While high-quality content and functionality are always the first order of business on your Web site, small errors can lose customers. One mistake to avoid is neglecting to provide a site map, according to Steve Telleen, managing director of Giga Information Group’s Web Site ScoreCard program, which measures how effective a site’s e-commerce strategies are, based on the site’s functionality.

Think of a site map as a safety net for your visitors. If you’re selling products or services on your site, would you rather have them fall into a site map or onto a competitor’s Web site?
Last week’s article “Make sure the ‘e’ in e-commerce stands for easy” suggested that Web sites need to provide clear information to visitors on the home page. This week’s article, which builds on Giga’s report on the most common Web site mistakes, gives reasons why you should consider a site map for your business.
Why is a site map necessary?
If you’ve made it explicitly clear on the home page what a visitor can do on the site, why should you worry about a site map? No matter how effective your home page is in communicating the content and functionality of the site, you can’t possibly account for everything that every visitor might want, or the ways in which they might think of looking for it, Telleen said.

“If the visitor’s goal is not immediately apparent on the home page, the site map is what most will look for next,” Telleen said. “At least some usability studies show that most visitors prefer to click to a destination rather than search.”

Harley Manning, a research director at Forrester Research says users often turn to site maps when the site lets them down. One way to gauge the functionality of your Web site is to have your Webmaster track the traffic on your site map page. If it’s comparatively heavy, it could indicate that something’s wrong with the other navigation aids on the site, he said.

Easy to implement; hard to implement correctly
So what makes a good site map?

Telleen suggests that good site maps can also prove useful as a way to organize the site: “If you can explain it to the visitor, you begin to understand what is most important for the site.”

Although the concept is simple, how you implement it depends on your way of thinking about how the site map should work, Telleen says. He compares a good site map to the contents of a book.

“The basic purpose is to give the visitor an understanding of the logical organization of the site.”

Telleen offers two universal rules: It should fit into no more than 1œ to 2 screens at 800 x 600 resolution, and the items should be active links to the pages they describe.

The most obvious implication with the two-screen limit is that a small, simple site can go into a greater level of detail than a large, complex one. However, Telleen advises that larger sites can provide an overall site map, with sub-maps that “zoom in” to provide greater detail for individual sections.

Telleen notes that many sites do something similar to this, but usually they don’t follow through all the way.

“Some of the larger sites provide site maps for their sub-sites, but not an overall site map,” he says. “This approach often leads to inconsistencies; only some of the sub-sites have maps. Large sites may need sub-site maps, but they also need an overall site map explaining the organization of sub-sites.”

With such a strategy, it’s important to have an overall site map and consistent maps for all the sub-sites. Besides the level of detail, you also need to think about how you’ll organize the material. But what makes sense to you might not be effective from a typical visitor’s point of view.

“An organization that we have seen that seems particularly effective for site maps is to organize the top level as the major audience groups the site supports—visitors with common interests and a common subset of actions that they share,” he said. “Under this are the key activities and major actions and topics that support this audience.”

With the possibility of sub-maps, you also have the possibility of too much detail. Here, you want to keep a sense of perspective, Telleen says.

“The site map should not try to list every page or detail on the site. It is an organization, not a complete list.”

Need depends on your site
Others suggest that the need for a map depends on the type of site you have.

“On smaller sites, it’s a waste of time and money,” said Dave Hunt, senior developer at Louisville, KY-based Micro Computer Solutions. “Site maps, I find, are very useful for a lot of static content, if you have a lot of articles.”

If, on the other hand, people are visiting your site to buy a product, it might be unnecessary.

“They don’t go to the site maps as frequently on the e-commerce shopping cart sites,” Hunt said. “A good search utility is more useful.”

Ray Dittmeier is a freelance technology writer based in Louisville, KY.

Have you placed a site map on your Web site? Do you think it helps visitors maneuver through your site? Have you revised it since you first placed it on the site? Post your comments below or send us an e-mail.