How to Define Website Structure with a Sitemap | Digital Masters

Episode #41

How to Define Website Structure with a Sitemap

website structure meeting

So you want to charge more money for the websites that you’re building? Then you know that you have to provide the value to be able to charge more.

Well, you should be anyway.

We talked in episode 40 about adding value to the websites you’re building and the first thing on that list was to improve your upfront planning.

Yea, the super boring part of any web design process (and I love planning!).

But, doing the upfront work does a lot to improve the websites you’re building and helps you to have happier customers, so it’s all worth it I swear.

Today, we’re going to dive a bit deeper into that planning process and talk about how you can create one of the first steps to any website build – the sitemap.

Deciding on a website’s structure with a sitemap not only makes your job easier because it’s all laid out upfront, but it helps your customer feel aligned with the process and help to clarify the site’s goals.

Ready to learn the most effective way to create a sitemap?

Let’s dig in!

Define the Goals of the Website

When creating a new website’s structure – whether this is their first website or a total redo – a lot of lower level web designers will just recreate the current’s website structure or come up with simple pages to include.

Why is this a problem?

Because it doesn’t take into account the goals or objectives of a website.

Especially if this is a website rebuild, there’s a reason that we’re rebuilding this website. Something isn’t working for that business, and chances are it’s not just the design that they don’t like.

What they actually don’t like is that their leads have slowed down or their sales have slipped.

While a lot of businesses *think* they just need a “refresh,” what they don’t understand is that their website is probably misorganized or Frankensteined in a way that doesn’t make sense to their target customer.

Clarify Their Purpose

That’s where you come in. Before you get started with anything, including the sitemap, you have to ask what the purpose of the new website will be. Are they trying to increase certain aspects of their business? Do they want to downplay another? What’s their top-selling service that they need to keep at the forefront?

Knowing the real reasons why a business wants to redo their website will help you to structure the website to deliver on those changes.

For instance, I had a client that wanted to downplay her physical location in order to increase her online product sales. We changed up her site to include a Shop option as the very first thing in her navigation and turned her location into more of a destination feel with a Plan Your Visit page that linked to three directed subpages. Her location was well established in the local community, but she wanted to appeal to people outside of the locale to gain a broader audience. Simply changing up her website structure makes it more clear that she offers direct, eCommerce sales.

Creating a Website’s Structure

You know the goals for a business and you understand the purpose the website is fulfilling. Now you have to break down exactly what that website needs to include, page wise.

Step 1: Review Current Pages

If your client has an existing website, you can certainly start with the existing structure, but don’t stop there.

Treat this as you would a new website and ask what pages you would need to align with those goals you discussed. What will drive their customers to make purchases and what pages do you need to make that structure make sense?

Look at the pages on the current website and ask yourself if they’re actually needed or not, too. Do you have some pages that are extraneous or covering outdated services they no longer want to offer? Are there pages that seem like duplicates of one another?

Avoiding Duplicate Content

Let’s talk about that last question for a second. Taking a step back and evaluating a website’s current structure can have one major benefit – it can help to prevent duplicate content.

A lot of businesses add to their website over time, trying to adjust for changes in their internal processes or the market. But what can happen is that you have pages that cover many of the same or similar topics. If the website is a bit older or was written for location-based SEO strategies, you might also have multiple pages with the same content, just with the city name or service swapped out.

While that was a valuable SEO tactic at one time, it doesn’t really have the same effect anymore. And honestly, duplicate content can now harm your SEO.

Break down all of the pages a website has and asks – is this a duplicate in any way of a main page or service? If so, rip it out! Less is more when it comes to UX and SEO these days.

Step 2: Start Your New Sitemap

You know the website’s goals and objectives, and now  you have a pretty good idea of where you’re starting from.

Now it’s time to layout the structure of that new sitemap.

With all sitemaps, you want to start with the homepage. Every website has that, after all, and all the most important pages will be directly linked from that homepage.

Go back to your notes from step one and ask yourself – what are the most important pages this client currently has? What can we trim out and what do we need to add to reflect new services or company changes?

Now, go to your sitemap outline and add the main 5 to 8 navigation items that you’ll link in your main, top level navigation. These don’t have to be the final pages, but start somewhere with what you think are the most important products, services, or pages.

Keep the Navigation Clean

Why only 8 main navigation links? When you provide too many options upfront, you can cause your user a lot of confusion. Keeping your main navigation simple will help them to get through your website and dig into the main pages. From those main pages, you can link further into your website to sub-products and services that they might be interested in.

The key here though is to narrow down the choices so they actually make a choice instead of getting overwhelmed and bailing.

Step 3: Do Some Comparative Research

You’ve got your basic structure in mind for the main pages, now I want you to take a step back and do some comparative research.

Why do I do this after I’ve done the first round of navigation items?

I have found over the years that it helps me to stay focused on the business’s unique goals to do my first draft of the sitemap, at least the main navigation items, first. This allows me to flesh it out without the “noise” of other websites in their industry.

But then I need to reaffirm that I’m doing the right thing or not missing something obvious that I didn’t think of. So go to 3-5 competitor websites for your client. What pages do they include? What do they list first and how deep is their own navigation? Is there something you feel like you’re missing?

Get that sitemap back out and re-evaluate. Add or adjust the pages, but ensure that you’re still focused on the business’s main goals. After all, not all businesses are created alike. Competitors can help you get a good idea, but just because they did something doesn’t mean you have to.

Step 4: Fine Tune the Deeper Structure

Now that you have your main navigation decided on, it’s time to fine tune the deeper page structure. If the website you’re building only has 5-7 pages, you might be able to skip this step.

On each of these main navigation pages, you want to list out any subpages that you might link to from that parent page. That will remind you what links and buttons to add on that parent page to take users to the subpages, but also help you place any pages that weren’t important enough for the main navigation.

Let’s break down an example. For a serviced based business, one of their main navigation links could be a Services page. From there, you may link to subpages for each of their provided services. You’ll want to note those subpages in the sitemap and plan to add links on the Services page to those subservices.

Step 5: Decide on the URL Structure

You now have the pages you want to include in the main navigation and all of their subpages decided. For many web designers, they could stop there and pass that off to the client for review.

But I’d highly recommend you do this next step first and showcase the actual URLs of each of these pages.

Not only does seeing the actual slugs tend to help clients understand the page structure better, it helps you to begin the SEO strategy for the website.

URL Structure Best Practices

While it’s highly debated how much your URL structure impacts your SEO anymore, it’s still a determining factor in your UX which is a factor in your SEO. And let’s be real – URL’s tell a user and Google pretty quickly what a page is about.

I always recommend that you use plain English names, the shorter the better, for your internal URLs. This helps customers be able to remember them, but it also provides a cleaner experience.

There’s been a debate lately on Camel Case URLs (where you capitalize the first letter of different words), but not all servers recognize mixed case URLs.

The best method is still to separate any individual words in a URL with hyphens and to include the keywords that actually reflect what the page is about.

If you want to dig more into URL structure best practices, Search Engine Journal has an excellent URL structure guide that I’ll link to in the show notes.

How to Handle Subpages’ URLs

When it comes to your subpages, it’s honestly on you to decide whether they need to be nested under their parent page’s URL or not.

If that subpage really only exists under the parent, then you’ll want to nest it. If not and if it’s linked from other pages, you don’t have to.

A little confused? A good URL structure for a parent page can look something like:

Include the URLs in the Sitemap

For all of the sitemaps I build customers, I include the URL in the sitemap. Does this confuse some of my clients? Sure. But it also gives us a chance to talk about these URLs and make sure that we’re on the same page for the main topic of a page. After all, the URL needs to reflect the main subject of that page. Including the URLs in the sitemap they review helps us to hone that in and communicate.

Step 6: Finalize the Sitemap with the Client

This is a bit of a given, but your last step in creating the sitemap and website’s structure is to review it all with your client. Is it hitting everything they think it should? Is everything in the order from most important to their business and getting clients to least?

Talking it through with the lens of their overall goals and objectives will help them to understand what you’re doing. It will also give them a clear picture of where you’re going with their project, especially if you’re doing some major revamps to the website.

Make sure they sign off on the new sitemap, too, so that when things come up later you have that approval to point back to.

Streamline the Website Creation Process

Without a sitemap and the proper structure planning upfront, you can end up building pages that are outside of the scope of the original project or spend time creating pages that the business doesn’t actually need. Worse, you could be creating a website that’s more complex than it actually needs to be.

It’s 100% worth the time to work with your client to plan everything out and get the structure in place before you start writing copy or thinking about design. It’ll not only save you money and make your website creation process more profitable in the long run, but it’ll improve the end result you’re creating, too.

Join the Conversation!