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Image maps and search engine visibility

Knowing which navigation format to use for both humans (searchers) and technology (searchers) is important for the user experiences

One of the biggest misconceptions about search-engine friendly site navigation is the use of graphic images. At numerous web site design, search engine, and online marketing conferences, you might constantly hear search engine optimization (SEO) professionals, and even search engine representatives, advise web site owners to change all graphic-image navigation to text-based navigation. And this topic brings up the following reader question:

I heard I shouldn't use image maps in my web site if I want high search engine positions. Is this true?

Well, folks, I would like to dispel any misconceptions you might have heard. I, too, constantly hear so-called "experts" vehemently state to never use image maps when designing search-engine friendly web sites. Here is the truth.

First, it is true that many search engines cannot or will not follow the links inside of an image map. One of the main reasons for this is the potential for spam abuse, which I completely understand. (Graphic image spam is more common than you might imagine.) When over 90% of submissions to the Add URL forms at the search engines are spam submissions, I tend to side with the search engines.

But does that mean that you should never use image maps in your site designs? Absolutely not.

Image maps can be the most user-friendly navigational element on a web page.

Image maps serve a valuable purpose for your site visitors. First and foremost, image maps can be the most usable navigational element on a web page. As users have said during the thousands of usability tests I've given, "A picture speaks 1,000 words." Additionally, a single image map can often download much more quickly than a large set of navigation buttons. And since all web designers should design for their site visitors FIRST, not the search engines, using image maps is often a good design and navigation strategy.

Solution

If you choose to use image maps in your site design, it is very important to use text links, or other small graphic images elsewhere on your web pages, to link to important sections of your site. I always create a corresponding set of text links at the bottom of my web pages for each image map I use, if the image map is used as part of global navigation. That is the best workaround.

Another workaround I read about is creating a single wayfinder site map or a site index that links to all of your pages. Granted, creating site maps and section indices (the plural of "index") is a great idea for any site. By itself, it's not an optimal solution. When used in combination with effective formal navigation and page interlinking, it is an excellent solution.

I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of using various forms of navigation, including image maps, in Chapter 2 of Search Engine Visibility.

Conclusion

Don't be afraid to use image maps in your site design if you find that they are appropriate and site visitors can more efficiently reach their desired goals via image map navigation. If you hear a search engine marketer making blanket statements not to use image maps or any type of graphic-image navigation, run the other way. That person is only thinking about the search engines, not your target audience.

Go ahead and use image maps. Just remember to have multiple, alternative means of navigation for both your target audience and the search engines.

Shari Thurow - photoArticle by Search Engine Visibility author Shari Thurow, Founder and SEO Director at Omni Marketing Interactive, a full-service search engine optimization (SEO), web site usability, information architecture (IA) and web design firm. Shari is also the co-author of When Search Meets Web Usability.

If you would like permission to publish this article for your online newsletter, blog, or web site, please fill out our contact form or call us at 847-426-4256.

For more information about our search engine optimization, search usability training, and site design services, please fill out our contact form or call us at 847-426-4256.

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