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Written by Sam Yadegar on Jul 14 , 2021

How sitemaps keep your website organized, help search engines crawl your site more easily, and more

Here, you’ll find:

  • What different types of sitemaps are
  • Key benefits of using sitemaps
  • How to create and submit a sitemap
  • How these maps affect SEO

Whether you’re building a website from scratch or revamping an existing one to boost your SEO, you need to factor in your sitemap. 

That’s because a sitemap is an excellent tool that can help simplify website navigation for both search engines and visitors.  

By providing a sitemap, you make the search engine crawler bots’ job simpler, which helps them index your website quicker. Without a sitemap, it’s easy for crawlers to miss important pages and slow your SEO efforts down as a result.

Let’s take a closer look at what sitemaps are all about.

hand putting pins in a map

XML (which stands for eXtensible Markup Language) is a document formatting language that’s easily understood by both humans and machines. (Image via Unsplash)

What is a sitemap?  

A sitemap is a structured list of all the pages on your website. Search engine crawlers use this information to find content, understand the layout of your website, and determine the relationship between its pages and files.

Without a sitemap, a crawler would have to use internal links to find other pages on your website. Unless all of your pages are perfectly interlinked, a search engine is likely to overlook some important pages, which hinders your SEO efforts.

Types of sitemaps

Four common types of sitemaps exist:

  • XML index sitemap – the most common type of sitemap that helps search engines index your web pages
  • Google News sitemap – helps crawlers find content on websites that can be used for Google News
  • XML video sitemap – helps crawlers track the video content on your pages
  • XML image sitemap – allows crawlers to find all images on your website

There’s also what’s called an HTML sitemap. This type of sitemap has (no surprise here) an HTML format. It’s designed to improve the user’s interaction with your website. These sitemaps are created to simplify navigation and/or replace the search feature.

XML sitemap example

Here’s a basic XML sitemap that includes the location of a single URL. (Image via Google)

Understanding XML sitemaps

XML (which stands for eXtensible Markup Language) is a document formatting language that’s easily understood by both humans and machines. 

An XML sitemap looks like a list of URLs with additional information attached. This information is in the form of tags that demonstrate:

  • Update date – shows the date when the webpage was last modified
  • Update frequency – the more frequently the sitemap is updated, the more often it needs to be crawled
  • The page’s priority – gives crawlers an understanding of which pages are the most important to your website

Search engines only crawl a certain number of pages when they visit your website. If you don’t create a sitemap with the right page priority tags, the crawler may overlook important pages during its visit.

The higher the page’s update frequency and priority, the more frequently the page is crawled.

Pro tip: Sitemaps can’t contain more than 50,000 URLs or be more than 50MB in size. If your sitemap is bigger than allowed, you probably need to create more than one.

The benefits of having a sitemap

Sitemaps can provide benefits for both your website and digital marketing campaigns. The key benefits include:

  • Properly structured XML sitemaps help search engines crawl your pages more efficiently than they would without a sitemap.
  • Sitemaps allow you to set priorities for the URLs. This helps you to direct crawlers to high-priority pages.
  • You can change update dates and update frequency details to bring crawlers back to your website when necessary.
  • If you’re creating a new website, a sitemap can help crawlers discover it more quickly. The same is possible when you create new web pages and other pieces of content.
  • XML sitemaps help you avoid duplication issues. If another website copies your content, you can use the sitemap’s “last modified” information to show who the original content creator is.
  • Sitemaps automatically notify search engines whenever you update your pages, so they come and crawl them faster.
  • A sitemap report can help you discover errors in your website structure.

An XML sitemap is a key part of your overall SEO efforts. Meanwhile, an HTML sitemap can improve the user experience on your website, which can mean boosting its popularity and stimulating conversion rates.

three people's hands pointing at a map

Once you create a sitemap, you have to submit it to the search engine. (Image via Unsplash)

Are sitemaps necessary?

Technically, search engines can find your web pages without a sitemap. However, by including pages in the XML sitemap, you’re showing crawlers that you prioritize them.

Sitemaps are especially important for websites that:

  • Are brand new
  • Have hundreds or thousands of pages (such as an e-commerce site)
  • Have a deep website architecture
  • Add new pages frequently
  • Update existing content frequently
  • Have weak internal linking
  • Have a weak external link profile

Submitting an XML sitemap doesn’t automatically attract search engine crawlers or cause your web pages to get indexed. However, doing it helps increase your chances of being noticed quickly.

Even if your website is small and has a strong linking structure, you may still want to submit an XML sitemap.

Creating an XML sitemap

To create an XML sitemap, you can take advantage of one of the available tools provided by your content management system. Alternatively, you can leverage an XML sitemap generator like Screaming Frog or XML-Sitemaps.

Once you create a sitemap, you have to submit it to the search engine. To submit the sitemap to Google, you need to:

  • Go to Google Search Console
  • Choose “sitemaps”
  • Paste the sitemap’s URL under “Add a new sitemap”
  • Click “submit”

You should also add the sitemap to your robot.txt file. The file is located in the root directory of your web server. To add the sitemap, you need to open the file and add a line that looks like this: “Sitemap: <sitemap URL>.” Submitting a sitemap is free.

The takeaway

Basically, a sitemap is a useful tool that helps search engines and users navigate your website. As mentioned above, while a submitted sitemap doesn’t automatically improve your SEO efforts, it can increase your website’s visibility for search engine crawlers.  

You don’t need any special skills to create an XML sitemap. However, adjusting it efficiently may require technical SEO experience, so don’t be afraid to enlist the pros

Want to learn more about sitemaps and other aspects of technical SEO? We’re here to help.

Sam Yadegar

Sam Yadegar

Sam Yadegar is the co-founder and CEO of HawkSEM. Starting out as a software engineer, his penchant for solving problems quickly led him to the digital marketing world, where he has been helping clients for over 12 years. He loves doing everything he can to help brands "crush it" through ROI-driven digital marketing programs. He's also a fan of basketball and spending time with his family.

Questions or comments? Join the conversation here!

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