Sitemaps for SEO – SEO Basics
March 16, 2022 |
The importance of SEO sitemaps nowadays is undeniable.
Getting content exposure online is a difficult thing in and of itself, especially when you consider the mind-boggling amount of content being created and uploaded on a daily basis.
For that reason, there exist various ways to influence SEO, ensuring that you get a proportional recompense for your effort.
Some focus on you mentioning certain words or phrases in their pages, which will make them more relevant for search engines. Others recommend adding more external and internal links to your content.
And these are all valid, smart, and useful ways to get people to see your content. Yet, there comes the issue of how to make your content easily manageable and recognizable to search engines. With incredibly big websites, this can prove to be quite difficult.
Hence, the existence of sitemaps. We shall now explain what sitemaps are exactly, whether they’re essential for your website, and how they are meant to be used.
By the end of this text, you’ll be an SEO sitemaps expert.
What Is a Sitemap?
A sitemap is a text file that serves as a sort of blueprint for your website, containing data about all the URLs, pages, and files – and the relationship between them.
Its main purpose is to function as a guide or map for search engine crawlers and bots. It enables them to crawl through the entirety of your website faster and more efficiently, jumping directly from URL to URL.
The second thing that it does is help direct these search engine bots to the more important pages from your website. By drawing attention to key URLs in bigger websites, it helps crawlers scan your website even more swiftly.
Of course, there are various kinds of sitemaps, serving to emphasize different types of files or types of content present on your website. Moreover, there can be sitemaps rooted to specific pages of a website. A general sitemap that encompasses the entire thing should be added to the root directory.
Having said this, one may find that sitemaps can be quite important when it comes to SEO. And one would be right. Yet, things are much more complex than they seem.
Why Are Sitemaps Important?
Essentially, site maps enable search engines to properly index your web pages. Even though at first glance this may seem redundant – as indexing web pages is one of the main purposes of search engines, to begin with, in practice, things don’t go as smoothly.
Search engines function by reading the “text” on your website and indexing information. You can influence SEO by highlighting certain aspects.
Yet, bigger or more complicated websites tend to have extremely convoluted layouts, with internal and external URLs that interlink in often “illegible” manners.
Additionally, many websites may have obscure text which, even if you can’t tell, prevents search engines from reading – and by extension – indexing it at all.
What this means is that oftentimes your website, even though designed with a good SEO in mind, may end up being very poorly indexed in reality.
Hence the importance of a sitemap, which will allow for this to go much more smoothly, providing a sort of guide for the crawlers.
Furthermore, it allows you to practically use your “crawl budget”, by directing the crawlers towards the more essential pages. Otherwise, you risk wasting your crawl budget on minor or less important pages.
The sitemap contains data on how often your webpage is being updated, and when exactly the final alterations on it were made.
The type of data contained by sitemaps can vary significantly, so, for example, a news sitemap may contain data related to the content and date of publication, a video sitemap may contain data related to the video running time, quality, and genre, whereas an image sitemap usually delivers data on the image subject or the license.
A general sitemap, of course, contains more general and all-encompassing information, orienting the bots throughout the entire website.
However, even if sitemaps may seem ideal when presented like this, there are many who would argue against their implementation.
Does Your Website Even Need a Sitemap?
The main reason why people would advise you against relying on a sitemap tends to be very practical – not every website needs one.
Of course, in most cases, a website could only benefit from an additional sitemap, yet in many cases, it could prove to just be a waste of time, money, and effort.
There are certain websites that would, very clearly, find the existence of a sitemap advantageous, but for others, it may end up not making any sort of difference at all.
Luckily, depending on the current status and architecture of your website, as well as on its history (or your plans for its future development), you can discover whether you actually need a sitemap or not relatively easily.
We will now go through all the reasons why you may need one, as well as through those why you may not.
The Arguments Pro
The following circumstances clearly indicate that your website would definitely need a sitemap:
- You have an enormous website: a large website with more than 500, 700, or 1000 pages, most definitely requires a sitemap. The construction of such sites tends to be quite complex and a crawler is bound to miss some pages when indexing and focus on other, less relevant ones.
- Your website contains an abundance of rich media content: if your website has multiple images or videos, a sitemap is essential – it will provide crawlers with information about the subject matter, quality, runtime, etc.
- Your website is rather dynamic: if you update your website multiple times per day, constantly upgrading your content, search bots have a high probability of missing some of the data, which is where a sitemap could help.
- Your website has pages that are either isolated or badly linked internally: websites with poor internal linkage and almost completely isolated pages (especially if big) are in a dire need of a sitemap in order for all the content to be indexed.
- Your website is quite new: New websites are, naturally, smaller, and by nature more isolated, due to a lack of external linkage. A sitemap could help them gain traction from the beginning.
The Arguments Against
On the other hand, you most probably don’t need a sitemap if your website can be defined in the following way:
- Your website is relatively small: if your website has fewer than 400 pages, it is automatically considered to be smaller, which means that crawlers will probably have an easy job going through it and indexing it properly.
- Your website lacks rich media and news: as long as your website isn’t populated with images and videos, and isn’t regularly updated on a daily basis, it most probably will not need a sitemap.
- Your website has well-built internal linking: if all of your pages are very well linked between one another, ensuring direct and clear transitions, adding a sitemap may seem superfluous.
These cover the basic types of websites which don’t usually need sitemaps. Moreover, some may argue that sitemaps are to be avoided due to them, basically, ignoring what bad search engine indexing may point towards.
In other words, while it is true that a crawler may not index web pages properly due to a mistake, it often happens that crawlers ignore websites because of low-quality content, duplicate content, or poorly tagged media.
This means that the first thing you should do is improve your website, before trying to make it more easily readable.
However, if you’ve already been through this, and are certain that you do want a sitemap for your website, you’ll probably need to know how to make one.
How to Create a Sitemap
A sitemap can be made in various ways, and in a few different languages. The main sitemap file should weigh no more than 50MB when uncompressed, and it should contain at most 50,000 URLs, lest it is separated into several connected sitemaps.
There are three formats recognized by Google, most commonly used for sitemaps: XML, Text, and a third format encompassing RSS, mRSS, and Atom.
The sitemap URL is expected to be encoded in such a way that it can both be read by the server on which it is positioned, and figure as UTF-8 encoded.
A sitemap can be created either manually or automatically.
The Manual Route
While impractical for larger websites, you can manufacture a sitemap for a smaller website by simply opting for the sitemap format section on any text editing program on your computer’s operating system. A good example would be Windows’ Notepad.
The process may be kind of long and repetitive, but you’ll be able to create your own sitemap.
The Automatic Route
Alternatively, you can rely on a variety of plug-ins that will be able to automatically create a sitemap for you.
For instance, if you’re creating your website through a website-generating service, like WebFlow, you’ll be happy to find out that most of these have an already ingrained sitemap option which you can easily select – your sitemap will be generated automatically.
Moreover, both Google, Bing, and other search engines come with plug-in options, which will immediately enable you to generate an XML Google sitemap, for example.
What Should Your Sitemap Contain?
During the process of creating the sitemap for your website, there are a few things that you need to keep your mind on. Your website should be responsive and of high quality, so try to be attentive when it comes to the following things:
- Double-check that you’ve included a canonical version of the particular page
- Your pages should not be blocked by a robots.txt
- They should be well optimized, with plentiful video and image content
- Redirect focus to well-developed pages, with unique content and, ideally, available user sections (comments, complaints, etc.)
- The pages should respond with a 200 code
- The pages should not be archived, or paginated
- Ensure that your pages don’t contain duplicate content
As long as you abide by these directions, you should be able to create a high-quality, well-optimized sitemap for your website.
Mistakes to Avoid
There are, however, a number of mistakes that you should be wary of. It would be incredibly impractical for us to delve deeply into every single one of them, so we’ve decided to focus on just two.
These are different types of mistakes, yet both are quite regularly encountered, so you’ll benefit a lot from knowing to avoid them before you’ve even started working on your website sitemap.
Regular Changes of Modification Time
One thing that many people do in order to influence SEO is regularly changing the modification time stamps on their website sitemap content, thus “luring” search engine bots to reindex the website, resulting in its resurfacing.
At first glance, this may seem like a useful, sly idea, but it can prove to be counter-productive in the long run.
Crawlers will recognize if you’ve changed the modification time often, without actually changing your content, and will immediately tell why you’ve done it. If it comes to this, it will completely remove any date stamps from your website, thus reducing your SEO even more.
The “noindex” URL issue
The other thing to bear in mind is that you should regularly check whether the pages you include in your sitemap are labeled as “noindex” or blocked pages.
Pages such as these are intentionally constructed so as not to be read and indexed by search engine crawlers.
By including them on a sitemap, you’re essentially wasting your crawling budget on links and pages which cannot be read or indexed. Thus why there’s no need for you to include such URLs on your sitemap if you do have them.
The Final Word on Sitemaps
Having said that, we’re ready to conclude our overview of sitemaps. As long as you know what type of website you have, what type of content it contains, and how regularly you’re updating it, you’ll know whether it needs a sitemap at all.
If so, just follow our tips as to how to create one and try not to fall for any of the mistakes we pointed out!