My previous article about sitemaps examined what they should be like. The conclusion was: sitemaps need to be complete and show metainformation. The second conclusion was that it's hard to build a good sitemap. In this article I try to focus on the true functions of search engines, navigation and sitemaps.
How do we find stuff in books? All these years of book-publishing experience have led to a fairly wide adopted system to look up information: you get an overview, a detailed table of contents and at the back of the book an (alphabetical) index.
If you're just trying to find out what's in the book, you look at the introduction and (if you want more detail) at the table of contents. If you're looking for info on something specific, you look at the hierarchy in the table of contents and try to locate it like that, or you use the alphabetical index, which gives you a list of pages where that word is mentioned.
Simple, and effective. (Having fun yet?)
Overview = navigation. Table of contents = sitemap. Index = search engine.
A sitemap doesn't stand on it's own, it works together with the navigation and the search function to help users find their way around.
We can make all these tools way more powerful than their book equivalents with the technology we have. I think the reason why they are often neglected or quickly assembled as a sort of afterthought (except for navigation), is just that most website designers haven't exactly thought about them yet, really.
Of course, we can't just copy these print systems without thought because of the nature of the Net, which isn't linear (serial) like a book. That said, let's see what we can do.
The navigation: Following the book metaphor, the navigation serves to introduce the user to what's there. Not to be complete. I think navigation should give the user a few choices of where to go next, based on what they are doing. Remember, map the user's experience!
If the user has scrolled down to the bottom of the page (presumably after reading it), the navigation should give him links to related stuff. How to find more of the same, since he's obviously interested.
Following that line of thought, the navigation at the top of the page should give the user links to different stuff. Since if he wants to click there he obviously isn't interested in the kind of information this page shows.
Being an overview, the navigation should also give the user a broad idea of what else is on the site.
The sitemap: The sitemap should be complete. This doesn't mean you need to show everything on 1 page, you could think of yahoo as 1 big sitemap as well. But everything needs to be there.
It should also be properly categorized (according to the user's needs, not to the organisation of your website.) This will make it easy to look over it fast and find what you want. The links should be (as all links) descriptive (commented).
It takes some work to make a properly categorized, commented sitemap and to keep it update. But hey, if work scares you, change profession.
The searchengine: Every site of some size needs a search engine (if users use the site to get information). But many are poorly optimized. It's not hard to give each page some unique keywords (or the other way round), but it takes some work.
Also, the metainformation they show is often irrelevant to the users goals, and seems to reflect the info that's easily retrieved by the software, instead of what users really need.
A well optimized search engine can be a lot more powerful than a book index, so put some work in it! Because poorly optimized it can be the opposite.
I was looking at this collection of sitemaps that claim to make it easier for the user to find what they want (at least that's what the introduction says), have a look at the page, it's beautiful. They all kind of map the connections between pages, and only a few give more info about each page (some look spectacular though). Notice also how much space is taken by the connections (about 70%) and how much by info about the pages.
Don't map the links! Don't map how to get to a page! If a user wants to get to a page, he clicks on it. Map the user's experience. The user's needs. Think: "What will help him decide which page to go to, and what won't?".
Also, some of these maps weren't exactly intuitive. On the web, maps need to be immediately understood. A legend can be used to show some non-critical features for power users, but the main elements of the map should be understood without reading the legend.
We already have all the cool tools to help the user find what he wants and get around. Thinking about them from a book's perspective helps to focus their functions.
Navigation: Shouldn't be complete. Just give the user a few options, based on what they're doing, and give an idea of the site. The navigation doesn't need to fulfills the functions of a sitemap, or a search engine.
Sitemap: Should be complete and give metainformation about the users' experience, not about the site's structure.
Search engine: Should be properly optimized and give useful information to decide which page to go to.