Stephen Hawking’s Web site at www.stephenhawking.com  boasts two site maps. Far from parallel universes, one is a utilitarian collection of links that represent the hierarchical structure of the site. The other is pure eye-candy — a stylistic collection of images and graphical pathways illustrating all the dimensions of the physicist’s life, career and writing. Score one for simplicity and none for aesthetics, because the stylistic version rests on an obscure, rarely used domain, the other gets accessed daily by fans.
Statistically, most Web surfers go to the navigation menu first, then to search engines, then to the site map. If they can’t find what they’re looking for, they’ll search, and if the results disappoint them, they’ll try the site map. As such, the site map is their last hope before moving on to the next site.
“With a deep, content-rich site, the site map is a wonderful means of helping users find the article or videos that are most relevant to them,” says Helen Whelan, president of Success Media in New York, which runs www.successtelevision.com . “We regularly track our site map metrics to see who’s coming there, where from and where they visit next so we can improve upon our content offerings.”
As with anything else, there are pros and cons to building a site map with Hypertext Markup Language or eXtensible Markup Language, but there are a few solid guidelines. Today, site maps should help end users navigate the site, always champion functionality over the visually impressive site map that hampers search engine indexing, and most importantly, enable search engine optimization (SEO) by allowing automated search engine spiders to properly index all of a Web site’s pages.
1) HTML site map: An HTML site map is still the preferred method to address both the navigational needs of site visitors as well as the structural needs of search engine robots. Web site maps traditionally served as navigation tools in the pre-Google.com years, allowing users to survey material at a glance and quickly access desired information. It is possible to create an XML-format site map available only to search engines — and tempting to tuck the skeleton-like HTML site map in the closet. But that would be a mistake.
An HTML site map can be compiled automatically using an indexing tool that analyzes the site and then generates an HTML site map. More often, site owners will create a custom site map that simplifies or clarifies the site’s information architecture. Still, if the site map properly encompasses the site’s high-level pages, which in turn link to all underlying pages, an HTML site map will very likely help a search engine spider find all of your Web site’s pages.
A typical HTML site map can help a spider locate all of your site’s pages.
2) XML site map: Endorsed heavily by Google, an XML site map is a collection of links and page details that is custom-built for the indexing needs of search engine spiders. It essentially tells the search engine where all the site’s pages exist. If you use an XML site map, you can access specific information from Google showing all the pages that were indexed, at which time, PageRank information and top keyword information.
There are some drawbacks to this method. The XML file is not intended for human viewing and does not serve as a navigational tool for your visitors. Furthermore, Yahoo, MSN and other search engines have yet to endorse the XML format; these engines are better served with an HTML site map.
Feedback is available from Google’s site maps program.
3) Flash or image site maps: As described in the Hawking example, these can be fun to look at and an excellent way to visually call attention to key site areas. Their drawback is how they index with search engines, which is poorly, and the difficulty of maintaining them.
4) Combination site maps: You could combine an HTML site map or an Image Map with an XML site map on your site. This provides you with full control over what the visitor sees and how Google interprets your pages. The only drawback is the additional maintenance overhead of updating two site maps instead of one for site changes.
The nature of your site should determine your site map needs. For a simple brochure-ware site of a dozen pages, you won’t need a site map to help lost visitors, as your navigation can easily point the way. And if all your pages are already indexed by Google (you can see this by searching Google with site:www.yourdomain.com), you likely won’t need an XML site map either. For a news site or a corporate site with deep information (hundreds of pages), consider using an HTML site map to orient users, as well as an XML site map to ensure all of your URLs are getting indexed regularly.
For Gary Berger, owner of rxHelps, his 25-page site didn’t warrant an HTML site map, but he values the information he gleans from his XML site map. “Selling natural, non-prescription health products online is very competitive,” he says. “I use an XML site map because it gives me valuable feedback on Google indexing activity.”
Automated tools make site map creation a breeze. One of my favorites is GsiteCrawler, a free desktop application that will spider your site, index all the URLs, create an XML format site map and, if you like, automatically upload it to your site via FTP.
SoftPlus GSiteCrawler makes it easy to create an XML-format site map.
For an HTML site map option, AuditMyPC.com  has a Java-based HTML site map creator at www.auditmypc.com/site-maps.asp . You simply input your URL and wait for the HTML site map to be generated, then upload it to your site. But if your intent is to create a site map to help visitors navigate your site, you may be better off hand-coding a site map that appropriately frames the customer experience you’re looking for. Whelan chose this option for the Success Television site, a process that she says took a few hours from start to finish.
The site map is ripe for some new and innovative uses. One alternative usage is to put the site map on your Web site’s 404 error page (the page a user sees if they’ve followed a dead link). By presenting them with the site map, they can quickly relocate themselves in the site architecture.