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An image map is a graphic that is displayed on a web page containing clickable regions to assist in navigation. Some sites, such as wiseGEEK, use a list of links to help visitors navigate around the website. The content from the site is linked, allowing visitors to find what they are looking for as quickly as possible.
Other websites use image maps to accomplish the navigation. The graphics are split up into regions and each region is assigned an image map link. Some applications create slices of the image and each slice can have image map links assigned to them, while other applications allow the image map creator to drag and select a portion of the image and then assign an image map link to the selected section. The image map links are assigned hyper-links to content within the site or even elsewhere on the Internet.
Usually web development tools, like Adobe® Dreamweaver®, will be able to assist in creating image maps. Once the image to use for the image map is loaded into the environment, the user will be able to draw clickable selections around portions of the content. These selections are then assigned links just as text or full image buttons would be. When the content is published to a web server, the image map links assigned to the selected regions are clickable and will whisk visitors to the content that the image map references.
An example of a site with an image map would be at weather.gov. The weather map on the page is the image map used. When visitors mouse over a state or section of the image and click, the image map redirects them to a different area of the site.
When visiting a site with an image map, one way to find out which sections of the image map point to different links would be for a visitor to mouse over a section of the image and take note of the browser status bar. As the image map links change the status bar will display the current URL for that link.
While text links can be very straightforward and simple to use and understand, image maps can create a much more pleasing experience for visitors to a site without much additional effort on the part of the web designer. Some applications, such as clickable maps or photo collages can lend themselves very easily to image maps, while other sites like news or stock listings might be better off using image buttons or text links to aide in navigation.