If you were driving somewhere and needed to know how to get where you wanted to go, what would you use? A map.
In the same way that we humans use maps to give us more information of places we are exploring, so do web crawlers use sitemaps as a way to give them more information about the websites they explore.
In this article we explore what a sitemap is, the different types of sitemaps, how sitemaps work and how to best use sitemaps to your advantage for positive SEO benefits.
What is a Sitemap?
Let’s start by defining sitemap.
More technically speaking, “sitemap” refers to an internet protocol (set of rules governing the format of data sent over the internet).
Why do you need a sitemap?
Sitemaps provide information to search engines about your website and make it easier for them to find & understand all of the pages you have created. After all, you spent time making a nice website – don’t you want search engines to understand what’s on it so they can send relevant traffic to you?
Remember, search engines use web crawlers to follow hyperlinks on websites to discover pages to put in their index, so if your website has a good site structure, good internal linking, and all pages are accounted for through some kind on on-site link crawlers should be able to find everything.
But why not make is easier? That’s where the sitemap comes into play.
It’s a place where crawlers can go and just get a list of everything, instead of having to look around for it.
Remember in school when you’d get that professor who would just literally tell you everything that’s going to be on the midterm? How awesome was that?
That’s how search engine bots feel when you give them a sitemap – keep those robots happy.
Types of Sitemaps
There are more than one type of sitemap – just like there is more than one type of map (road maps, topographical maps, climatic maps, political maps, etc).
Each serve their own purpose, so let’s see what they’re all about.
A visual sitemap is something that I like to create when planning out new websites. It’s literally just a visual reference for how your website is going to be structured. They are for humans.
You can use a spreadsheet, mind-mapping tool, or even just pen and paper to draw out how your website is going to be structured.
Visual Sitemap Example
Here is an example of how you might plan out the sitemap for a single-location dentist website:
An HTML Sitemap is a page on your website, with a list of all the URLs on the site.
It is for humans & web crawlers. They allow humans to get a quick overview of all the pages on a website. And they allow web crawlers one single point of entry to find all the URLs on the site – without having to spend time and crawl budget going all over the place to piece everything together.
There are WordPress plugins that will allow you to create these types of pages very easily.
Example HTML Sitemap
Here is an example HTML sitemap we found on https://gunlawsuits.org/sitemap/.
Extensible Markup Language (XML) is a filetype that is essentially the same a plain text file, but that uses custom tags to describe the structure of the file / document, and define additional features.
XML is a “markup language”, just like HTML (HyperText Markup Language), that we use to create sitemaps that are specifically designed for search engines to crawl.
They are especially important for very large websites where an HTML sitemap would be ridiculous.
For example, that the retail giant “Target”, a quick use of a Google search engine operator shows us that they have over 5 million URLs indexed:
An HTML sitemap would be ridiculous… 5 million links …. all on one page??!
So in this case you’d want to use an XML sitemap.
Because XML sitemaps are used on very large websites, they are hierarchical – grouped into sub-sections.
Example XML Sitemap
You can usually find a website’s XML sitemap by adding these inner URLs at the end of the root domain:
Here is the XML Sitemap for SERP Co
As you can see this XML sitemap is hierarchical – there are sub-sitemaps located in the top level /sitemap_index.xml.
XML Sitemaps can be created for your website’s posts, pages, videos, categories, custom post types, etc.
How to create an XML sitemap
The easiest way to do this is just use the Yoast plugin.
I’d show you exactly how to do it, but their UI changes more than Trump’s mind so by the time you read this the tutorial would probably be outdated anyways.
And to be honest, they don’t make things easy to find. It’s a serious pet peeve. But you can get help in SERP University if you need it.
Just like there are different types of sitemaps, there are different categories of them as well:
- Standard sitemaps – Your standard XML sitemap.
- Image sitemaps – Images are typically included in your standard sitemap, but if you have a ton of them (or maybe are an image based website) then you can create an image specific sitemap.
- Video sitemaps – Similar to image sitemaps, videos are included in your standard sitemap, but if you have a ton of them you can create a video specific sitemap.
- News sitemaps – News websites need their content to be indexed as fast as possible, because news changes constantly. If you are a news website you can create a news specific sitemap.
Sitemap Best Practices
Okay so now you know what these things are – let’s talk about what you need to do.
Once you know what kind of website you are building, and have created your visual sitemap go ahead and build the site.
Create your Sitemap
- Once your site is built, install the free Yoast SEO plugin.
- Create an XML sitemap – this will dynamically update as you add/remove pages
Submit your Sitemap to Google Search Console
Once your sitemap is created, you want to submit it to Google – you can also do this with Bing… but who really cares about Bing anyways ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Go to Google Search Console > Sitemaps > Submit.
Use the Search Console Sitemap Report to Find Errors
After Google has crawled your sitemap, you can find errors by clicking the “Submitted Sitemaps” area:
As you can see there is a status column – all “Success”. Excellent.
Check your “index coverage” by clicking on the graph:
This will show you all the details you’ll ever want to know about your sitemap(s):
There are are ton of benefits to having a sitemap, and if you’re not convinced by now to have one, this should push you over the edge:
- Search engines crawl & index your site.
- Search engines understand what to crawl.
- Search engines understand what your site is about – the information on it.
- Search engines understand when your content was last updated.
- Search engines understand how often your content is being updated.
- Search engines more quickly index new content on your website, as it is dynamically added to the XML sitemap.
- Search engines crawl your website more efficiently.
- Websites with poor internal linking to get all their pages indexed.
- Very large sites get more organized.
Final Thoughts on Sitemaps
That’s just about it. Many people tend to overcomplicate this, but it really is as easy as 1,2,3.
- Create the sitemap using a plugin.
- Submit your sitemap to Google search console.
- 3. Go eat lunch.
If you have additional questions about sitemaps, drop it in the comments below. And if you need 1 on 1 help, join the SERP University Facebook Group.