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If you have your own website you’ve probably heard the term ‘sitemap’ before, and in some ways, all you need to know about it is right there in the title: a sitemap is a map of your site.

But why is a sitemap important? What does one look like? And how do you create one?

These are important questions for any website owner looking to attract as many visitors as possible. So in this article, we’ll look to answer all these and more.

What is a sitemap?

As mentioned above, a sitemap is a blueprint that makes navigating your website easier. There are two main types of sitemap:

  • HTML Sitemap: Designed for humans, HTML sitemaps come in the form of a webpage that offers up links to all your web pages. It’s essentially a directory that helps users navigate your site, with all the pages listed in a hierarchy.
  • XML Sitemap: Designed for search engines, XML sitemaps make it easier for Google to crawl and index your website and find the most important pages, media and other elements. These sitemaps do not feature a hierarchy, and come in the form of an XML file which can be submitted to Google.

Why do I need a sitemap?

The next question: how critical is a sitemap? The answer depends on the type of sitemap you’re talking about.

HTML sitemaps

While HTML sitemaps have proven popular in years gone by, they’re less important today. This is mainly due to improvements in website design: intuitive user interfaces (UIs) that put a focus on user experience (UX) mean that for most sites, a simple menu should be all the navigation assistance a visitor needs.

Search engine improvements have also played their part, as these days you can simply Google the specific web page you want to visit rather than manually finding it using a HTML sitemap on the website.

XML sitemaps

The Googleability of modern websites hints at the ongoing importance of XML sitemaps, which in some ways have taken over from the HTML equivalent. An XML sitemap helps search engines like Google to index your site, which in turn helps Google to rank your site accurately.

A sitemap grants you the chance to show Google the most important parts of your site, from web pages to specific elements, and tells Google a little bit about each element: whether a web page can be viewed in a different language, when an article was last updated, the geolocation data of an image or the running time of a video.

All this information ensures Google knows all it needs to know about your website. Armed with a clearer picture, the search engine will be more confident pushing your website up the rankings.

An XML sitemap isn’t an absolute must. “If your site’s pages are properly linked, our web crawlers can usually discover most of your site,” says Google. That said, the presence of a sitemap is never a bad thing, even for well-linked sites, so it can be a good idea to create one as part of your search engine optimisation efforts (specifically technical SEO). You should definitely consider creating an XML sitemap if:

  • Your site is new and hasn’t yet built up a good number of backlinks.
  • Your site features thousands of pages (e.g. an ecommerce site).
  • Your site features a lot of content (e.g. a news site).
  • Your site isn’t particularly well built or organised (in which case it may be worth considering a redesign).

One thing is for sure: no matter how well linked your website pages are and how well structured your website architecture is, creating a sitemap is always a good option. The next question: how?

How to create an XML sitemap

To create an XML version of your sitemap, follow these three steps:

1. Create

You can create an XML sitemap manually, but this process can take a lot of time and is prone to human error. The good news is that there are a wealth of tools that can help you to create your own.

WordPress users can generate a sitemap quickly and easily with the Yoast SEO plugin. The best bit about Yoast sitemaps is that they are dynamic – they automatically update with your site whenever a web page is added or removed.

Non-WordPress users can utilise any number of free third-party sitemap generation tools: Google Sitemap Generator, and are a few of the most popular. Most of these tools spit out a sitemap that you can view by navigating to [your website].com/sitemap.xml, though the exact sitemap URL may be different depending on the app you used.

2. Review

Once created, you should manually review your sitemap to check that it includes all that it needs to include. Your sitemap could display all your web pages, and may offer up other information such as the total number of pages, the amount of media (images and video) that each page contains, and a timestamp of when the page was last updated.

If there are no glaring issues, inconsistencies or missing pages, you’re ready to hand your sitemap file over to Google.

3. Submit

To submit your sitemap to Google, you’ll need to have a Google Search Console account. Once you’ve created one and logged in, navigate to Index > Sitemaps in the side menu.

In this section you’ll see any sitemaps that you may have submitted before. If you’re ready to submit a new one, navigate to Add a New Sitemap, copy in the URL of your sitemap, then click Submit.

Your new sitemap should now appear under the heading Submitted sitemaps. Google will then need to crawl your sitemap for the first time – when this is complete the status of your sitemap will be marked with a green Success.

At this point it’s wise to check the coverage report, which splits each of your web pages into four categories:

  • Error: Pages that couldn’t be included on the sitemap due to various issues.
  • Valid with warnings: Pages that were included on the sitemap despite issues.
  • Valid: Pages on the sitemap with no issues.
  • Excluded: Pages that Google doesn’t believe need to be on the sitemap.

Review each of these categories, particularly ErrorValid with warnings and Excluded, to ensure that all relevant web pages are marked Valid.

Sitemap best practices

What else do you need to know when creating and employing a sitemap? The following best practices are good to keep in mind.

Align your sitemap with noindex tags and robots.txt instructions

When you tag a page as “noindex” or list it as “disallowed” in a robots.txt file, Google’s web crawlers are blocked from accessing it. These pages shouldn’t feature in your sitemap, as this simply confuses Google – you tell its bots to visit that exact page, only to block their access when they get there.

Use a sitemap generator

Sitemaps might look complex, but they’re simple enough to write, even for someone with limited technical ability. But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should – one false keystroke and a web page may not be indexed, so it’s best if you use a generator, even if you’ve only got a small site with a handful of pages.

Keep files below 50MB/50K entries

On the other side of the coin, perhaps your website is particularly large, in which case you’ll need to be wary of file size. Sitemaps are generally limited to 50,000 entries and a total size of 50MB. If your website has more than 50,000 pages or your sitemap that is larger than 50MB, you’ll need to create and upload multiple sitemaps.

Be cautious modifying dates

Each URL in your sitemap will feature a ‘last modified’ date, which you can manually change whenever you please. But you should only update this field when you make significant changes to a page, as Google can view marking a largely unchanged page as ‘modified’ as a spammy tactic.

Want to gain traction with Google? We’re here to help!

The purpose of a sitemap – specifically the XML variety – is to get on Google’s good side. You want to make your site as simple to navigate as possible for its bots, in order to give the search engine all the information it needs to rank your site as high as possible for relevant terms.

At Traction Marketing we’ve spent years helping Kiwi businesses do exactly that, whether with Google Ads,video and content creation, or SEO tactics like site mapping. Our expert team offer a wealth of strategies and techniques designed to push your website up the rankings, delivering more visitors to your website and more customers to your checkout in the process.

If you’re looking to elevate your search engine performance, we’d love to help. Get in touch with our friendly team today

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