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Website Sitemap Explained: What is a Sitemap & How to Create One

Without a sitemap, search engines don’t know what content is on your site or how best to surface that content to users. This will harm your SEO efforts and drastically limit the effectiveness of your content marketing. 

In this article, we’ll cover what a sitemap is, why you need to create a sitemap for your website, and how you can do it effectively.

What is a Sitemap?

A sitemap is one of the most important components of a modern website. Most site-builder applications include them automatically. If your site doesn’t come with this function, you’ll need a tool for creating and maintaining this bookmarked alongside your analytics and social media marketing tools.

XML sitemaps are an essential part of your inbound marketing operation because, without them, you don’t know if search engines are indexing your site correctly. Your content marketing efforts will thus be wasted if your pages aren’t reliably showing up on Google when people are looking for a solution like yours.

A sitemap file is usually a .xml file served to browsers alongside your site’s homepage. If you map out your site’s pages as a kind of “family tree”, with your home page (index.html) at the top, your “About”, “Products”, and “Blog” pages below that, and all your blog posts below “Blog”, etc. you have a sitemap.

The bots that search engines use to index the web use these maps to quickly find out what content has been added to your site since the last time they checked. They can then take the information from your sitemap and update search results with your new content.

Which Website Benefits from Sitemaps?

A sitemap should be considered essential for any site that wants to rank on search engines, but the sites that benefit most are those that regularly publish new content or are constantly changing existing pages. That could be news websites, eCommerce sites with continually updating product information, or hobbyist blogs that put out regular posts.

Without a sitemap, it might take Google several weeks to index new pages and get them in front of people who are looking for them. Not only does your sitemap tell Google what pages there are, but it includes information such as when the page was last updated and how often it’s updated.

If search engines find a page is constantly changing, like a review site’s list of the top Shopify integrations, they’re likely to update their version of that page more frequently. If they find a page that almost never changes—like a static one-page site with a professional’s contact info—they’re not going to waste resources updating it every day.

Different Types of Sitemaps

The definition above is what people are usually referencing when they talk about a sitemap. However, there are some other types that, while less common, might be better suited to your particular needs.

Sitemap for Videos

If video is essential to your business or content strategy, you can tailor your sitemap to it. The .xml format has optional fields for videos like “title”, “description”, “thumbnail”, and “view count”, which search engines use to determine what’s popular and relevant to search queries. In this context, your videos’ descriptions can be just as important for SEO as your blog content.

So, do you need a video sitemap? Just remember, your sitemap has a limited size of 50MB per file. If you have a site with many pages and just one sitemap, you need to “budget” for what’s most important to your target audience’s search queries.

The Masterclass video site map (https://www.masterclass.com/sitemap) is divided by category.

Sitemap for News

A news sitemap includes information on the articles on a news site, whether that’s an outlet like the New York Times or a niche industry website. It contains information like URLs, last modified dates, publication dates, and other metadata about articles.

This has the same benefits as a normal sitemap but can have a special use depending on the search engine. Just as marketers will use an Instagram engagement calculator to figure out which accounts and influencers are worth highlighting or working with, Google will consider domain authority and sitemap content to decide the top stories for trending searches. 

If you’re a news site with good domain authority and you’re reporting on a breaking news story, your site could be highlighted as a “top story” for that search.

Example – The New York Times Sitemap (https://www.nytimes.com/sitemap/) with articles categorized by date.

Sitemap Index

The size of a sitemap can be gauged based on one of two metrics: the .xml file size or the number of pages listed. If this file is more than 50MB or contains more than 50,000 URLs, you might find Google stops indexing the pages it deems least important.

Fortunately, there’s a solution: splitting your sitemap into several .xml files. But if they’re not collected in one place, search engines won’t know where to find them. To prevent this, you can create a “sitemap index”, which is a map of all the sitemaps you want search engines to crawl. 

The Asos sitemap index (https://www.asos.com/product-sitemap-index-COM.xml) is broken down in alphabetical order.

How to Create Your Sitemap

1. Manually Create Your Sitemaps

To create a sitemap manually, all you need is a text editor like TextEdit on macOS or Notepad on Windows, which will let you save .xml files. From there, you can type out the metadata for your pages.

But if your site has more than a couple of these, this will get old fast. So, in almost all cases, marketers use automatic tools to generate them. Content management systems and site-building platforms like Shopify and Magento on the cloud can create and update sitemaps for you, so many modern marketers never even have to think about them.

2. Use a Sitemap Generator

If your CMS doesn’t make and update your sitemap automatically, you can set up a tool to do this for you. Sitemap generators like Simple Sitemap and Screaming Frog can also integrate with social media schedulers to ensure that new content is automatically shared on social media platforms.

If you’re using WordPress, SEO plugins like Yoast SEO and Google XML Sitemaps make it straightforward. Outside of these, tools like Simple Sitemap and Screaming Frog can also generate them at the click of a button. 

Once you have a sitemap, you just need to drop it in your site’s root folder (next to index.html) and make sure the change has taken effect. To check this, go to yourdomain.com/sitemap.xml.)

Submitting Your Sitemap to Google Search Console

Once your sitemap is generated, Google’s bots will have to crawl the file before you start seeing the benefit. If you don’t want to wait around for them, you can upload your sitemap (or sitemap index) to Google Search Console directly. Just click the “Sitemap” tab on the dashboard and paste in your “/sitemap.xml” URL and Google will get to work indexing your pages.

Google will periodically check this URL for any changes that are made. You can even submit multiple sitemaps and sitemap index files, enabling you to test the search performance of each of them.

Best Practices

Just as you would consider getting an SSL certificate or using DMARC to protect your site, there are certain best practices to follow when building your sitemap.

Keep your sitemap up-to-date

Your sitemap is Google’s snapshot of the content on your site at any given moment, so it’s essential to keep it up to date. 

If your site’s URLs change for SEO reasons, you’ll have to make sure those changes are accounted for in a new sitemap. A CMS with an automatic sitemap feature will handle this for you, but there’s also nothing stopping you from uploading your own to Search Console if you want to try out a new format.

Make sure your sitemap is in the root directory

You can place your sitemaps anywhere in your site’s folder structure, but keep in mind that they only affect the contents of the “parent” folder and its “descendants”. (So, a .xml file in yourdomain.com/blog would only affect pages with “/blog/” in the URL.)

In almost all cases, you should post your sitemaps at the root of your site so they affect all the content on it. Only if you have a very large site with several maps will you have to worry about alternatives.

Use absolute URLs

Make sure the sitemap you’ve generated uses absolute URLs too, like “yourdomain.com/blog/what-is-an-absolute-url”. If your sitemap has “relative” URLs like “/what-is-a-relative-url” on its own, search engine crawlers won’t know how it relates to other pages on your site.

Be mindful of canonical URLs

A canonical URL is the official version of a web page detected and indexed by search engines. This is used to prevent them from getting confused by duplicate content, such as a product description that’s repeated verbatim on different web pages. 

In this case, you want your site’s landing page with that description to be the canonical one Google will point to. If your page’s HTML file has “rel=‘canonical’” somewhere near the top, it’s going to be preferred by search engines over pages with the same content.

Key Takeaways

  • A sitemap is a specific kind of text file that search engines use to understand your site better.
  • You need to create a sitemap so your SEO efforts aren’t wasted.
  • Most CMS tools will create and maintain your sitemap automatically. If yours doesn’t, many other tools are available to help you.
  • Once you have a sitemap, upload it to Google Search Console to feel the benefits quickly.

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Article by Gregory Batchelor

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