isn’t usually an issue with individual sites. [...]

  8. nortypig Says:

    I’m not totally sold on that one simply because there’s no harm in having another road to rome even if very few people use it. To assume that everyone is on your scent trail may mean you’ve assumed every user has average intelligence or literacy for instance.

    I may be wrong but my personal opinion of site maps and indexes is they are supplemental navigation. They should only ever be there as an extra. I do agree though that if your usability studies show a high incidence of your site map being used there may be a general site navigation or design issue you should fix before looking to make a site map.

    Sometimes when I visit a strange site if i see they have a site index I just go there anyway because a good one is easy. Its no reflection on the site itself but I do use them rather than spending a minute seeing if the site sucks enough to need one.

    Just my 2 cents. I guess. If this is a death to all site maps and indexes article then no I don’t think we should be killing them off on the assumption everyone can follow our scent.

  9. Jared Spool Says:

    Nortypig: You’ve made some excellent points. Let me address a couple quickly:

    I’m not totally sold on that one simply because there’s no harm in having another road to rome even if very few people use it.

    On the surface, it would seem like it’s good to provide multiple paths. However, the harm is the resources required to build and maintain it. Resources are almost always limited. Having them work on something that isn’t very useful is potentially taking them away from something that is.

    Sometimes when I visit a strange site if i see they have a site index I just go there anyway because a good one is easy.

    Absolutely. But are you going there because there is a site index or because the page you’re on isn’t designed properly? My contention is: if the page you were on were properly designed in the first place, then you wouldn’t have felt the need to visit the site index.

    I’m not suggested the death to all site maps and indexes. Just most of them. In my opinion, based on what I’ve seen users do, they are fixing symptoms, not actual problems. (And making more work for the site maintainers in the process.)

  10. nortypig Says:

    Hi Jarred
    Yeh I think we’re on the same wavelength actually :)

    I can definately see it as an issue that site maps and indexes can be misused in that way for sure. Its crucial to have the site’s information architecture work properly in the first place or you’re simply driving off customer dollars. Ha. No I have to admit I’d never go to a site because there IS a site index lol you have me there.

    There’s a certain mid size where they actually become less interesting and useful to me as well. Beyond the length of my current browser window I think to work well they need to be thought out and planned professionally as well. Mainly I’ve only worked on reasonably small projects though so my views of site maps are limited by the scope of my direct experience.

    Cheers mate and have a good weekend :)

  11. Alles über die Sitemap | DrWeb.de | Online-Magazin Says:

    [...] überhaupt der Nutzen einer Sitemap oder eines Index bestritten. Jared Spool hat einen Ratschlag If you find users are more successful when they visit your site index or site map, make that page yo…. Ein anderes Problem liegt in der Größe der Websites, sind zu viele Seiten vorhanden, macht die [...]

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