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Site Mapping

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

By Keith Robinson

I recently started a new position in which I've got to think a bit differently than I'm used to. I used to be more of a Web designer and coder and now I'm more of an Information Architect. For the most part I really enjoy that. I still wear many hats, but I get to see Web projects from a bit of a different vantage point now.

I also began to see many well-known Web conventions in a whole new ways.

I'm into questioning convention. At the end of the day, I'm also very practical, so I try things out, see what works, and what doesn't and adjust my thinking and way of working based on that. Recently I've been thinking about Information Architecture conventions and processes.

One of these is the traditional hierarchical site map used for many sites.

(When I say "site map" I mean as a way to visualize grouping of information, usually for smaller sites, not necessarily as a navigation technique. Some people refer to this as page taxonomies, content blueprints and a host of other things.)

Thinking outside the box and around the arrows

I'm really questioning the traditional "home down" way a site map is presented and how that hierarchical visualization (and often times the groupings themselves) drives our design, content and navigation. The concept of "home" is a valid one, although the idea that it's first, or "at the top" isn't really accurate in many cases. It makes more sense to visualize it at the center, as kind of a "hub".

If you saw some of the latest site map deliverables we've created, they reflect this more and more.

But it's really not about the deliverable, although I've got questions about that as well. It's more about the way people search for information on the Web. I've questioned the concept of "home" and if "Web pages" and where they live in a site's organization is always relevant.

These are things that, when talking to stakeholders, there always seems to be at least some difficulty. I've spent hours trying to choose the right labels to satisfy every internal audience (let alone visitors!) and make sure every bit of content is properly "bucketed." They want to reach a consensus as to where everything lives, and often have heated debate as to where a page, or piece of content, is grouped.

Part of this problem stems from the idea that items on a Web site can't live in more than one place within a taxonomy. This, my friends, is unrealistic, unpractical and well... silly. At least in many cases. It might seems obvious, but it can be a real challenge to get stakeholders to see that it's ok to put things in more than one grouping, even if it's just via related item linking. Or, maybe a larger and more common issue, to get them to understand that it's ok to place something into a grouping where it might not fit 100%.

And then there is the Homepage. They want to know what "lives" on the homepage, and often have large internal struggles to get that sorted out. Struggles that can be an ongoing maintenance drain, let alone the effect of an ever-changing home- or hub- page has on users.

They don't realize that their stuff might get more visibility on internal content pages. And it's not just internal stakeholders that have a problem with these ideas. For example, it always amazes me that people will pay more for one homepage ad than they will for a load of internal page ads. It's doesn't always make sense when you think about it, especially when there is an opportunity to relate the ad to the content on the page ala Google's AdSense.

In addition, I can safely say that quite often these struggles are next to meaningless when it comes to helping a user find what they're looking for. The fact that everything is conveniently grouped within a hierarchy and mapped down from a home page doesn't help everyone (or even most people) coming to the site looking for information. It can be very helpful to those who begin at the homepage and browse through your site. However, as search engines become more accurate, and as Web services and syndication spread content around the Web and, in some cases, away from the Web browser, this type of behavior will become less and less common.

I'm not trying to imply that we don't organize and group content at all; I still feel that it is important to do it. It helps searchers, browsers and everyone to have some kind of consistent and accurate organization and grouping structure. What I've got a problem with is the idea that one way of organization is going to make everyone happy. This will never be the case, and, as with many other Web challenges a compromise will need to be reached. Unfortunately, the nature of the site map deliverable, and the process behind it, don't really lend themselves to compromise or consensus. This creates a bloated process and quite a bit of effort that is, ultimately, wasted if it doesn't help people find what they are looking for.

Home isn't where the start is

"Home" as a single entry point to a site isn't really valid for most sites. However, it's hard to get beyond the idea that "home" is where you begin your quest to find something. Even in Christina Wodtke's highly recommended book Information Architecture: Blueprints For The Web she talks about typing in top-level domains to begin her searches. This is perfectly fine for the examples she is talking about, but I question how common this behavior is anymore. I know when I'm looking for most things, I start with a search on Google or a local search engine.

Think about this: for many sites, most people enter via some page other than the homepage. (That is if they see the site at all. With the rise in syndication and alternate ways to access Web content, many people may never see the site at all.) I know for my own site, Asterisk, most people come in via individual archive pages. Any large content site would have similar entry points. It's important to have a "home" or "hub" page, but it's equally important to address a visitors navigation needs from more common entry points.

If you think of your Web site as a maze (which, to your visitors, might be a very apt analogy) with "Start" being the homepage and "End" being the content they're looking for, most people are dropped in somewhere in the middle. It's important to get these people back to the start, but more important to get them to what they're looking for.

Look at Apple. I'd imagine they have quite a few people arriving from Google via searches for "iPod" and "mp3 player." Now, ideally they'd land on the page they were looking for directly from Google, but if not, it's important for them to be able to not only get back "home" but continue their search from the page they landed on.

It's about findability

Visitors don't necessarily care where something lives as long as they have no problem finding it. Via traditional navigation, that reflects (usually) a site map and it's hierarchy, is only one way people can go through a site. Frankly I feel that in most cases it's pretty straightforward, and, if anything, designers and stakeholders only complicate things by trying to make sure everything is "living comfortably."

The site map is important, but not as important as addressing the paths that people follow through your site in their search for information. Another thing stakeholders tend to want to do is make sure content is prioritized. This is fine when talking about internal goals, and has some relevance when it comes to a site's visitors, but — and this is a big but — when someone is looking for content, that piece of content they're currently looking for is the most important bit. I guess what I'm getting at is that as business goals shift, and audience and user needs change, the value placed on different sections and groupings of content will change as well.

It's pretty hard to create a hierarchical site map that adjusts in real time to shifting priorities, goals and needs — regardless of where they originate.

Shouldn't more time be spent on addressing the users' real needs? We should be helping them to find the information they're looking for and giving them options to keep them on track when traditional navigation fails. Things like:

  • Proper metadata (particularly labels and page titles) for search relevancy
  • Related item grouping and linking
  • Indexes
  • Links within content
  • Faceted classification and corresponding navigation
  • Folksonomies
  • Personalized taxonomies
  • A homepage that acts less like a landing page and more like an information hub (or site map — oh the irony)

A traditional hierarchal site map can't always illustrate these things, yet often times it's perceived by clients and stakeholders as the final say when it comes to organizing content. It seems to be rather difficult to get people beyond that, even with tools like wireframes, content inventories and page description diagrams. Unless a site's visitors think of the content the same way as the internal stakeholders (and every other visitor) and they've got the same goals and needs, relying on a traditional site map might be expecting way too much