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Site Maps: What to Do?
by Juan C. D├╝rsteler [message n║ 48]

Textual sitemaps, simple tables of contents, dominate the web while their graphic counterpart experiment with new ideas.  

Last week (see the previous issue ) we saw that the web is essentially a non-linear medium, particularly prone to provoking disorientation to the user. Web site maps pretend to provide a general view to the users, allowing them to link, at the same time, with the pages of their interest.

There are two main styles of sitemaps.

1. Textual sitemaps

They are simple tables that present the structure of the site as a more or less visually organised listing of links to the pages. An example of good layout and clarity is Apple's sitemap. Other textual maps, like for example ELSOP, reveal less neatly the site structure due to their density and layout. It's an interesting exercise to compare the organisational clarity of the first with the density of the second.

This type of map is the most frequent one. For example, searching "sitemap" in Google*, the first slightly graphical sitemap that you find is the one that makes the result number 88 (yes, I've seen them all). It's the one of NMBS, the Belgian railroad.

Despite their abundance they should be catalogued more as indexes or tables of contents than as site maps. Would anybody call the summary of a book "bookmap"?

Textual sitemaps adopt basically two forms

  • Linear structure with or without indentation. A link below the other, with an important waste of screen space.

  • Tabular structure. A table in which each cell contains the links to a section or subsection of the web site.

Apple's sitemap is an example of tabular structure whereas ELSOP's exemplifies the linear one.

2. Graphical maps.

We consider them as the real sitemaps. Following with the previous Google search, we have to wait until the result number 176 to find the website of the Computing Dpt. of the Open University, that has a graphical sitemap similar in behaviour to the Windows explorer.

After exploring 229 results more we get an interesting (although static) graphical map with a circular shape divided in sectors. It belongs to the Water and Sanitation Program Water and Sanitation Program. Unfortunately the map has a fixed resolution that prevents you to see it without scrolling if your resolution is less than 1280x1024.

WSsitemap.gif (84232 bytes)

Map of the web site of the Water and Sanitation Program. Click on the map to see the full scale image. (1280x1024!)

Ptolomeus.jpg (102720 bytes)

Map created by  Ptolomaeus. A tool developed by  Università di Roma. Click on the map to see the full scale image.

But if we don't want to spend the days seeing results of the search engines it's better to go to the excellent page of Martin Dodge on web site maps, where we'll find some of the most important examples.

Most of the graphical maps are built using automatic tools like Ptolomaeus of the Universita di Roma  or Silicon Graphics' Site Manager. Both of them are freely downloadable.

Seeing the different ideas applied to graphical maps requires more space than the one of this article. The commendable book "Mapping Web Sites" by Paul Kahn is a good source of information for those interested in the topic. 

But we have to return to the question raised last week: do sitemaps have any advantage over other navigation systems?

The answer is not a clear one. I haven't found usability studies on the topic. On the other hand it's clear that the maps generated by tools like those above mentioned are still experimental and that textual maps, indices and summaries dominate nowadays the panorama.

Among the last ones the less efficient and those that waste most space are the linear ones, that oblige you to scroll continuously, hiding the global view of the site that, in the end, is the ultimate purpose of a sitemap.

The idea: probably they are useful navigation tools, but before building a sitemap don't forget to care about traditional systems like the lines that indicate in each page where in the web hierarchy are you ("breadcrumbs").

* By the way, Google has launched a beta test of his image search engine.

Last minute news. An original handcrafted sitemap in Spanish: Neuronilla. Thanks to Francesc Mañà for the link.

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