checking technical SEO factors on laptop screen

Sitemaps are nothing new, yet many people do not realise the importance of creating a successful sitemap and its importance for SEO. Sitemaps are not essential, and some SEO experts will argue that they are not necessary, but they are quick and easy to create and will help search engines discover all the pages on your website more quickly. So, in my view, it’s worth the small amount of effort to create one (or more for larger websites). No matter how big or small your website, how many or how few pages you have, those web pages will only benefit your business if they rank and get noticed by potential customers as quickly as possible.

What is indexing?

Indexing is the process by which Google, or any other search engine, stores the content of web pages in a central database. It is only once your page content is in that database or index that Google uses it’s algorithm to analyse and understand the content. It can then make a decision about it’s relevance and quality for a particular search and, therefore, where to place it in the search listings. When you create a new website and have few or no external links to your site, it isn’t easy in a crowded space to have search engines notice your new site or content. A sitemap will speed up the visibility of your site in rankings.

The roadmaps a search engine needs

Think of a sitemap as a roadmap that classifies your pages in order of significance. This happens even if you have no internal linking strategy on your website. Sitemaps are essential for a search engine marketing strategy.

There are two types of sitemap: HTML for people and XML for search engines. You can and should have both. As part of a marketing and SEO strategy, you should consider a sitemap essential.

First, I’m going to talk about XML sitemaps, which will enable your site to be indexed quickly by search engines, and further on I’ll cover HTML sitemaps, which are aimed more at creating a good user experience.

If you want to read about HTML sitemaps or understand the difference between HTML and XML sitemaps now, then skip further on in this article to:

What Is The Difference Between XML Sitemaps And HTML Sitemaps?

Understanding HTML sitemaps

Otherwise read on for more about XML sitemaps…

XML sitemaps, how to find yours!

You can manually search for the most common XML sitemap names using the following simple searches. Just replace “yourwebsite.com” in the URL searches below with your actual website/domain name

First enter this into your browser address bar:

yourwebsite.com/sitemap.xml

If that file does not exist try the following extensions after yourwebsite.com ;

/sitemap-index.xml

/sitemap.php

/sitemap.txt

/sitemap.xml.gz

/sitemap/

/sitemap/sitemap.xml

/sitemapindex.xml

/sitemap/index.xml

/sitemap1.xml

If you cannot find any of the above then there is a slight possibility that your sitemap will be in a different format, such as Atom or RSS, so check these next:

/rss/

/rss.xml

/atom.xml

If both of these are unsuccessful, then the website owner or those with access to Google Search Console can check there.

If none of these yield results, it may be that you don’t have an XML sitemap so you will need professional help to search using some advanced methods to locate sitemap information. Otherwise, to create a sitemap for you. Your web developer will usually be able to do this for you.

Do I really need a sitemap?

A sitemap is of even more benefit to those with a new website, few backlinks or a poor interlinking strategy; or if your website is large or has many pages. If you have a small website with few pages is still worthwhile and can be expanded as the website grows. A good sitemap working well for you from the beginning will lead to faster results when you add more pages.

What should my sitemap include?

This comes down to selecting the pages most relevant to your target audience. Which pages do you want them to see? Your content should always seek to bring value, but there will be some more important than others. If you want people to read specific URLs, include them; if not, don’t! Pages omitted from your sitemap can sometimes still be found through links. A search engine may locate and index some pages, even if not in the sitemap. You should add a ‘noindex’ tag to any pages you do not want to be indexed like admin pages.

web developer creating sitemaps

How to Create an XML Sitemap

Give this a go yourself if you are tech-minded otherwise it’s a task for your web developer.

Step 1: Identify the Pages

The first step in creating an XML sitemap is identifying all the pages you want to include as outlined above. This encompasses web pages, blog posts, product listings, and any other content that you wish search engines to index and human visitors to see.

Step 2: Choose a Sitemap Generator

There are several online tools and plugins available that can generate XML sitemaps for you. Some popular choices include:

  • Google Search Console: If you have your website registered on Google Search Console, you can use its sitemap generation feature.
  • Yoast SEO (for WordPress): If your website is powered by WordPress, the Yoast SEO plugin can help you generate and manage XML sitemaps.
  • Screaming Frog SEO Spider: This is a powerful desktop tool that can crawl your website and generate XML sitemaps.

Choose a tool that aligns with your technical expertise and the platform your website is built on.

Step 3: Generate the XML Sitemap

Once you’ve selected a suitable tool, follow its instructions to generate the XML sitemap. This often involves providing the tool with the list of URLs you want to include, and then allowing it to create the structured XML file for you.

Step 4: Upload to the Server

After generating the XML sitemap, you need to upload it to the root directory of your website’s server. This ensures that search engines can easily locate and access the sitemap file.

Step 5: Register with Search Engines

To ensure that search engines are aware of your XML sitemap, you need to submit it to them. If you’re using Google Search Console, you can submit your sitemap directly. For other search engines, check their webmaster tools or documentation for sitemap submission guidelines.

Step 6: Update and Maintain

Websites evolve over time, with new content being added and old content being updated or removed. It’s important to regularly update and maintain your XML sitemap to reflect these changes. Whenever you add new pages or modify existing ones, update your XML sitemap accordingly and resubmit it to search engines.

Best Practices for XML Sitemaps

  • Keep it Updated: As mentioned earlier, regular updates are key. An outdated sitemap can confuse search engines and hinder indexing.
  • Stay Under 50,000 URLs: Most search engines have a limit on the number of URLs a sitemap can contain. If your website exceeds this limit, consider creating multiple sitemaps or prioritizing the most important pages.
  • Use Canonical URLs: If you have duplicate content, make sure to use canonical URLs to indicate the preferred version. This helps search engines understand which version to index.
  • Include Important Meta Data: You can optionally include metadata like the last modification date and priority level for each URL. This gives search engines additional information about your content.

html sitemap on laptop screen

Understanding HTML Sitemaps

As websites grow in complexity and content, finding a way to help both users and search engines discover and access information becomes essential. This is where HTML sitemaps step in. An HTML sitemap serves as a navigational aid that can significantly enhance the user experience and search engine optimisation of a website.

What is an HTML Sitemap?

An HTML sitemap is a webpage specifically designed to list and link to all the pages within a website. Unlike XML sitemaps, which are primarily created for search engines to find and index web content, HTML sitemaps are crafted with human visitors in mind. They offer a structured, hierarchical overview of a website’s structure and content, allowing users to quickly locate the information they need.

HTML sitemaps are typically organised in a tree-like structure, resembling the architecture of the website itself. They can be designed to include categories, subcategories, and individual page links, mirroring the structure of the site’s content. This hierarchical representation aids users in comprehending the website’s layout and can expedite their journey to the desired information.

The Benefits of HTML Sitemaps

1. Enhanced User Experience

In the era of instant gratification, web users demand swift and easy access to information. HTML sitemaps act as a virtual compass, enabling users to bypass complex navigation menus and directly access the content they seek. This is especially beneficial for websites with extensive content or intricate navigation structures. Visitors can explore the website according to their preferences, rather than following a predetermined path.

2. Improved SEO Performance

While HTML sitemaps are primarily designed for users, they also offer SEO benefits (although as mentioned previously there is an ongoing debate among experts to the value of HTML sitemaps for SEO).

3. Accessibility

HTML sitemaps can serve as an accessibility tool, ensuring that all users, including those with disabilities, can easily navigate a website. People who use screen readers or have other accessibility needs may find it challenging to navigate complex menus. HTML sitemaps provide an alternative, straightforward method for accessing content, thus promoting inclusivity.

4. Website Updates and Changes

As websites evolve over time with the addition of new pages, updates, and changes to the navigation structure, keeping the HTML sitemap up to date becomes crucial. Regularly updating the sitemap ensures that users always have an accurate representation of the website’s structure and content.

Designing an Effective HTML Sitemap

Creating an effective HTML sitemap requires careful consideration of the website’s architecture and content. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind:

  1. Hierarchy and Categories: Organise the sitemap based on the logical structure of the website. Group related pages into categories and subcategories for easy navigation.
  2. Navigation Links: Provide direct links to individual pages within the sitemap. Avoid overwhelming users with too much information on a single page; instead, break it into multiple pages if necessary.
  3. Consistency: Ensure that the sitemap is consistent with the website’s design and branding. This creates a seamless experience for users transitioning from the sitemap to the main website.
  4. Search Functionality: For larger websites, consider incorporating a search functionality within the sitemap. This can help users quickly locate specific content.
  5. Update Regularly: As mentioned earlier, keep the sitemap updated to reflect any changes to the website’s structure or content.

SEO expert updating sitemaps for client website

XML sitemap vs. HTML sitemap – What’s the difference?

In the realm of website development and search engine optimisation (SEO), two essential tools play distinct roles in enhancing visibility, navigation, and user experience: XML sitemaps and HTML sitemaps. While these sitemaps might sound similar, they serve distinct purposes and cater to different aspects of web functionality. So let’s take a closer look at the differences between XML and HTML sitemaps.

Understanding XML Sitemaps

An XML sitemap is a machine-readable file specifically designed to aid search engines in finding and indexing a website’s content effectively. It acts as a roadmap, providing search engines with information about the structure of the website and the hierarchy of its pages. XML sitemaps don’t concern themselves with the human user experience; instead, they focus on assisting search engines in understanding and navigating the website’s layout.

Key Characteristics of XML Sitemaps:

  1. Structured Format: XML sitemaps adhere to a standardised XML (Extensible Markup Language) format. This format is easy for search engines to parse and understand.
  2. Search Engine Communication: XML sitemaps are primarily created to communicate with search engines. They list URLs along with optional metadata like last modification dates and priority levels.
  3. Content Indexing: Search engines use XML sitemaps to discover and index web pages that might not be easily reached through via other methods.
  4. Frequency and Priority: You can specify the priority and update frequency of individual pages in an XML sitemap. However, search engines have the final say in how often they index pages.

Understanding HTML Sitemaps

On the other hand, HTML sitemaps cater to human users. They are webpages explicitly designed to help visitors find their way around a website. HTML sitemaps present a user-friendly, visual representation of a website’s architecture and content hierarchy. They act as a supplementary navigation aid for users who prefer a concise overview of a site’s structure rather than navigating through menus.

Key Characteristics of HTML Sitemaps:

  1. User-Centric Design: HTML sitemaps are created with users in mind. They aim to enhance user experience by offering a clear overview of a website’s structure, allowing users to find content quickly.
  2. Navigation Aid: HTML sitemaps provide direct links to various pages on a website. They are particularly useful for websites with complex navigation menus or extensive content.
  3. Hierarchy Display: HTML sitemaps often reflect the hierarchical structure of a website, making it easier for users to understand the organisation of content.
  4. Accessibility: HTML sitemaps can also serve as accessibility tools, offering an alternative navigation method for users with disabilities.

Choosing the Right Sitemap

When deciding whether to implement an XML sitemap or an HTML sitemap, consider your website’s objectives and audience:

  • XML Sitemap: If your main goal is to ensure that search engines can effectively find and index your website’s content, an XML sitemap is essential. It aids in optimising your website’s visibility in search engine results.
  • HTML Sitemap: If your focus is on improving user experience, facilitating navigation, and catering to human visitors, then an HTML sitemap is the way to go. It provides an organised overview for users seeking efficient content discovery.

In most cases, using both types of sitemap is necessary. XML sitemaps help search engines find your content, while HTML sitemaps enhance user experience and accessibility. XML sitemaps and HTML sitemaps play distinct yet crucial roles.

About Michelle Symonds

Established as an SEO specialist since 2009, following a career in IT in the oil industry and investment banking. Michelle draws on her IT and web development experience to develop best-practice processes for implementing successful SEO strategies. Her pro-active approach to SEO enables organisations to raise their online profile and reach new audiences, both nationally and internationally. She has a wealth of cross-industry experience from startups to Fortune 500 companies .

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