Sometimes inexperienced SEOs wonder ‘what is a sitemap’. We can’t blame them. A sitemap is one of the oldest SEO tools. It’s been around since the early days of search engines. Yet, it’s remained largely unchanged while everything else in the SEO universe underwent infinite iterations. To be fair, it doesn’t get its fair due in SEO literature. There’s so much chatter about link building, keywords and mobiie optimisation.
But sitemaps? ‘Sorry, what are those?’ Sitemaps deserve some love. Especially, since they are easy to deploy and offer many perks. Today, we are going to cover sitemaps in detail. If you have always wondered what is a sitemap, strap in and enjoy this read.
An overview of sitemaps
A sitemap is an XML file that functions as a navigation map of your website. Unlike a typical frontend navigation menu intended for people, this one is for search engines. Think of it as a blueprint for search engine bots. One that shows them exactly which pages to crawl and where to find them. It takes a magnifying glass to your websites page structure no matter how elaborate it is.
Picture an e-commerce website with 100,000 pages. 7000 of those have no internal links that point to them. These pages are practically invisible and lie deep within the WWW. How does a Google bot find those pages? They might eventually, after crawling the website repeatedly. A process that can take months. But a sitemap points them to these pages and all other pages in one go.
They help Google bots discover content. Sitemaps can also highlight the most important SEO content. Just like they can limit access to certain parts of your website. This lets you prioritise content indexing.
P.S. HTML sitemaps are different. Those aren’t for search engines.
Part 1 – Why SEOs must know ‘What is a sitemap’
In all the grand scheme of things, sitemaps might sound like redundant tech. But they’re not. They are as relevant now as they ever were. Here’s Google talking about it. They say that their crawlers can find most of your web pages without any external help. But there’s a caveat. The pages must have proper linking. In other words, a link silo.
Here’s Google’s recommendation for instances when you need a sitemap.
- You have a large website
- There’s content that’s isolated or not interlinked
- You have a brand new website
- You have a media heavy website. There are tonnes of images and videos that show up on Google news.
If there are web pages hidden in the murky depths, chances are that the Google bot might miss them. This frequently occurs when businesses acquire websites. Sometimes, the old website has thousands of pages that are unlinked. Google might not have indexed many of them. A sitemap is a surefire way to point the google bot towards the existence of these pages.
The other scenario is when you have a brand new website. You have not acquired any stellar backlinks yet. There’s no external validation for the bot to use as a reference. A sitemap does the trick. It tells Google bot that, ‘Hello, I think you missed a page.’
Types of sitemaps
Here’s another misconception that’s almost become gospel. ‘There’s only one universal sitemap’. That’s not true. Sitemaps do more than point google bots to web pages. They also list out elements, like images and video. There are four types of sitemaps.
- XML Sitemap – XML or eXtensible Mark-up Language sitemaps are the most common ones. This is an encoding language that search engine bots understand. These sitemaps are easy to generate and can communicate a lot of relevant details about your website. How frequently do you update the content? Which pages require frequent crawls? Fresh content is a ranking signal. A sitemap is the easiest way to indicate this to Google.
- Video Sitemap – Google added the video sitemap as an extension to the standard sitemap rule. This is a relevant addition if you host videos on your website. However, there’s no need to host a separate video sitemap. You can always embed this within the existing one. Besides, most webmasters have shifted to video schema.
- News Sitemap – If your website is approved for Google News, you need to indicate this to Google bots.
- Image Sitemap – A sitemap for image heavy websites. Like video, this is not mandatory. But it can certainly be helpful for media-heavy websites.
Part 2 – Using sitemaps to your advantage
Along with knowing what is a sitemap, you should also know how to generate one, and use it to your advantage. Here are a set of best practices that our SEO team follows.
Sitemap Generation for WordPress users
We highly recommend the Yoast SEO plugin. It has an excellent free version and can generate an XML sitemap in no time. What’s amazing is that the sitemap is dynamic. So, every time you update the site, the new page is updated on the sitemap as well. But we are not looking to merely generate a sitemap. We also want to communicate information to Google. That’s where tags come into the picture.
Tags communicate additional information to Google bots about a web page. There are 7 tags that you can use. Only one is mandatory, while the rest are optional.
- <urlset> – This is the tag that opens and closes a sitemap according to Google’s sitemap standards.
- <url> – Every URL is highlighted with this tag.
- <loc> – This tag is used to highlight the absolute URL or the precise location of the web page.
- <lastmod> – Shows information about the page’s last modification date.
- <changefreq> – Useful to highlight how frequently a web page is updated.
- <priority> – A numerical rating ranging from 0.0 to 1.0 that shows the bot how important a page is.
- <xhtml:link> – Used to point the bot to alternate urls in different languages.
Ruling out Errors
Once you have generated the sitemap, give it a check. It should list every single web page on your site. But a manual overview might not suffice. Google advises that ‘your sitemaps must be validated and error-free’. To this end, our SEO team always cross-checks it for configuration errors. Even a tiny error in a sitemap can have huge implications. So it’s always better to err with caution.
There are two ways to check this. One is by adding it to the old Google Search Console, which will validate and show you the errors instantly. The new search console also has this functionality. But it’s somewhat limited. But you can only use this after you submit it to Google.
If you don’t use WordPress (why not?), then you can generate a free sitemap using XML-Sitemaps. It’s free and works great.
Part 3 of ‘what is a sitemap?’ – Submitting to Google
Once you have generated a sitemap (and ideally checked for errors), it’s time to submit it to Google. Head to Google Search Console. Now click on Sitemaps in the sidebar menu. Enter the URL and hit on submit. Your sitemap’s URL in most cases will be ‘https://site.co.uk/sitemap.xml’. But this can vary depending on the tool you use to generate it. Ensure that you verify this.
After you hit submit, head to the ‘Submitted Sitemaps’ section. Do you see your freshly added map here? If yes, then everything went well. But if you don’t, then recheck what went wrong. If the sitemap shows up, click on it. You should see a message that says, ‘Sitemap index processed successfully’. You can also dial down further to check coverage reports. This will show you the pages that Google indexed and the ones that it excluded.
Unless you deliberately excluded those pages, you’d want to check why Google did so. Click on it and Google will tell you why.
Best practices for sitemap creation and use
Here are some best practices for sitemap creation:
- Add the sitemap to the website’s root directory.
- The maximum permitted character length for URLs is 2048 characters.
- Use tags only when required. For instance, the <changefreq> is a very useful one. But only if you really update the content as indicated in that tag. If you intend to use it to manipulate search engines, it’s going to backfire.
- If you have more than 50K URLs, you’ll need to split the sitemap into several ones. In this scenario, use a sitemap index.
- Only canonical versions of the urls in the sitemap.
- Keep the sitemaps under 50MB.
To sum it up
We hope that we answered the lingering ‘what is a sitemap’ doubt in your mind. Remember, a sitemap may not help index or rank your web pages. But at least you know that you have used the Google recommended tool that was available at your disposal. That said, if you have a large website, getting the sitemaps right can be tricky. We can help. Click here now to speak to our SEO experts.