Site Maps and SEO

Most Web designers, usability experts, and search marketers agree every Web site should have several significant pages. These include, but aren’t limited to, a home page, an about us page, a contact us page, and a site map. The first three are common site design fundamentals, but a debate about what constitutes a good site map rages on. At its core, a site map is an alternative, hierarchical navigational structure that puts visitors one click away from where they want to be.

The SEO (define) argument for a site map is that having one placed at a site’s second-level hierarchy ensures all pages linked throughout a site will be crawled and indexed by the search engines, including the bots and spiders that limit the depth of site searches.

And some folks remind us Google’s Webmaster Guidelines include multiple references to sites maps; consequently, site maps must be important.

Site maps are a great way to be found by the search engines. A site map provides a number of text-based links to key pages for contextual exploration and eventual indexing. Since text links are more readily optimized than graphical links, no matter how well alternative text and image names are leveraged, a properly constructed site map provides relevant anchor text links to pertinent pages throughout a Web site.

Size Matters

Site maps are very important for Web sites, large and small. Not only do site maps make it easier for search engine spiders to discover and crawl every page, they also provide critical details about different topics nestled throughout similar themes.

For a small site, the site map could contain text links to single every page. A site map needn’t follow the site’s folder structure. Categories of different topics can be presented in a directory-like format or even a table of contents to build particular themes. This sort of simple site map organization usually works well for a site of 100 pages or less.

When a site grows beyond several hundred pages, it’s not a good idea to link to every single page in a site map. It’s not visitor friendly to do so. Even Google advises the maximum be about 100 links per page.

A site map for a 10,000-page or fewer Web site should emphasize links to core pages throughout the site. Frequently, these categorical core pages are hubs of information that directly reflect the original topics presented in a simple site map. (Categorical core pages can also be strong landing pages for SEM (define) campaigns.)

One way to optimize up to a dozen different content categories in a larger site is to include a brief description of each core page. If you add a single link to each core page and a descriptive paragraph about the page’s content, then link deeper into the site from these core pages, both visitors and spiders can readily navigate the varying themes of a larger site.

This type of site map organization works well for diversifying different products and services as well as for different business divisions. It can be leveraged to highlight new content on a larger site that may take some time for search engine spiders to discover.

Extremely large sites, such as vast corporate sites in the range of 100,000 pages or more, can organize site map content in a similar manner to create multiple layers of core hierarchal content with links to different products, services, or business divisions. Again, contextual themes play an important role toward optimizing the content throughout a diverse, large Web site.

Frequently, this type of contextual top-level site map is accompanied by a different type of mapping that consists of a series of links to different sites (rather than pages within a single site) that works to build up and bind together a network of geographically dispersed Web sites.

Location-based site maps provider visitors with quick access to stores and hotels nearest them. They also provide state or provincial contact to local groups within a larger organization. For larger international and global organizations, location-based site maps often provide access to country-specific links that must be developed to address different language needs and regulatory restrictions.

These extremely large sites are typically built on more complex content management systems. They’d do well to employ Google Sitemaps (in beta) to encourage indexing the entire site, especially when dynamic URLs are in play, at least in Google. A rewrite module might be required to provide the same type of indexing lift in different search engines.

Seeing Is Believing

Implementing a site map is not a be-all end-all optimization solution. Yet a site map remains a primary way to provide search engine spiders with a clear conduit for crawling a site’s content.

Getting your site indexed is fundamental to being visible on the Web. There are a multitude of free and for-a-fee site map creation tools available. Search for a tool that suits your site or build a site map from scratch. Either way, categorically optimize the site map and be prepared to track its impact on how well your site is indexed by the search engines. Seeing a site map’s statistical impact on search engine referrals will make you a believer.

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