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Sitemaps play a vital role in your website ranking higher and gaining more traffic. It helps search engines to find relevant content on your web pages and index them. So, without further ado let’s understand the concept of sitemaps, their types, and how you can create and optimize them.

What is Sitemap in Website?

A sitemap is essentially the blueprint of your website. It is a website map that helps search engines find, crawl and index all the content in your website. Sitemaps provide direction to your search engines on which pages are the most relevant or important. 

A sitemap is a file that consists of the URLs of all the essential pages of your website. Doing so increases the chances of your web pages getting crawled and indexed. This significantly increases the ranking potential of your site by making it easier for search engines to find your content. Moreover, it also eliminates SEO obstacles like duplicate content and orphan pages, among other things. 

When Do You Need A Sitemap?

Google is proficient at locating web pages across the internet. However, a sitemap in SEO can prove to be significantly beneficial, especially for certain types of websites. According to Google, a sitemap is recommended if:

  • Your site is extensive, with 500 or more pages. Larger sites with thousands of pages increase the likelihood of Google’s crawlers missing new or updated content. 
  • Your internal linking is insufficient, resulting in numerous orphan pages without sufficient links pointing to them. 
  • Your site is relatively new or lacks a substantial number of backlinks. This is crucial as web crawlers typically discover pages by following links from one site to another.
  • Your site contains abundant rich media, such as images, videos, or news pages that you want to showcase in search results. 

What are the Different Types of Sitemaps?

Here are the different types of Google sitemaps:

  • HTML Sitemap

An HTML sitemap (hypertext markup language) is visible to visitors as an actual webpage. It contains clickable links to all pages on your site. Despite being an older approach, HTML sitemaps remain valuable, particularly for extensive websites. Even Google supports the use of these sitemaps because a hierarchical list of links helps in better comprehension, allowing Google to prioritize and index content accordingly. 

  • XML Sitemap

XML sitemaps (extensible markup language) are the most common sitemaps where an XML file is linked to the different pages on your website. You can access these sitemaps at domainname.com/sitemap.xml. However, these sitemaps are not intended for visitor navigation; instead, they serve search engines. 

Google XML sitemaps use tags to provide details like the date last modified and can include extensions for video, image, and news content. Remember that XML sitemaps increase the chances of indexicality but do not guarantee indexing. 

  • XML Media Sitemaps

This sitemap is an extension of the XML sitemap. This allows for better website indexing of non-HTML content such as images, videos, PDFs, and audio files, among others. 

  • Text Sitemaps
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Text sitemaps are the simplest of the sitemaps and are more suitable for small websites with fewer web pages. 

  • Visual Sitemaps

Visual sitemaps are represented as 2D images or drawings. They portray the website structure using blocks and cells in a hierarchical organizational chart. These sitemaps are particularly useful for delineating user journeys and internal links, refining the overall user experience.

  • Specialized Sitemaps
  • Video Sitemaps: These site maps specifically assist Google in comprehending video content on your page. 
  • News Sitemaps: News sitemaps helps Google in locating approved content on sites for Google News. 
  • Image Sitemaps: These facilitate Google in finding all images hosted on your site.
  • RSS Feeds: For news sites or blogs with frequent articles, submitting RSS or mRSS as their sitemap URL provides information on recent URLs.

What Do Sitemaps Look Like?

A sitemap design can vary widely, depending on its intended purpose. 

  • 2D Sitemaps

2D sitemaps are efficient for project planning and team collaboration. They are designed in a manner so that they can be quickly and easily understood by the team constructing the website. 2D sitemaps illustrate web pages as blocks or cells connected by lines, representing the internal links or pathways users can take. It provides a straightforward way for team members to grasp the structure of the project. 

  • Human-Friendly Sitemaps

User-friendly sitemaps are a commonly seen feature at the buttons of many websites. These are the HTML sitemaps, mainly created for your site’s visitors. They are usually accessible in the footer and serve as an additional navigational tool alongside the standard menu, offering a visual representation of your site’s structure to assist visitors in navigating through the content. 

  • Robot-Friendly Sitemaps

Sitemaps optimized for consumption by web crawlers, search engine bots, or search bots typically come in the form of an XML file. This structured list uses standardized tags to outline key and value pairs, distinguishing it from HTML sitemaps. Moreover, these sitemaps contain additional page information and content that is easily interpreted by computers, facilitating efficient reading from top to bottom.

Significance of Having Sitemaps in Your Website

Sitemaps play a crucial role in helping search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo discover various pages on your website. While not always a necessity, having a sitemap won’t harm your search engine optimization (SEO). In fact, it can be beneficial in specific situations. For instance, if your site is new with minimal backlinks, or if you manage a large retail website, a sitemap becomes invaluable for aiding Google in finding and indexing your content efficiently.

Ensuring Google understands and crawls your site is key to improving your rankings and driving more traffic. By setting up and optimizing your websites with sitemaps, you can enhance the speed at which Google discovers and indexes your new pages. It contributes to faster crawling and indexing. Moreover, this becomes particularly significant as Google operates on different crawl schedules for various websites, sometimes taking days, weeks, or even months to discover new content. 

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A well-optimized sitemap helps maintain the performance of high-value pages. When you update a page, efficient crawling and indexing ensure that users see the most recent version in search engine results. Additionally, sitemaps assist search bots in locating orphan pages, which might be challenging for Google to find through traditional crawling methods, as these pages lack internal links. 

Lastly, sitemaps aid in managing duplicate pages on your sites. For example, in a retail website with similar product pages, a sitemap allows you to use canonical tags to guide Google in identifying the main version and distinguishing duplicates. Having a well-structured and optimized sitemap not only benefits SEO but also contributes to a more effective and streamlined indexing process for your website. 

How to Create Sitemaps?

Creating a sitemap is a simple process because of the many available online tools. Keep in mind that to generate your sitemap, you need to adhere to the best practices before submitting it to Google. Here’s a step-by-step guide:

Step 1: Use a Sitemap Generator

Sitemap generators which include plugins and software, provide a hassle-free, no-code approach to sitemap creation. You can choose XML-Sitemaps which offers both free and paid packages. Simply input your site URL into the search field and click the search button. 

You can use Yoast, a WordPress plugin to effortlessly create sitemaps. Screaming Frog also provides the scope to create XML and image XML sitemaps, featuring advanced configurations like “last modified tags.” Apart from these, there is a wide variety available. Identify which one suits your needs and requirements the most before making a decision. 

Step 2: Abide by the Sitemap Best Practices 

While Google offers comprehensive sitemap best practices, here are some of the effective guidelines to kickstart the process:

  • Break Up Extensive Sitemaps: If you have a lengthy list of URLs, divide your sitemap into multiple parts and then submit a sitemap index file, essentially a sitemap of your sitemap.
  • Include Only Canonical URLs: In case of duplicate or nearly identical pages, list only the primary URL in your sitemap- the one you want to appear in the search results )the canonical version). Use the rel=canonical tag for the other versions. 
  • Utilize UTF-8 Encoding: Sitemap files should exclusively contain ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) characters, encompassing numbers 0-9, English letters A-Z, and a limited selection of special characters. Special characters like ampersand, quotation marks, or greater/less should be replaced with escape codes. 
  • Exercise Caution with Priority Tags: Priority tags in your sitemap can denote the relative importance of pages (assigning values from 0.1 to 1.0). But these are merely preferences. Ultimately, Google will crawl and index based on its criteria. 
  • Exclude NoIndex URLs: A sitemap’s purpose is to guide Google on which URLs to crawl and index, not which ones to disregard. Therefore, never include NoIndex URLs in your sitemap. 
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Step 3: Submit Your Sitemap to Google

After generating your sitemap, there are various methods to submit it to Google. Google Search Console offers a straightforward option. Navigate to the sitemaps section on the left panel of the website, add your sitemap URL, and click submit for a simple submission process. 

Alternatively, you can use the ping tool directly in your browser by typing- https://www.google.com/ping?sitemap=https://yourwebsite.com/sitemap. This quick and direct method sends a request for sitemap submission.

Another approach involves updating your robots.txt file by inserting your sitemap link, providing an additional way to submit your sitemap to Google. For those utilizing an RSS feed as their sitemap, WebSub is recommended as an effective submission method. 

Tips for Optimizing Sitemaps 

  • Utilize XML Files for Internal and External Links

XML files serve as lists of URLs guiding crawling bots through a website’s content and pathways. Incorporating internal and external links in your sitemaps communicates the importance of content to web crawlers, reducing the chances of orphan pages. This clarity contributes to your overall SEO health, positively impacting rankings.

  • Maintain a Clean and Organized Root Directory 

The root directory is the central location for a website’s files and folders. While including sitemaps outside the root directory may seem harmless, it goes against the established protocol. The sitemap’s location affects the files it can accommodate. Avoid overcrowding the root directory with multiple files, as this can hinder website responsiveness.

  • Include All Web Pages in the Sitemaps page URL

Sitemaps act as a pathway for Google bots, guiding them to all web pages on a site, especially when internal linking is suboptimal. Including all web pages in the sitemap file enhances communication between the website and search engines.

Things to Exclude on Your Sitemap

As per the best sitemap practices, focus on including only the SEO-relevant pages in a sitemap. This approach helps in using the crawl budget wisely and helps the search engines crawl your website intelligently, resulting in better indexation. 

You should aim to exclude the following pages:

  • Duplicate pages
  • Archive pages
  • Non-canonical pages
  • Paginated pages
  • No-index pages
  • Comment URLs
  • Site result search pages
  • Shared via email pages
  • Redirected pages, Missing pages, and Error pages
  • Resource pages are useful to site visitors but don’t serve as landing pages

Conclusion 

Thus, sitemaps are crucial if you want to increase your chances of getting ranked in the search results pages. Although there are no Google penalties for not creating a sitemap, you should abide by the sitemap best practices in order to create a relevant sitemap. Follow the step-by-step guide to create your sitemaps and optimize them to get the best results.