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Building a Great Site Map

Building a Great Site MapThe Internet is getting larger and larger with the passing of every day. While the amount of data stored on the web is spiralling by the hour, the prospect of an information overload is becoming a major issue to web developers.

Far from settling down with web pages expiring and making way for fresh information, we're on the verge of a domain crisis. Some websites now host millions of pages, and the boom of user generated content has given way to a major discussion amongst the Internet community. How can we keep track of information?

A site map, technically speaking, is an index of all the content included on a particular website. As the Internet continues to grow and websites continue to add to their work, common users are finding it increasingly difficult to seek out the specific information that they're looking for.

Gone are the days when information architecture brought the challenge of modelling navigation for 5 or 6 pages of static content. But if the Internet is to continue to grow, more websites need to start providing site maps to help the every day user. Currently, less than 50% of all commercial websites actually have a site map.

Can you imagine opening a book and trying to find the paragraph of information that you're looking for without a content or index page? Consider the same prospect for a cautious Internet user on a site brimming with dynamic content.

If your website is starting to branch out in to various categories, you need to be prepared to sacrifice convenience for your clients. A site map is the least you can offer, a means to navigate your content. Research proves that users will rarely persist with a website if they don't find what they're looking for within those first vital clicks.

Yet even the inclusion of a site map is by no means a guarantee that it'll actually be any help. So what are the tell tale signs of a poorly designed map?

First, it's important to consider what's driving your visitor to the site map in the first place. They're obviously having problems navigating the content of the site and wish to be given a shove in the right direction. You wouldn't believe how many web developers let this small fact go to waste and design crazily inventive site maps; even using Macromedia Flash - to try and express themselves.

A lost user doesn't want to have to crawl through complicated map interfaces to find the right link. Categorizing HTML links is a nice start to making your site map more usable, but presentation is extremely important.

Many designers will add expand functions : the ability to minimize or maximise categories to save screen space. While screen space is certainly important, so is serving the purpose of a site map. Its purpose isn’t to make the user search out more links. All the major categories of your website should be present on that one screen. How many atlases do you see where the continent has to be clicked on to reveal the countries? Not many, and with good reason.

It's possible to use a variety of site map generating programs to create your guide, but the end result isn't always as pretty as you'd hope for. Software from Google and SiteXPert provide nice functionality, but you know your website better than a machine. It's important that you program the categories yourself since the people using it aren't going to be computer bots. Human logic certainly prevails when it comes to providing usability on a perfect site map.

Before you try to implement your site structure, make a note of the categories that you can divide it in to. Make these the basis of your map and divide slowly in to further sub-sections. But don't go crazy. Too many sub-sections will lead to too many choices. A key factor of good website usability rests upon narrowing choices for the user. The less they have to consider, the more likely they are to reach their destination.

Your navigation should be absolutely basic. Now isn't the time to provide rollover images, scroll bar menus or search functions. Nor is it the time to try out your new CSS themes. The priority should be to present the categories in a clear and simple manner. Visualisation of the site content is crucial.

One of the great deterrents to stop designers from implementing site maps is the idea of having to update it with every page that gets added. While it's possible to use a CMS (Content Management System) and draw up a tree of pages automatically, there really is little way of avoiding the process of manually updating your map. That is, of course, unless you have the opportunity to implement a database. Database-driven site maps are excellent in the sense that they can add links automatically to your index, through a couple of simple table fields in MS Access or mySQL.

As you can probably imagine, automation makes site mapping a whole lot easier in the long run. You can negotiate the issue on a dynamic website by providing an extra field for each page submission which specifies where the link should appear on the site map; if at all.

Content management is very much the future for web development. It can make site mapping an afterthought. You don't even have to worry about it.

There's one last thing to remember and it's the most important consideration of all. Can your users find the site map? Hundreds upon hundreds of websites will go through the painstaking bother of mapping their every last page, only to bury the link to the site map. What was the point?

User accessibility surveys have illustrated that users refer to the top right hand of the screen when they require help. This is where your link to a Help page, or in this case, a Site Map should go. Make sure it's clearly visible and coded in to EVERY page. Your users should never be more than one click away from the assistance that they require. Follow that simple principle and you may begin to notice a slight increase in the number of visits from previously bemused clients!----------------------------------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------If you are a business owner get listed at Best Technology Site, part of Localwin Network.
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