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Preliminary Findings on the Use of Sitemaps

By Michael Bernard

One of the most common complaints users have when navigating the World Wide Web has been the frequency in which they become lost within a particular site (GVU, 1989). In fact, one study found that users fail to find specific information 58% of the time. This can be attributed, in many respects, to the user becoming overwhelmed by the myriad directions they may take within the site, resulting in sense of disorientation or "lostness" within this site. This can even occur in relatively small sites (see Kim & Hirtle, 1995; Smith, 1996).

It is commonly asserted that an essential reason for the sense of lostness is due to the fact that this medium involves non-linear network links, connecting nodes of information that often serve to disorient users by providing a large number –often an overwhelming number – of undefined paths that they may take in order to find specific information (see Elm and Woods, 1995). This poses several potential problems for the user.

First, because the user may have incorrect or incomplete knowledge of the organizational structure and/or the access tools supplementing the search, they may be disoriented by the web site itself. Second, the great amount of information choices available may cause users to become distracted, thus, possibly causing them to detour in unintended directions and consequently become lost within the site. Third, users may be disorientated by what is known as the "art museum problem." Similar to viewing large amounts of art for extended periods, users may become fatigued by this, and thus are not be able to discriminate the details of the presented information or the association between nodes because of the shear vastness of this information. Accordingly, after scanning the site information, users may have great difficulty determining which direction they should proceed as well as recognize the nodes they visited because of the lack of attention to this information (Foss, 1989).

Attempts to reduce the disorientation problems by creating various navigational aids have had limited success (see Morville, 1996). One such method has been the use of navigational site maps within medium and large web sites. Sitemaps, which attempt to present a structural representation of a web site, a believed to assist users conceptualize the framework of site, which would provide them with a model that could enable them to organize the information within the site. This should reduce the cognitive workload of the user because the user will not have to spend as much effort concentrating on the site’s navigational structure.

Sitemaps, however, have received very little research attention. In fact, to date there has been no comprehensive study to determine if they significantly reduce the sense of lostness within a site. Furthermore, no published study has even examined whether sitemaps produce satisfaction outcomes that are great enough for them to be warranted in web sites. Even more importantly, there is no standard definition of what constitutes the makeup of a sitemap, much less its optimal construction.

If sitemaps do indeed reduce the sense of lostness by providing greater organization, then the use of them should produce a clearer understanding of structure of the site and hence reduce the amount of incorrect paths in finding specific information. It should also produce lower level of fatigue and confusion, along with greater levels of satisfaction.

The purpose of this report is to discuss our preliminary findings concerning site- maps and their relationship to the degree and sense of lostness and user satisfaction, as well as lay the foundations for possible future research. First, subjects (n = 18) were asked to find website information by starting from one of two types of navigation sites—a site’s standard home page or its sitemap—for two different web sites— Exxon Corporation (www.exxon.com) and the Union Pacific Rail Road Corporation (www.uprr.com). These two sites were chosen because of the similarity in size and organization. The sitemaps for the two sites were both hierarchical in format.

Subjects were to familiarize themselves with only that site page for five minutes. After this, subjects were instructed to search for specific answers to six questions that pertained to that site, examining any link they wanted until they found the appropriate information. After each question they returned to the site page, which was either the homepage or the sitemap page and begin the next question. For each question, the number of nodes it took to find the correct answer was counted. After answering these questions, they answered a satisfaction questionnaire pertaining to that site. This contained items such as subjects’ satisfaction with finding specific information, as well as the site’s logic of navigation –such as subjects’ satisfaction with finding specific information, as well as the sites’ logic of navigation. The fatigue and confusion questionnaire had items such as subjects’ level of exhaustion and frustration levels and their degree of confusion after completing the task.

After this was completed, subjects began at the other site, starting from the site map if they originally started from the homepage or the homepage if they originally started from the sitemap. Here, they also were instructed to answer six questions related to that site. Again, each question was counted for number of links taken to find the correct answer. After completing these questions, subjects answered the same satisfaction, fatigue and confusion questionnaire that they answered for the previous web site. Both sets of responses were then compared by means of a t-test.

Results and Discussion

The results for the Exxon site showed no significant difference between the use of its sitemap or its homepage, though there was a definite trend that beginning at the sitemap rather than the homepage would reduce the number of nodes needed to find the correct information, M = 14.33 and M = 20.14 respectively. Using the sitemap first in the Union Pacific site, however, produced a marginally significant less number of nodes to find the correct answer than the just using the homepage, M = 7.78 and M = 14.22 respectively. This particular outcome partially supports the notion that sitemaps allows the user see the organization of the site more readily.

Examining the sense of satisfaction, participants using the Exxon and the Union Pacific sites found no significant differences in their rate of satisfaction with the ease of finding specific information or logic of navigation. However, participants using the Exxon site significantly [t (16) = -2.55, p < .05] were more satisfied with the completeness of the site when the sitemap was used as a navigation tool. Examining the participants’ fatigue and confusion found a marginally significant increase in their belief that they found all the relevant information in the site when the sitemap was used, [t (16) = -1.87, p = .080]

Although in most cases, the results produced only marginally significant results, if at all, it did support the notion that sitemaps may allow for the user to better perceive the organization of the site and, hence, reduce their sense of lostness. One factor that should be taken into consideration is the small number of subjects. Further studies should examine sitemap versus no sitemaps with a greater amount of power.


Elm, W. & Woods, D. (1985). Getting lost: A case study in interface design. Proceedings of the Human  Factors Society 29th Annual Meeting (The Human Factors Society, Santa Monica, CA) 927-931

Foss, C. L. (1989). Tools for reading and browsing hypertext. Information Processing and Management, 25, 407-418.

Georgia Tech Research Corporation (1998). GVU’s 9th WWW User Survey [On-line]. Available http://www.gvu.gatech.edu/user_serveys/survey-1998-04

Kim, H., & Hirtle, S. C. (1995). Spatial metaphors and disorientation in hypertext browsing. Behaviour & Information Technology, 14, 239-250.

Morville, P. (1996). Mapping your site: A picture is worth a thousand words. Web Review. [On-line serial]. Available http://webreview.com/96/09/27/arch/index.html.

Smith, P. A. (1996). Towards a practical measure of hypertext usability. Interacting with Computers, 8, 365-351.

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Last update: April 08, 1999
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