Information Architecture vs Sitemap: What's the Difference?

Updated on March 1st, 2022

Information architecture vs sitemap - are they the same or different from each other? At times, practitioners mix the concepts of information architecture (IA) and sitemap. While it is right that these concepts are related and the creation of IA is important for making a sitemap, both are still different. In fact, IA covers a lot beyond a sitemap. This article is devoted to the essence of information architecture and sitemaps and presents the major differences between them that every professional should know.

What Is Information Architecture?

Information architecture (IA) refers to creating a structure for a website, application, or other digital products, that enables us to get where we are as users and where the information we desire is in connection with our position. It is the practice of organizing and labeling the content of a system so that it presents the optimal UX it can, with information being findable and usable. IA focuses on the system structure, i.e., the order information follows, the navigation methods, and terminology used within the system. It is a skill set that interacts with multiple roles, including researchers, designers, content and SEO strategists, and programmers.

An effective IA allows users to step through a system, knowing that they are getting closer to the information they want. It informs content strategy by identifying content and notifying UI design and interaction design by playing a part in prototyping. The majority of the people just notice information architecture when it is poor or creates confusion and costs site conversions in the end. IA results in the creation of sitemaps, along with forming hierarchies, categorizations, and navigation.

What Is a Sitemap?

Of all the methods used to capture and define information architecture, a site map is the most common. It is an outline that lays out all the pages on sites and the parent-child relation of these web pages. A sitemap shows every way a user can navigate a website and displays the content arrangement. You can also use sitemaps to provide information about specific content on pages, including images, videos, and news. While acting as a blueprint for sites, a sitemap helps search engines crawl and index all pages and tell which page is the most important on a website.

There are different types of sitemaps: visual and XML. A visual sitemap is a hierarchical diagram you create before developing a website. Visual sitemaps display a website’s navigation structure and the organization of the content on different web pages. An XML sitemap is a collection of pages on a site. It can show a particular page that is at a defined location. Google read this file to crawl and index your websites in an efficient manner.

Importance of Information Architecture and Sitemaps

Content is the major reason why people visit any website. When finding some information becomes complicated or slow, there is a risk that users leave the site. And when they leave, it gets hard to bring them back. This is where information architecture plays a vital role. Without IA, the website content will remain unorganized, which will affect both the user and the business.

Value for the Users

In today’s world, people need immediate satisfaction. This, together with excessive information available and choice, means it is crucial to deliver users the right content at the right time. When the process of finding information is complex or slow, the user will leave the process and move to another site or app. According to experts, the IA of a website should address the following user needs:

  • Known-item seeking – Users will visit a site or an app to look for something known, or they want.
  • Exploratory seeking – Users will visit sites while looking for inspiration. They are looking for something they want but are unsure about it.
  • Exhaustive seeking – Users will visit websites as a part of an extensive research process. They want to find as much content as possible.
  • Re-finding – A user will visit a site to find the desired items again.

It is crucial to consider different visitors and how they will navigate a website, search for items, or use filters when it comes to IA. Good information architecture impacts the UX to a great extent as it helps users find the content they are interested in. The faster the people reach their final destination, no matter whether that destination has multiple options, the higher their gratification will be. So, we should remember that learning about the users and the types of their information-seeking behavior is crucial to success. When we know our user’s needs, we can prioritize which architectural elements we should work on first.

Value for the Business

If a user fails to find crucial information or perform major tasks, businesses can miss out on many things. IA can play a major part in the following:

  • Workforce Productivity

    Poor IA for internal content can result in wasted time and impacted productivity. In 1999, the International Data Corporation (IDC) carried out research on employees to determine the financial cost of this knowledge work deficit. The research covered how long employees spend looking for information every week and how much time they spend making material that already exists because they could not find it. The research estimated the cost at $5,000 per organization per year.

  • Sales and Reputation

    Losing a business is among the most common consequences of poor IA. When a user is unable to find desired products, sales will drop, and the effects can be long-running. If people leave a website, it gets difficult to bring them back as they might find a competitor who will provide a solution to their problem, like offering the desired product. And since the majority of the sales are dependent on word of mouth, this can have a negative impact on the complete network of potential customers.

  • Getting New Users

    As per the business model, acquiring new members could be one of your significant plans. If so, your signup pages should have a design based on UX research. And if the pages are complicated, nobody will provide their personal data, meaning you will struggle to generate profits or show traction.

  • Lowering Marketing Costs

    If a user fails to find the desired information, services, or products, marketing costs will increase to an insane level for achieving the same results. When you send paid traffic to a page, visitors should navigate with ease from that page to where they wish to go. If a user abandons a site before completing the desired action on a habitual basis, you may spend a lot of money on remarketing. In addition, poor site structure can result in reduced natural traffic due to the lower page rank in search results.

  • SEO Ranking

    IA has a significant impact on search engine optimization. Organized data and content affect ranking, usability, and conversions. Ranking helps with placing a site higher in the search results, usability makes the website easy to use, and a smooth flow leads to an increased conversion rate. If you index poor text or have recurrent information, it could have an adverse impact on your SEO.

Sitemaps have long since been part of great web design practices. The creation of good IA is the main goal of creating a sitemap. A sitemap created with clear objectives can serve as a driving factor to a site’s success, providing a strong connection between pages and search engines and improving the UX, which is crucial to the conversion process. A good sitemap will make your site searchable by Google and other search engines, providing a user with accurate search results while looking for keywords linked to your content.

Creating a new website can be challenging, which gets further complicated if a large volume of information needs organization. A sitemap is ideal for managing and maintaining URLs when you have thousands of URLs to handle, in particular, like an online shopping store with several products. A site map acts as an effective planning tool that helps organize and clarify the data that should be on the site and removed in case of unnecessary information.

Also, a good sitemap gives a good experience to visitors, leading to further conversions. Besides having many SEO tips to optimize your site, an up-to-date sitemap can be of great benefit to your site. So, it is important to implement a structured sitemap.

Information Architecture vs Sitemap: What’s the Difference?

First of all, you should know that information architecture and sitemaps are crucial for a website’s success. However, they are different from each other. Here, we will discuss how and why they are different from each other. Here are some of the common differences between IA and a sitemap:

Direct/Indirect Benefits

On the whole, information architecture and sitemaps are both for the benefit of end-users but have different uses. A sitemap is a collection of the URLs in a website that is in an XML file. Search engines crawl that file to get what a site has to offer and recommend if it matches the search query best. A copy of that sitemap in HTML may be linked at the end of many pages for a user to view.

IA is a lot beneficial for end-users as an information architect gets the content and organizes it to make it effortless for people to find and use. These experts create an experience that focuses on user flows, user requirements, and interaction design. So, IA is for the direct benefit of your user, whereas a sitemap is extra involved with search engines and benefit the user in an indirect way.

Content-Related

IA is content-related in every respect. The information architect gets the complete content, conducts a content audit to find out what is there, and uses different tools to determine the ideal approach to organize it for providing the best user experience. It is directed at the target audience and is still usable and related to the people. A sitemap is also related to the content within the site but in an indirect way. When organizing the site structure, the matter on those web pages gets consideration during the design process.

Type of Experience

A user can experience IA rather than seeing it as an image. IA is all about usability and the user experience, so it should remain unnoticed. When done right, a user might fail to know what is happening. And if it is terrible, they will know in all likelihood.

On the other hand, sitemaps that search engines see will be somehow unseen to the people as they are a part of the back-end of websites most of the time. A site map published to the site’s front end for viewing will be a visual or an HTML sitemap. These sitemaps are a lot easier to read for the masses but generate controlled traffic.

Job Role

An information architect is responsible for doing the information architecture work. But depending on the company’s size and how they assign work, the information architect may also be the one creating the sitemap. In addition, the architects may be content strategists or UX designers.

Need

All things considered, you need both information architecture and sitemaps. If you want to build a successful website, an app, or any other digital product, you will need both in all respects. IA is important as you want the user to enjoy using your product. If users can navigate your site and find everything they want without having any issues, then your IA wins.

A sitemap is also necessary since it helps bring people to your product. It is important to have if you want Google or other search engines to know what your site has. These days, a sitemap is automated most of the time, at least the type that search engines care about. A CMS creates it while you keep on adding or removing things from your site. So, if you are concerned about the functionality of your product and achieving your goals, both are important.

Steps to Create Information Architecture

Depending on the process, a UX designer or information architect can create IA. Here are the basic steps for creating effective information architecture:

1. Understand the Business Requirements

Meet stakeholders, ask them relevant questions, and conduct interviews for learning objectives. Find out about the business model, type of customers, and the business requirements for this IA project. In the case of a team working on this project, share the final answers in public to reference during the project.

2. Understand the User Requirements 

Meet users to observe them and conduct individual and group interviews to determine user requirements, behaviors, and objectives. Determine why, where, and how they look for information. Be careful when selecting people for interaction. Using a random sample can be effective, but it might be impossible in every case. Share the results of user research with stakeholders and your team.

3. Understand the Content based on User Requirements

Learn about what content is already present, what requires changes, and what is unavailable but is required. Spread content research activities and deliverables among stakeholders and your team. At times, people have feelings attached to content pieces. In case of zero communication about reworking or deleting content may hurt someone and could lead to setbacks.

4. Design and Test the IA

Examine IA patterns that are already present, plan for the language and labels to be used, test the IA with users by tree testing and card sorting, and revise it. Communicate all designs and changes to stakeholders and your team.

5. Design the Navigation

Plan, design, test, and revise the navigation. We do this after designing IA as information architecture is the big picture, and navigation helps people move through IA to achieve goals.

How to Make a Sitemap Using IA

The best part about a sitemap is that anybody can create it, regardless of their design skills. All you require are two kinds of elements, including blocks and lines for connecting them. A sitemap needs to have some main attributes:

  • Homepage - A parent element positioned at the top
  • Items - An item represent a section or a particular page. All items should have a reference number as per the hierarchical manner of elements and a label, which is the page title. Check if the labels are meaningful and describe the section in a clear manner.

Final Thoughts

To sum up, information architecture and sitemaps are different, while they have something in common. They both can be done by the same person with the help of or input from a team or by multiple people until they can work together in an effective manner. The key takeaway is that both IA and sitemaps are important for the success of your website. While IA enables us to create easy-to-use products and handle usability issues, a sitemap helps us create straightforward sites. Beyond doubt, it pays off to use your resources, and there is no reason to skip using these to achieve success.