Sitemaps might be one of the most mysterious aspects of any website, especially for beginners who don’t understand their importance.
While it may not seem like a complicated concept, a stellar sitemap can make a huge difference.
Whether you’re just starting out or hoping to refine your existing website, this article can teach you what a sitemap is, how it works, and the best practices that can have a lasting impact.
What is a Sitemap?
A sitemap is a file that sets out your entire website, including every page, image, and video.
It lists every page by URL and gives some information about the content, including highlighting connections between every element on each page.
How Does a Sitemap Work?
A sitemap is metadata that depicts the layout and relationships between each page, image, video, and file.
It’s essentially an index of your site that details navigation and highlights the most important pages and elements.
What is the Purpose of a Sitemap?
Having a sitemap is crucial for every website, but it’s especially important for large, complex sites with multiple pages and files.
Using a sitemap can serve several purposes, including:
- The sitemap creates a hierarchy by defining the most important pages and content.
- Search engines, like Google, use a sitemap to read a website, meaning it plays a critical role in search engine optimization (SEO).
- Guide search engines to versions of your website in other languages.
- Identify page updates and new entries.
- Create a sitemap to submit a new website to search engines and tell the search bots which pages are most important.
Ultimately, using a sitemap is key for SEO purposes.
It also improves the overall user experience by refining the page’s goals and navigation by establishing a set structure.
Different Types of Sitemaps
There are two primary types of sitemaps that serve slightly different purposes.
If you want to know how to improve SEO, make sure you understand both types and how to use them effectively.
The XML (short for Extensible Markup Language) sitemap is what the search engines read, so it looks like blocks of code.
These text files provide valuable information to the search engine crawlers, like site navigation and modification dates for a page.
While not all sites need to have an XML sitemap, it’s highly recommended to include one for indexing purposes.
It ensures that the search bots can find every page on your site and supports new websites that don’t have many links yet.
The hypertext markup language (HTML) sitemap lists your pages like a book’s table of contents.
Creating an organized HTML sitemap improves site navigation for a better user experience.
It’s also easier for you to find new linking opportunities and lets search engines funnel your content into categories.
Example of a Sitemap
Unless you understand code, an XML sitemap looks like a lot of gibberish mixed with symbols, like this one on search.gov.
You can see the hierarchy and pull out some bits, like <lastmod> signaling the most recent update for a page.
While an XML sitemap looks like long strings of code an HTML sitemap is a bit different.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides an excellent example of an HTML sitemap on its website.
Do Sitemaps Affect SEO?
Yes, sitemaps can affect SEO.
Adding a sitemap to your website and submitting it to search engines helps the crawlers identify and read your website.
Providing your website’s index can give you a boost in search rankings simply because you made it easier to find and crawl.
Why is a Sitemap Important for SEO?
How can a bunch of code or a list of pages impact your SEO?
It seems a bit far-fetched, but it makes complete sense if you look at the big picture.
The above examples of XML and HTML sitemaps from government websites include a lot of information about the websites, including page headers.
If you just looked at the sitemaps, could you tell what the website covered and where to find the information you need?
Sitemaps rely on keywords and phrases as much as any other content on your website.
They simply take a more minimalistic approach.
Looking at sitemaps should highlight the importance of using keywords in page headers and meta descriptions.
Using keywords and phrases appropriately is fundamental to building a solid sitemap.
Sitemaps signal to the crawlers when you update a page, add a new one, or update links.
Additionally, sitemaps catalog all of your internal and external links into one organized package for the search engine crawlers.
Is a Sitemap Necessary?
Technically, you don’t need to have a sitemap.
Google notes that not all sites need one, but that having one doesn’t penalize you in any way.
If it doesn’t hurt you but could help you, isn’t it worth having a sitemap?
How Long Does it Take for a Sitemap To Work?
It varies among search engines, but Google reports that it can take anywhere from one to ten days.
How To Build a Sitemap
Building a sitemap is not as challenging as it sounds, though it can be tedious at some points.
Follow the five steps below to craft a sitemap for your website.
Step 1: Evaluate Site Structure
Start by setting out your existing content in a sort of pyramid.
Think of it as a family tree for your website.
At the top, you should have the homepage, or the grandparent who starts it all.
Stemming from the grandparent, set out all of your parent pages, or the separate headings on your main menu.
Then, list every sub-page, or child, beneath the respective headings.
It should be easy to rate each page’s importance based on your pyramid and see how they all relate to each other.
Only include the important pages that you want to show up in a search engine crawl.
Step 2: Time to Code
Your pages list URLs, but you need to convert that information into the proper XML or HTML codes.
You will need to provide the page URL, the date of the last update, how often the page changes, and its priority in the hierarchy.
Don’t let the coding scare you. There are several code conversion and editor tools to help you through with minimal technical skills.
Step 3: Check Your Work
Make sure you validate all coding before moving on to the next step.
XML sitemap validation tools can highlight any coding errors, like a missing bracket or end tag.
Step 4: Install the Sitemap
You need to attach the sitemap to your website.
There are two places you can install it, the root folder and the robots.txt folder.
Adding the sitemap to your website’s root folder adds it to the site as a recognizable page.
You can see the actual hierarchy and how the sections relate.
You can also install the sitemap in the robots.txt file.
While it’s not necessary, a lot of sites do so to create additional instructions for search engine crawlers.
Sitemap Best Practices
Aside from the basics, there are several tweaks and updates you can make to improve your sitemaps.
These best practices for SEO and sitemaps can take your game to the next level.
Keep the Sitemap Short and Simple
Having enormous, complex sitemaps won’t do much for your page.
Keeping things short and sweet is preferable, which may mean creating more than one sitemap.
Smaller websites, like those with a single page, may not benefit from a sitemap.
Additionally, websites that don’t update can often skip the sitemap or use a basic one.
Use Your Robots.txt Folder
It’s not necessary to install the sitemap in this folder, but it does give you additional power.
For instance, you could disable some pages to signal the crawlers to ignore them.
Just make sure the robots.txt file is configured properly before uploading your sitemap.
Submit to Google Search Console
While there are other search engines, Google remains one of the most popular.
Go into Google Search Console and find the “sitemaps” page on your dashboard.
Upload the sitemap for your website and click submit.
It’s fast, easy, and tells Google what it needs to know about your page.
Sitemap Tools to Save Time and Money
Building and maintaining a sitemap can make a huge difference for your website, but it can be challenging and tedious.
That’s where SEO tools come in handy, and there are several that can help with your sitemap.
What is a Sitemap Tool?
A sitemap tool is a software that facilitates the process, including planning, coding, and managing.
Some of the tools simply generate a sitemap based on your input, while others have additional features that allow you to make updates and perform audits.
Our Favorite Sitemap Tools
Though there are many sitemap tools on the market, we have some personal favorites to recommend to boost SEO for WordPress sites.
1. Rank Math SEO
Rank Math SEO plugin helps you optimize your website with various features, including an XML sitemap generator.
It also integrates with Google Search Console, making it easy to keep your sitemap updated.
Additionally, Rank Math has a range of features to support your SEO efforts.
It can identify critical keywords, highlight ways to increase speed, and improve navigation.
2. Yoast SEO
Yoast SEO plugin is one of the most popular in its class with a range of features that are easy enough for newbies to use.
Aside from having an XML sitemap generator, Yoast is a comprehensive search engine optimization tool.
It can analyze your website’s content and make appropriate recommendations for keywords, titles, and content readability.
3. Sitemap Generators
As noted above, you can also use a sitemap generator to create everything for you and take away a lot of the stress.
These generators also notify the search engines when they complete your sitemap.
Plus, sitemap generators can remove a large amount of human error that comes with hand coding.
Other Related SEO Terms to Know
These are some of the common terms you may come across during your sitemap adventure.
- Meta Description: A meta description is a short snippet that summarizes a specific page’s content. The meta description is the first thing that shows up on the search engine page, making it a critical part of any SEO strategy because it is the way to entice a viewer to click your link.
- SEO Audit: A SEO audit is a comprehensive analysis of how a website appears to search engines. SEO audits highlight problems with your website and allows you to refine your strategy to attract more visitors.
- Schema Markup: A schema markup is the code or language that search engines read when crawling a website. This information tells search engines what your website contains and what’s most important.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do you still have some pressing questions?
These frequently asked questions and answers about sitemaps might clear things up.
How do I find a sitemap URL on a website?
There are a few ways to locate a sitemap, but the easiest way is through the browser bar.
Enter the website URL with a quick tag for the sitemap, like this:
mywebsite.com/sitemap.xml or mywebsite.com/sitemap_index.xml
You could also go to the Google Search Console or Bing Webmaster tools for the website to locate the sitemap.
What is the difference between a sitemap and a wireframe?
Sitemaps and wireframes both represent website layouts, but they serve unique purposes.
Wireframes represent rough visuals for web designers to create a functional site, like where to add buttons and menus.
Search engine crawlers won’t be able to interpret a wireframe, and it’s typically only used in the development stages.
Sitemaps usually come after the designers build the site.
They categorize pages and establish a content hierarchy and provide that information to search engine bots.
Hopefully, you understand sitemaps, why they matter, and how to make them work for your website.
Sitemaps represent an opportunity to improve your SEO, and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming.
With some helpful tools, like Rank Math or Yoast SEO, you could automate most of the process and reap the benefits.
Make sure you double-check your efforts and submit your sitemap to Google Search Console to get a jump on those search engine crawls!