Setting up for Success: The Role of Sitemap Planning

A woman places sticky notes on a planning board while a man sits nearby.

When I tell our custom website clients that we will be doing sitemap planning in our initial project meetings, I get a variety of responses ranging from “We have ours ready to go!” to “What’s a sitemap?” So for folks who might be closer to the latter end of the spectrum, here’s a breakdown of what a sitemap is, what purpose it serves, and how you can be ready for your sitemap planning session. 

The basics 🧑‍🏫

First things first: there’s a difference between sitemap planning as something you do early in a website project and your actual sitemap once your site is live. So let’s take a look at what makes them different.


Most simply put, a sitemap is a document that shows the pages and files on your website and how they are related to each other. There are a few different kinds of sitemaps, but that’s a more technical discussion for another post. Many websites will have a link to their text-based sitemap in their footer if you’re curious to see a couple of examples (scroll to the bottom of this page or click here to see ours).

Sitemap planning

A lot less technical and more organizational is sitemap planning: it’s sitting down and looking at what pages are going to need to exist on your website at the start of the project. We recommend doing this in a visual format using a tool like Google Docs or Miro. It’s best to keep it simple lest you get into the weeds too much and find yourself wireframing.

Side note: wireframing vs. sitemap planning

A wireframe is a mockup of each page of your website without any design. That means no branding, no pictures, etc. When we do wireframing, we often do it in tandem with copywriting, so there is written content organized in a way that foreshadows your eventual website, but that’s about it. Wireframing gets into things like hero sections, pricing tables, FAQs, and more. That’s something you don’t want to do while sitemap planning. 🙅 It can be tempting to start defining what the pages will look like, but it’s best to leave that for later.

Sitemaps and SEO 🔍

If you’re someone who already knows what a sitemap is, you may have learned about it in your SEO (search engine optimization) research. So what does a sitemap have to do with SEO?

In the simplest terms, sitemaps allow Google and other search engines to crawl your site in the most effective way, thus improving your chances of showing up in an organic search. Sitemaps communicate what is on your site, what you think is most important, and how it’s all organized. It also provides important metadata about things like the last time a page was updated. All these things factor into how Google organizes results and where your website might fall in a list of search results.

Mapping the path forward 🗺️

For our custom website projects, sitemap planning serves a few purposes, all of them supporting the success of the project as a whole.

Defining and clarifying scope 

Discussions of scope are hardly ever fun, but they’re increasingly miserable the further into a project you get. 😅 It’s one thing to have a conversation at the beginning about what can and can’t happen in a given timeframe; it’s another to be nearing the end of a project and have to tell a client that something they pictured happening the whole time isn’t going to happen. 😬

Sitemap planning can minimize these conversations because it cuts down on surprises and gets everyone on the same page. When we work with a client to plan out a sitemap, we figure out about how many pages are going to be included in the project and that allows us to define things like timeframes, deadlines, and deliverables much more easily.

Making a shopping list 🛒

There are a lot of components that go into building a website, and it can be helpful to know at least some of those before the process really kicks off. Sitemap planning can help us estimate how much copy will be needed for the site, as well as items like photos, graphics, videos, and more that often need to be found or produced for the site. There are also plugins that we use to add features to the websites we build, and many of those require licenses or other fees that clients like to know about from the start.

Thinking about user experience

At the sitemap planning stage, we often can identify places on a website that will create user experience issues, mainly in thinking about the navigation necessary to make a sitemap into a reality. An incredibly common error folks make is having too many pages with too much information. This is typically in an attempt to answer every possible question and give a response for every possible concern, but that really isn’t an effective way to market via the web.

People’s eyes glaze over when they land on a web page and see lines and lines of text. 🥱 We encourage clients to simplify, starting at the sitemap planning stage. If you define a main navigation item and then start to add 10 subpages under it, we often suggest consolidating things. While that many subpages can be necessary or effective in some contexts, a lot of times it just makes it harder for the visitor to find what they’re looking for. You always want folks to be able to find things in as few clicks as possible, so we identify pages that could be combined into a single page to make the experience of the user a little easier.

Clear communication of expectations

One of the pitfalls of website projects is the gap that sometimes exists between what the client expects and what the developers are thinking. When folks come to us from failed website projects, they often have a common complaint: “At the end of the project, the developer suddenly changed the whole plan and didn’t give us what we paid for.” There are certainly cases of bad developers who are taking advantage of people, but more often, we think the issue comes down to communication.

Clients aren’t web developers; if they were, they likely wouldn’t be our clients in the first place! So we have to assume going into the project that things that are obvious to us over a decade in business may not be obvious to the folks we’re building websites for. That’s why we go the extra mile to confirm expectations and make sure everyone agrees about what is and isn’t going to happen in the project. The first step is making sure we have the same idea about what pages are going to be on the website.

Planning the next phase

With custom websites, we sometimes have to include a “phase 2” in our projects. Websites do a lot of heavy lifting for businesses these days, but the dream for a new website can be a little too lofty for the timeline. But a website launch is still a launch, even if some features won’t be able to be added for a couple months or if some pages are still in development. Planning a sitemap can allow us to include things in the overall plan and designate if they’ll have to be put on hold for a second version of your site.

How to prepare for sitemap planning 📝

If you want to be an all-star client, there are some things you can consider prior to a sitemap planning meeting that will set you—and the whole website project—up for success.

What is the main navigation for my website going to be?

When you picture the header, that section at the very top of your website that is the same on most pages, what do you see? If you aren’t picturing it at all, maybe visit the websites of some of your competitors to get an idea of how folks in your industry organize their sites. (You don’t have to follow their lead exactly, even if it seems like everyone is doing the same thing, but it can be a good place to start.)

Remember, this is the highest level of organization, so many of these pages will be your highest-level information or content. For our Quickstart Five Page Websites, we define these pages as Home, About, Services/Products/Process, Contact, and Bonus, all of which are pretty general. This may be a good place to start thinking about your high-level navigation.

What subpages, if any, will my main navigation have?

Keeping in mind the earlier discussion of simplifying user experience, you’ll need to consider which topics will need their own dedicated page. Subpages will be pages that won’t be displayed in your main navigation (at least not without hovering over something in the main nav), but they will exist under one of the main navigation items. A good web developer will be able to help you decide if you can combine or streamline your subpages, so you’ll want to note subpages that you aren’t sure about as well. 

Are there hidden pages that will exist on my site?

Something easy to overlook are hidden pages: pages that won’t be visible from your navigation but will still exist on your site. These pages include things like confirmation or thank you pages, landing pages for specific client groups, and more. It’s helpful to outline these during sitemap planning, even if they are pages that won’t need much in the way of copy or design, like a 404 page. They will still take time and need to be included in considerations for the project.

How do I feel about the navigation on my current site?

A lot of folks doing a website refresh tell us that they want to overhaul the navigation of their current website. Common reasons are that it’s too difficult to navigate, their visitors complain about not being able to find things, or they don’t like how many pages they currently have.

If you have a website, your developer will love to hear about what you do or don’t like about your navigation so they can better help you troubleshoot and reorganize. Your current sitemap can also provide a useful starting point from which you can determine what needs to be combined, eliminated, or added.

How much help do I want?

If you’ve hired someone to build your website, you are obviously interested in getting an expert to help you build it. But sometimes folks don’t have a lot of wiggle room with their sitemap planning: they want things a certain way and they’re not open to suggestions, or at least not that many. 😉 This can be helpful for your designer to know so they know how many suggestions to make: stick to just the crucial ones that may affect things like SEO or accessibility, or make all the suggestions that occur to them because you’re very open to input.


Sitemap planning is an important step at the beginning of our website process, and it’s the same for many other developers. We love a planning meeting that feels collaborative and aspirational, and it’s a great feeling when you leave knowing the path forward and everyone’s part in making it happen. 🙌 Creating that clear map of your website provides the project with a sense of direction and clarity around the great things to come.

If you like the sound of sitemap planning with us and you’d like to explore more of how we build custom websites, you can see a breakdown of our process or apply for a custom website.

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