Sitemaps vs Navigation: What’s the Difference?
How to differentiate between the two, and best practices for creating them.
When setting out to create your first website (or give your current one a makeover), user experience should be top of mind throughout the entire process. If visitors can’t easily find what they want on your site, they’ll most likely abandon ship and continue their search elsewhere. This will have a huge impact on conversions, bounce rates, and clicks.
When planning out your site, the terms sitemap and navigation will no doubt come up and, at first glance, they might seem interchangeable, but they’re quite different. In short, a sitemap is an outline of all the pages/links on your site which will help inform how you structure your navigation. Whereas navigation is the series of menus users will take to browse through your site and its content.
Let’s dive a little deeper into these terms and what they entail:
The Role of Sitemaps
There are typically two kinds of sitemaps: visual and technical.
When planning your website you’ll need to start with creating a visual sitemap, in-other-words— a list of all its intended pages and linked content, typically in hierarchical order. There are several online tools to help make this process less painless. Our favorite is GlooMaps.com.
Once created, this outline can be used to inform your site’s navigation structure. Unlike the navigation, the sitemap can include as many levels as needed to show every page.
Usually called a XML sitemap, this uses the same structure as the visual one but ensures every link on your website is included, for search engine optimization purposes. It provides Google’s web crawlers with the information they need to understand the structure of your site and ranks its pages. No worries, our team always submits this for you when you partner with us on a web project.
Types of Navigation
Like the term implies, navigation is the set of paths users will take to literally navigate through your site and find its content. Navigation comes in many forms:
Header Navigation: This is the classic menu that usually runs horizontally across the screen at the top of your site. Most people are familiar with this style of navigation and for good reason: it’s tried and true.
Sidebars: These lists are usually positioned to the left or right and support the header navigation with menus to quickly guide visitors. Sidebars can also highlight key information such as contact forms, recent news, or subcategories to help break down content-heavy sites.
Footer: The footer navigation menu can include links from the header nav, but it can introduce other helpful links as well, like social media pages, terms and conditions, job listings, etc. The idea here is to save the user the struggle of having to scroll all the way back up to the header nav after getting to the bottom of a page.
Breadcrumbs: Breadcrumbs are a secondary navigation system that appear near the top of a page to indicate a user’s location within a site using page hierarchy. They are a standard element for large content hubs and e-commerce sites.
Hamburger menu: This simple three-lined icon is often used on mobile sites where screen real estate is limited (though some desktop sites are starting to adopt this icon too).
Navigation Best Practices
Now that you know the different types of navigation menus, here are some tips when creating your own:
- Simplify Your Header Navigation: Keeping your header navigation minimal will help save your visitors from being overloaded with information and ultimately make it easier for them to find what they’re looking for. We recommend no more than 6 main categories on your header navigation. If you have a lot of content, organize them into sub-categories within the main ones. Also, “Home” is not needed as a navigation category; instead, use your site’s logo as a shortcut that users can click to go back to the homepage from any page on your site.
- Align Your Navigation with Your Business Goals: The links on your header navigation should be structured in an attempt to lead users through a funnel to convert them into customers, fans, or whatever your business’ priorities are. Place your most important links as the first and final navigation links. For example, if you have an e-commerce website, use your main navigation links to directly point users to your products instead of having “About Us” first. If you are a non-profit, use a bold “Donate” link at the end of the navigation bar so a user’s eye is led to that button.
- Use Dropdown Menus Sparingly: As mentioned in #1, not every page on your site should be in the header navigation as a main category. Sub-pages can be placed in dropdown menus to further pinpoint information but limit them to 1 or 2 (3 levels max including your main navigation). The extra step of opening menus could lead to navigation frustration and negatively affect the user experience. If you have more than 3 levels go back to your content and see where items can be consolidated or restructured.
- Stick with What Works: It may be tempting to buck convention, but, when it comes to site navigation, it’s best to use standard practices. Even if a product or service is completely new to users, they’ll still expect to see the site navigation in the usual spots: in the header, footer, or on the sides. Avoid making your visitors work for information.
A stellar website should be easy to navigate for humans and search engine robots alike. Thoughtful planning during the website-building process will help you reach more customers and strengthen your brand no matter which industry you’re in.
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