What is a sitemap?
An XML sitemap is a UTF-8 encoded file that contains a list of all the pages published when you create a website. XML stands for “extensible markup language,” a text-based file format used to transmit data over the Internet.
Sitemaps contain the following information about each page:
The location (i.e. URL)
Last modification date
Some sitemap generators may also provide information related to images and video files, language alternatives, as well as mobile and desktop page versions.
A sitemap may be organized by content type depending on the website's size. For instance, a larger site’s main sitemap may include different sitemaps for:
Webmasters create sitemaps for SEO purposes. The main goal is to present the website structure and context in a format search engines can easily use to index and rank the website's pages in search results.
Sitemap vs. navigation
The navigation is the main structure appearing in a website header. In some cases, a simplified set of navigation links may appear in the footer and sidebar as well.
The navigation is the visitor-facing version of the website’s structure. This is what enables them to see what a website is all about and then to navigate its key pages.
The sitemap is a file that contains the website's full structure. It is meant to be used by search engines, not end users.
While visitors can access a sitemap if it’s stored at the root of a website, they would need to know that the URL. Some websites may place it at https://[domain name]/sitemap.xml, but that’s not always the case.
Does every website need a sitemap?
A sitemap ensures that search engines can find every page on a website—or at least the pages that a webmaster deems important enough to be found. Not having a sitemap, however, won’t stop search engines like Google from crawling and indexing a website.
The only websites that might not need a sitemap are:
Small websites that won’t be updated frequently
Private websites or websites with lots of gated content
In most cases, it’s a good SEO tip to practice creating a sitemap. That way, there can be no mistaking that the search engines have found your site and all of your content. Creating a sitemap will also allow you to monitor the performance of all your links in search results.
The importance of the sitemap
Sitemap is more than some SEO glossary term that web designers need to memorize. Not creating a sitemap for a website and not understanding its SEO value can be a serious misstep in website creation.
Search engines have very powerful crawling engines. That said, they’re not miracle workers.
If a website’s pages aren’t properly linked or aren’t clearly visible within the website’s structure, rank-worthy pages could slip through the cracks. Plus, the larger a website gets—especially free eCommerce websites with thousands of pages—the easier it will be for search engines to miss some pages along the way.
The XML sitemap isn’t just valuable because it reveals a website's structure. It also tells search engines when the content was last updated. This is vital as older web pages that are well-maintained tend to provide visitors with highly relevant information.
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How to create an effective sitemap
There are certain ways to get more from an XML sitemap:
1. Review the structure of your site before you submit the sitemap
Your sitemap directly reflects your website's content on a high level. The better organized it is, the clearer this picture will be.
Be mindful of how you create your website's pages—especially if your navigation goes more than a level or two deep.
Take a blog, for example. You could leave all of your blog posts uncategorized, but that could make it harder for search engines to learn about your site—not to mention make it harder for visitors to find relevant content.
2. Check your labels
Labeling your website structure is just as important in the SEO process as creating the sitemap structure itself. The full URL structure of each page will be visible in the XML sitemap.
Let’s say you have a store that sells home goods. You can handle the slug (the product page URL) in a number of ways, but best practices is to carefully craft a set of 5 to 10 categories. At a bird’s-eye view, those categories and the sitemap that links to them should send a very clear picture of your site and blog's content.
Using the SKU: https://mydomainname.com/product/00422001/
Using the full product name: https://mydomainname.com/product/flannel-fleece-throw-blanket-lightweight-microfiber-60-by-80-inch-fire-engine-red/
Using a search-optimized name: https://mydomainname.com/product/flannel-fleece-throw-blanket/
The search-optimized URL label will likely perform the best. It’s short, easy-to-read, and uses natural language. In addition to being search engine-friendly, it’s also user-friendly.
Make sure your website’s marketing strategy also accounts for the structuring and labeling of new content. While it’s important to set this up the right way from the get-go, it’s just as important to be consistent in how you handle it over time.
3. Let your website builder create your sitemap
While it’s possible to code an XML sitemap by hand, it’s a difficult process the larger your site gets. It will also require you to update your sitemap every time your website content changes.
It’s best to let your website builder automate this process for you. For instance, if you build an eCommerce website with Wix, the software will create a sitemap index for you.
If your website builder doesn’t have this built-in functionality, that’s okay. You can use XML-Sitemaps.com to generate one, but you’ll still have to import the sitemap into your website files.
4. Submit your XML sitemap to the major search engines
Generating a sitemap is a good first step. If you place it in the root of your website and give it a clear name (like sitemap.xml), search engines will inevitably find it.
However, the most effective way to get your sitemap in front of search engines is to submit it to them. This is a critical step in on-page SEO.
There’s no one place you can go to do this, so you’ll have to identify which search engines matter most to you and then submit it directly to them. Google and Bing have the greatest market share, so start with them.
Submit your sitemap to Google by creating a Google Search Console account and uploading your sitemap there.
Submit your sitemap to Bing by creating a Bing Webmasters Tool account and uploading your sitemap there.
5. Monitor your sitemap
Submitting your sitemap is beneficial for two reasons. The main benefit is that you create a direct link between your website and the search engine, ensuring that they can find your content.
The second benefit has to do with monitoring. Once your sitemap has been validated, you can use these search engine tools to monitor things like:
Number of indexed web pages (or not indexed)
Number of search impressions (views)
Average click-through rates
Average page rankings
Keywords ranked for further insight into keyword research
A platform like Google Analytics is helpful for gauging the on-site user experience. A platform like Google Search Console or Bing Webmasters Tool, on the other hand, will tell you how users experience your site via search results. This information will help you improve the structure of your sitemap.