Maps afford us many benefits. For example, a treasure map tells us how to get rich. Topographical maps are fun to touch. The world map reminds us that cats rule.
But you may feel a little less fond of website sitemaps. They are not very easy to understand and last I checked, they’re not exactly fun. But they can provide a path to higher ranking and more website traffic if you get them right.
So in this post, I’m going to share with you what a sitemap is, why you might need one, and how to create and submit a sitemap to Google.
A sitemap is a file that lists out the URLs of all the essential pages of your website. The primary purpose is to help search engines understand your site and locate specific pages with ease. There are also sitemaps that help users navigate your site, which we’ll get into later.
Below is an example of a sitemap.
⚠️ Warning: This is going to look intimidating, but it won’t be so scary by the end of this post.
To understand the importance of sitemaps in SEO, you have to first understand how search engines work. In particular, what the terms “crawl” and “index” mean.
What this all means is, if your page is hard to crawl, it may not make it into Google’s index, and if it’s not in Google’s index, it can’t show up in a Google search. This is where sitemaps come into play.
⛳️ Check your sitemap status for free!
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The better Google can understand your site and the easier it is to crawl, the more efficiently you can rank for your target keywords and get more traffic to your site. With that being said and with the information above, here is a deeper dive into the benefits of having a sitemap:
Google can’t crawl the entire internet every single day. Instead, it has different crawl “schedules” for different websites and content types—so sometimes it can take days, weeks, or even months for Google to discover new pages on your site. Sitemaps can help Google to discover and index new pages faster.
Have you ever updated a page on your site—perhaps to refresh your evergreen content—but not seen the changes reflected in the SERP? That’s because Google hasn’t crawled the page since your update. With more efficient crawling and indexing, you can ensure that users are seeing the most up-to-date version of your highest value and/or frequently modified pages.
Google’s bots often discover pages on your site much like visitors do—by following the links on the pages it’s crawling (which is why internal linking is so important). Orphan pages are pages on your site that don’t have other links pointing to it, making them hard to reach for Google. But with those pages in your sitemap, Google can more easily locate and index them.
There are several scenarios where a business website will have duplicate or near-duplicate pages—for example, on an ecommerce site you may have duplicate product pages with different colors of that product. In these cases, Google might not know which version of the page is the main version that you want to rank. With a sitemap, you can use canonical tags to show Google which version is the main one and which ones are duplicates.
In general, Google does a pretty good job at finding web pages on the internet on its own, but a sitemap, as we established above, can help improve your SEO—for some sites more than others. According to Google, you need a sitemap if:
There are two types of sitemaps. HTML sitemaps (hypertext markup language, geared for humans) and XML sitemaps (extensible markup language, geared for bots).
An HTML sitemap is an actual website page, visible to visitors, with a list of clickable links to all of the pages on your site. This is the old method for creating a sitemap, but it is still valuable, especially for large websites.
Google encourages HTML sitemaps because a hierarchical list of links can help Google better understand what’s most important and index accordingly.
Here’s an example of an HTML sitemap of homedepot.com.
An XML sitemap is a text file that provides a list of URLs on your site. You can usually find any site’s sitemap by going to: domainname.com/sitemap.xml, but you can change it for site protection purposes. But while you can see a site’s XML sitemap, they’re not meant to be a navigational tools for visitors—just for search engines.
Here’s what our XML sitemap looks like.
XML sitemaps allow you to use tags to provide information about the URLs in it, such as date last modified. You can also use sitemap extensions to provide information about video, image, and news article content.
Sitemaps.org provides a helpful list of XML tag definitions here.
There are some other types of sitemaps to be aware of:
The process for creating a sitemap is actually pretty simple, thanks to the tools available to us. Basically, you need to generate your sitemap, check it against best practices, and then submit it to Google. Here’s how to do it:
Sitemap generators are plugins and softwares that offer a no-code process for creating sitemaps. Here are some of the best sitemap generators to choose from:
Google provides extensive sitemap best practices here, but here are some simple guidelines to get started:
Once you generate your sitemap, there are a few different ways to submit it to Google.
To wrap it all up for you, there are no Google penalties for not having a sitemap, but there are benefits to be had if your website fits the bill. And ideally, it only fits the bill because you have a large site, and not because you’ve been slacking on your internal or backlink building. Just keep in mind that a sitemap is not a rule that Google must obey—it’s more of a set of preferences and guidelines that can help it in its crawling and indexing endeavors.
Creating a sitemap is free and doesn’t require much technical skill to build, so get started on yours today!
Kristen is the Senior Managing Editor at WordStream, where she helps businesses to make sense of their online marketing and advertising. She specializes in SEO and copywriting and finds life to be exponentially more delightful on a bicycle.
See other posts by Kristen McCormick
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