All websites have a sitemap, the well built ones anyway, usually they are on their own dedicated page and are simply a plain text listing of all the pages within a site, see my sitemap as a basic example.
This is a traditional sitemap, one that you will find on most sites across the internet, there is nothing wrong with this and does its job very well, it lists all my pages within the site allowing people or search engine spiders to navigate around and find the content they are looking for.
There is however a new growing trend, well… I say new but it has been around for a while, but more and more sites seem to be using it recently which has resulted in the “modern sitemap” phrase being termed by the web design and developer community. I’m talking about footer sitemaps, instead of having a single page listing all the pages within a site, you have a smaller “related links” sitemap in the footer of every page on a site, a few examples for you;
I can see the benefits of using a sitemap in this way, the first that comes to mind is that you associate the links with some content, search engines can use the content to grab keywords and then serve your links if the keywords are used in a query, this is the big failure of the traditional plain text listing sitemap in terms of SEO, with no content to associate the links to means search engines cant add any weight to the links. Other benefits of this type of sitemap range from providing your visitors a list of related pages they may find useful to simply a way of padding out the footer of your site if you don’t have much content.
As with anything there are downsides to having a sitemap like this, the main one being there isn’t a single point listing all pages within the site, in some cases you may end up overloading a page with links, a big no-no for SEO, not to mention some website designs simply wouldn’t look right with a sitemap in its footer.
I think that while the benifits of having the associated content shouldn’t be ignored, this type of sitemap only works with certain site designs so trying to get a nice balance is what you should aim for, combining the two styles of sitemap to allow your visitors to easily find the content they are looking for. Having a list of all the pages in your site is a valuble tool and allows search engines to index all the pages on your site, having “related links” on a page allows you to show visitors content they may be interested in but wouldnt normally find.
A “modern sitemap” to me is one that users find useful, this could be the traditional sitemap or its younger brother the related links sitemap, the important thing is your visitors can find the content they are looking for.