What’s a site map? A Beginners Guide to writing a plan for your website
A ‘site map’ is a broad term that generally refers to the structure of a website.
Depending on who’s asking, a site map can take many forms – but the real question behind “show me your site map” is: “What does your site need to do?”
Sitemaps usually contain:
- A list of pages required
- Some sense of hierarchy (relationship between pages)
- The content of the pages
Sitemaps can go on to define how the navigation works on your website, as well as letting the designer know how the pages should appear based on the content they display. Don’t forget that any good web designer will start with the content for a site and then shape the design around it.
As web designers here at Phosys we’ve seen a huge variety of different sites maps over the years, ranging from a sparse, dog-eared scrap of paper to a 30-page PDF document including footnotes and an appendix.
In this quick ‘beginners guide’, we’ll go through the process of figuring out and writing a decent site map for a photography website – but the lessons here can be applied to all sorts of different website builds.
1. Start at the beginning: Who are you, and What do you do?
Concentrate first on creating an online business card – say who you are and where to find you. This is the fundamental starting point for all websites in simply giving potential customers a contact form to fill in or a phone number to call.
Many sites feature a phone number and email address on the home page or in the header or footer of all pages. This doesn’t mean that you should get rid of your ‘Contact’ page – don’t forget that if you’re selling online you’re bound by law to include the geographic address of your business. Even still, if visitors want to get in touch its second nature for them to look for a contact page (usually found towards the end of your menu).
2. Focus on yourself
Getting back to your site map: so far you have two pages, Home and Contact, along with the individual pages needed for the areas of photography you specialise in.
Many photographers will then sit down and start writing down a great long list of the things that they think the site should do, clicking around other sites on the web and noting the features that they like. Unfortunately, this can lead to maps which look like this:
Any designer would look at the above and despair; the scope is huge, the plan is confused and it’s impossible to take in everything at a glance.
Instead of focusing on other websites, simply look to your own needs. Write a few bullet points describing what you hope the site will do, e.g:
- Present my photographs in an attractive manner
- Explain what photographic services I offer
- Allow clients to log in to their personal albums and purchase images
- Allow potential clients to contact me
Consider any added extras that might make your site more appealing:
- List the latest posts from my blog
- Link to my FaceBook page
Using this list, you can form the minimum pages needed to present your information.
3. Less IS more
The biggest pitfall in writing a sitemap is getting carried away. Less is more!
Consider the navigation: website menus generally work on a ‘tiered’ basis – your home page is considered a ‘top level’ or ‘top tier’ page because it’s always visible and can be reached from any other page. ‘Second tier’ pages come into play when you reach them via a ‘top tier’ – e.g. ‘Weddings – Prices’ could be a sub-page of your ‘Weddings’ section.
As a general rule of thumb, never use more than two tiers of navigation.
Overly complicated sites usually end up confusing you, the designer and most importantly, your potential customers.
4. Designing your site map
Please note: this is NOT a time to get creative! Your site map should be clear and concise and should clearly state what pages are needed and how these pages link together. Often the best sitemaps are written in text, in a simple email – with a list of pages and a short description of the content needed for each page.
Whilst easy to read the spider diagram and flow chart above fail to mention what content each of the pages should display: a quick line of text below each box would help to explain what should go on each page.
5. Consider the future
Once the sitemap is finished, you’re good to go! Don’t worry if you feel like it may not be totally finished: with most web design firms you’ll have the opportunity to go back over your site map and add in more content or remove sections before the site is completed. With content managed websites (such as Phosys Professional & Social Media) you’re able to add in your own pages as and when you please anyway.
Do take time to consider your future needs; if a you plan to launch a whole new aspect of the business in 6 months time then mention this to your designer so he or she can account for it in the build.
- Start by thinking of your site as an online business card.
- Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing: design your site pages around the content you need.
- List the ‘top level’ pages you need, and if necessary add in any sub-pages.
- Don’t add in more than two levels of menus to the site map.
- Your navigation should always be constant. If you change the appearance, position or contents of a menu on different pages you risk irritating and confusing your website visitors.
- Let your designer worry about the specifics – how the menus will appear, how the items fit on the page etc