Want a website that is easy to navigate? Here are some tips for building an awesome sitemap. But first…

What is a sitemap anyway?

A sitemap is a list of the pages on a website.

how to build a sitemap

It’s typically organized hierarchically (that is, with tiers/levels of importance). A sitemap essentially defines and orders your navigation menu, subpages, and buttons – a.k.a. How people get around and find stuff on your site.

There’s an art to creating the perfect sitemap. It’s an art that balances design with usability. Clarity with priority.

When managing your website, it’s easy to just plop items into the navigation menu as they come up. That’s when things get overloaded, confusing, and unorganized. If you want a great website, take a step back and assess the bigger picture. Pay special attention to your sitemap.

Keep the following principles in mind to build an awesome sitemap.

Step 1: Identify your audience

When designing a sitemap, put yourself in the shoes of your audience. Ask the following:

  • Who will be visiting my website? (Think about ages, genders, etc.)
  • What are they looking for?
  • What do I want them to find/discover?

It’s difficult to answer these questions without some help. Educated guesses will only get you so far and could limit your success.

Instead, get answers using one of these methods:

  1. The old-fashioned way: Ask parishioners and other people you know for their opinions.
  2. The data-driven way: Check out your Google Analytics. You’ll learn who is visiting, when, and where they’re spending the most time.

We suggest using a combination of these two methods. (Getting a variety of personal opinions is a nice supplement to computer-generated data.) When in doubt, side with the data!

Step 2: Brainstorm pages, categories, and headings (stickies optional)

Once you have a clear picture of your audience, start getting your ideas on paper.

These questions can jump-start the brainstorming process:

  • What are all the topics your website should cover?
  • Which topics contain enough information to become standalone pages? Can any topics be combined?
  • Do any topics fall into natural categories/groupings? What could you call those categories/groupings?

Jot on a big whiteboard. Build a masterful Excel spreadsheet. Slap colorful sticky notes all over the nearest wall. Just pick a method and start brainstorming!

what is a sitemap

As you brainstorm, be sure to get feedback from others. This step doesn’t necessarily need precision. It’s about making sure you’ve covered all your bases so you can begin to visualize the blueprint of your website.

Step 3: Whittle it down and define your priorities

No doubt, there are lots of great things happening at your parish, school, or ministry. (If it was ever in doubt, your brainstorming session made it crystal clear.) They’re all important (especially to the people involved) and they all need visibility on your website.

However, an unfortunate truth exists: Everything can’t be urgent and important. You need to define your priorities.

Gather a group of people to have honest discussions about your communication priorities. Then, using the data and opinions already gathered (see step 1 above), make informed decisions about how to structure your website with your audience in mind. You will need to make the following decisions:

  1. Decide what makes the cut for the main navigation menu (aim for four to six items)
  2. Identify items that can be relegated to subpages
  3. Determine what can be placed in a mega menu
  4. Choose whether you’d like buttons or quicklinks to be part of your sitemap strategy (and, if so, which items could be highlighted using these features)

Don’t lose sight of the goal: to help your audience quickly and intuitively find the information they’re seeking. At the same time, be careful not to use your main navigation to highlight pet projects that aren’t necessarily relevant to your audience.

Once you’ve got a clear picture of your priorities, it’s time to optimize.

Step 4: Choose intuitive headings

You’ve identified your priorities. Next, determine how you want to market these priorities on your website.

church website headings

It may seem odd to say you’re “marketing” something like sacraments. But, in essence, you need to think like a marketer. Optimize the headings for your main navigation menu, buttons, and other website elements.

Ask yourself: What is the most effective and attractive way to communicate “priority X”? What would be the clearest and most intuitive heading for my audience?

For example, if you’ve identified “Mass” as one of your priority items, you could market it in the main navigation menu as “Liturgy,” “Worship with us,” or just “Mass.” Which is best?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a single correct answer when it comes to sitemaps. Your site’s structure will vary depending on your identity, brand, goals, and preferences.

Final thought: SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

Having an optimized sitemap also has important SEO (search engine optimization) benefits. Search engines (like Google) have web crawlers that read your sitemap file to more intelligently crawl your website.

If you don’t have a sitemap, the indexing robots could potentially miss your site’s pages, damaging your search engine ranking. With eCatholic, there’s no need to worry. Building your sitemap in the sitemap editor guarantees Google’s robots will be able to crawl your website.