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Sitemaps: What Are They and How Do They Work?

sitemap of space research institute, a solar system diagram with orbit pattern. Hot links to areas of the site indicated by planets.

Sitemap graphic courtesy of

If you found yourself deep in the stacks of a major library, how would you proceed? Would you wander at random or seek out the organizational principles of the environment? Search engines often drop you into the middle of a complex website.   If you find yourself in this position, a sitemap is a useful tool.   Web designers sometimes create sitemaps that provide an overview of organizational patterns.   Sitemaps provide a visual reference to the terrain of a website.   Good sitemaps provide a visual summary that answers a disoriented searcher's essential questions: Where am I? What can I find here?   How to I get from place to place within this site?   

Learning the terrain helps you get the most from your visit.   You can more quickly find what you are looking for by exploring in a structured manner.     Map making is an ancient art.   Designers have always tried to represent layers of information in a logical and accessible manner.   It is essential that a site visitor be able to navigate hyper-connected pages to quickly find what they are looking for.

site map of website with various departments radiating from the home square in the center.

Sitemap graphic courtesy of

Sites are usually organized around a home page that is the intellectual starting place of a website.   From that first or home page, you can go in any direction.   Some sites adopt a linear organization.   Others use a scatter-plot approach. Sitemaps will vary based on the complexity of the information they represent. The top down chart design is the most common of all sitemaps.   Recently new research in information science has spawned new products that use multidimensional mapping techniques.   This type of sitemap can appeal to a wider range of learning styles, and convey more complex relationships than a simple top down arrangement.   Regardless of the style of presentation, learning to use a sitemap will more quickly orient you and save you time as you seek information on the web.

Types of sitemaps vary from flat hierarchical charts, to dynamic three-dimensional maps.   Sitemaps are also 'clickable', acting as a navigational menu for the website.   A number of inventive and creative styles of sitemap are available on the web.   Indeed there are a number of software tools that help web designers create effective representations of information.

Why have a sitemap?

Designers can use a map for site planning and development.   Maps can also help the website owner do routine maintenance.   For users, sitemaps provide a convenient graphic overview of a website's contents. When a sitemap link is added to the navigational system of a website, it provides more global orientation for users and can improve efficient retrieval of information.

What are some examples of site maps?

Sitemaps try to represent hypertext links in a way that will aid navigation and foster an understanding of basic site organization.   There are many approaches to consider.  

For an overview of possibilities consider some examples from An Atlas to Cyberspace. .   These examples were created with different software products designed to graphically represent the contents of a website.   Which presentation appeals to you? Often different styles will suit different users.

Example of Chart Style sitemap:

sitemap: chart like diagram of web services company.

Sitemap graphic courtesy of

How do sitemaps work?

Sitemaps provide hypertext links to the contents of a site.   They quickly display the basic organization of a website and aide user navigation.   Once a user sees where they want to go, they click on the link and move forward.  

What's the difference between a homepage and a sitemap?

A home page is the psychological starting place of a website structure.   It is similar to the title page of a book, providing essential information about the 'big picture', and inviting the user to venture more deeply into the substance of a site.   If a home page is like a title page, the site map can be thought of as a table of contents.   The sitemap provides organized links directly to the substance of a site.

How does a sitemap differ from a site search tool?

Many sites provide a site search tool for keyword searching.    The site search tool will return a list of matches, often ranked by a percentage of reliability.   Much like using the index of a conventional book, the search tool is useful if you are looking for specific information about a well-identified subject. However, search results are not presented in context.   Providing context is what a sitemap does best. Think of site searching as a way of finding specific pages of information.   Think of the site map as a way of purposely navigating from section to section and from page to page.

illustration showing site map of withn site search box highlighted.

How is a sitemap different from a navigation bar?

Navigation bars provide a consistent method of moving throughout a website one page at a time. Typically, a navigation bar will allow you to move forward and back. It might also have links to the home page and other important elements of the website. Often a link to a sitemap will be included on the navigation bar.   A sitemap link gives the user quick access to all areas of the website, making it easy to jump from section to section.

The navigation bar used on the site:

screen shot of navigtion bar

The sitemap from

screen shot of site map.

Authored by Dennis O'Connor 2003