Sitemaps play an important role in how your website is interpreted by search engines and although there are actually a couple of different types of sitemaps that you can create as part of your website building process the one that really matters from an SEO perspective is an XML sitemap.
In very basic terms, an XML sitemap is a list of pages on your website but that description doesn’t do it justice because this map of your website provides search engines with a digital blueprint of how your site is structured.
Not only is creating a sitemap considered to be an integral component in your efforts to optimize your website but it also provides some essential metadata such as the importance of pages in relation to each other and how frequently each page is updated.
Sitemaps are considered to have even greater relevancy if you have a website that contains a fair amount of archived material that is not linked together. A sitemap also takes on a greater level of importance if your site has a large volume of pages and a distinct lack of external links.
It could prove highly beneficial to have an SEO audit performed to review the current structure of your website and improve its XML sitemap so that it is optimized for search engines and also works well for visitors as well.
If you don’t actually have a sitemap you will be missing out on what is considered to be an essential aspect of optimizing your website.
What do search engines like about sitemaps?
As already outlined, a sitemap is a description given to a file that contains information about the pages, videos, and any other files that you have on your website, plus key details about the relationship between each of them.
Take the most prominent search engine, Google, as an example. Google will read your sitemap file in an attempt to crawl your site in the most intelligent way, and this presents you with an opportunity to tell the search engine which pages and files are ranked as important to the site, whilst also providing key information about these specific files.
A typical example of this would be where Google could discover when a page was last updated and whether there are other versions of the page available in a different language.
The bottom line is that if you take the time and trouble to properly link all your pages and catalogue key information this will enable a search engine to discover the majority of your site and it will enhance their ability to crawl your site, even when it is more complex in its setup and contains specialized files too.
It is worth pointing out that using a sitemap doesn’t totally guarantee that every single item on your website will subsequently be crawled and indexed as a result of having a sitemap but the positives are numerous enough to justify going through this process and updating it regularly.
With regard to Google, it is worth noting that its processes tend to rely on some highly complex algorithms in order to schedule its crawling activities and this is why it is always worth getting some professional guidance on putting your sitemap together and auditing it for optimization purposes.
When you might not need a sitemap
Even though it is highly recommended that you have an XML sitemap it is fair to say that there are a couple of scenarios where you could get away with not having one if that is what you want to do.
A few examples of where you might not require a sitemap include –
If your site is classed as small by Google, which means if you have less than 500 pages on your site.
You use a basic hosting site that comes with pre-formatted pages and built-in navigation features.
If you already have a comprehensive internal linking system that starts from your homepage.
There are no media files on your website.
For the avoidance of doubt, here are some prime examples of when you really should consider creating an XML sitemap –
If your site is large and complex Google web crawlers might not find all of your pages without a sitemap.
Having a large archive of content pages needs organizing with a sitemap, especially if they are not efficiently linked to each other.
Having a new website is a problem to Google and other search engines as it won’t have many external links to it at this point, which is why you would need a sitemap to make it easier to be found.
If you have a lot of rich media content such as video files you will normally need a sitemap to help the search engine find all the relevant information about that content.
The fact that Google is happy to confirm that having a sitemap can improve the crawling of your site should tell you all you need to know about the role it plays in making your website and content as visible as possible.
If Google is unable to index the pages on your website it will not add them to the pages on its search results and you don’t need to know much about SEO to appreciate that you can’t expect any traffic if someone as critical as Google can’t find your pages or interact with your site.
Now that you fully comprehend the importance of having an XML sitemap and what it can do for your site’s SEO credentials the next step is to implement some strategies to help optimize your sitemap.
Tools at your disposal
The task of creating a basic sitemap is not always that complex if you have the right tools and auditing software at your disposal and you can even manually formulate one by following an XML code structure.
However, it is recommended that you aim to create a more complete XML sitemap if you want to derive the maximum benefit and that might require some professional guidance or an audit to confirm everything is in order.
See what Google thinks
You can actually take the step of submitting your website’s sitemap to Google via a search console to check the results and highlight any particular errors that need fixing if critical landing pages are not currently being indexed as they should be.
A good indication of whether everything is in order is if the number of pages indexed corresponds with the number of pages that you submitted.
Taking the step of submitting your sitemap to Google should prove worthwhile as it will help the search engine understand the layout of your site and should help highlight errors that are preventing accurate indexing from being achieved.
Get a bit of help from Google
It used to be an issue with regard to identifying indexing problems and isolating them but Google has recently upgraded its search console so that it now provides a list of the problem pages it found and the reasons why indexing was not possible.
If you can’t immediately fix the problem you do have the option of setting problematic pages to noindex so that they don’t have a detrimental impact on your site’s overall quality.
Focus on quality
A key point to keep in mind is that the overall quality of your site has a major bearing on your search engine ranking performance.
The way to ensure that you allow the cream to rise to the top, as it were, in terms of SEO strategies, is to focus on prioritizing high-quality pages in your sitemap.
The reason that this is a good strategy is that if your sitemap sends bots to a high number of lower quality pages the search engines will downgrade your website as more undesirable than some rival offerings.
If you concentrate your efforts on directing bots to the most high-ranking pages on your site, which means pages that are highly optimized, contain plenty of unique content, and offer images and video, for example, this is a tactic that should have a positive impact on your ranking performance.
The case against prioritizing
There is a difference between prioritizing certain quality pages by their content and actually using sitemaps to tell Google which pages carry the most importance.
You may not be aware that some sitemaps are created with a priority column that is used to relay to a search engine details of which pages are the most important on your site.
This is a topic that has managed to fuel a lot of discussion and debate as to whether Google’s bit pays any attention or not to this directive when crawling.
Google itself has suggested that its bot tends to ignore priority settings while crawling, so it seems to be a point that you should concern yourself with too much when setting up or auditing your sitemap.
To summarize, XML sitemaps are important and there are varying degrees of complexity when it comes to setting up this file in a way that benefits your SEO efforts.
It is a task that you may be able to tackle by yourself if you have the requisite skills but when you consider the role it plays in interacting with search engines and impacting on your website’s visibility you might want to consider getting some help or requesting an audit to confirm that everything is structured correctly.