An SEO factor that can be overlooked is the XML sitemap, which is responsible for providing search engine crawlers with information on the content of your pages. When done right, it serves as a powerful aide in boosting your website’s visibility.
In this article, we look into the concept of XML sitemaps, outlining what they are, why they are essential for SEO performance, and how you can create and submit one for your website. We will also differentiate XML sitemaps from their HTML counterparts and reveal how they support search engines in navigating your site.
What is an XML sitemap?
When search engines crawl to determine the order of search results, they index each website, making a list of the site structure and relevant content that can be used to answer user queries. Your XML sitemap serves to inform search engine bots of that information quickly.
Definition and explanation of an XML sitemap
At its core, an XML sitemap is a roadmap of your website that guides search engine crawlers through all the essential pages you want to be indexed. But what is an XML sitemap, precisely?
The term XML stands for Extensible Markup Language – a standard, machine-readable format consumed by search engines to understand your website’s structure better.
Unlike a traditional table of contents made with human readers in mind, the XML sitemap is specifically designed for search engines. It lists all the relevant URLs (aka locations) on the website, providing additional information about each URL in the form of metadata.
It can include when the URL was last updated, how often it changes, and its importance relative to other URLs on the site.
How does XML differ from HTML sitemaps?
Both XML and HTML sitemaps are meant to guide visitors through your website, but their intended audiences differ.
An HTML sitemap is designed for human visitors, helping them navigate your site’s structure and find what they are looking for. Think of it as the table of contents in a book with all the parts and chapters.
Just as you would want book readers to find what concerns them easily, an HTML sitemap encourages better practices for internal links. It can help distribute link equity across your site, making it a beneficial factor for SEO.
An XML sitemap, on the other hand, is tailored for search engines, providing them with information directly to hasten the process of indexing only SEO-relevant pages. Having both an XML and an HTML sitemap is recommended, as they serve different purposes and audiences.
Basic structure and format of XML sitemaps
In terms of structure, an XML sitemap file consists of a list of URLs, each wrapped in a location tag with the exact page address. For each URL, this file can provide metadata about when it was last modified, its priority relative to other pages, and how frequently it changes.
Nowadays, almost any content management system (CMS) can easily generate sitemap index files in XML format, ready to be gobbled up by search engines and extensible enough to accommodate future changes or additions.
To further improve the likelihood of certain elements appearing in relevant search results, there are specialized sitemap components where each one communicates different details about rich media content on your website pages.
For example, it could be an image sitemap, a video sitemap, or a schemas sitemap, with the last one being a set of rules generally used within a sitemap.
Despite its seemingly intricate nature, an XML sitemap adheres to a simple and standardized format. Starting with an opening URL set tag and concluding with a closing URL set tag, between them, you enclose each web page or URL on your site within its own set of URL tags, making it look like a list of entries.
Each entry includes several pieces of information:
- <loc> tag. Short for location, it contains the absolute URL of the page or, simply, the unique address where the page can be found.
- <lastmod> tag. Indicates when the page was last modified. Search engine crawlers use this information to determine if a revisit is necessary to index new content.
- <changefreq> tag. Provides a general idea of how often the content on a specific URL is expected to change.
- <priority> tag. Denotes the priority of a particular URL relative to other URL’s on your site. The value to input here is a number between 0.0 (lowest) and 1.0 (highest).
Here is how that would look in an example XML sitemap file:
<?xml version=”1.0″ encoding=”UTF-8″?>
In this example, we begin with the XML declaration line. It indicates the version, which is 1.0, and the character set used in the document.
UTF-8 (Unicode Transformational Format – 8-bit) is a popular encoding scheme that supports various characters from different scripts and is universally accepted across platforms and languages.
Then, we continue with an XML name-space identifier for the sitemap protocol, defined at the latest version by sitemaps.org, which appears to be 0.9 for the moment. It helps search engines recognize the type of XML document and understand the specific set of rules that govern its structure and content.
As you go down the list, each URL block represents a different page on the example.com website. You can see we have used the tags according to what each one indicates.
Now, let’s see why you must understand all this and how it can help your SEO strategy.
Why is an XML sitemap important for SEO?
An XML sitemap extends beyond a mere listing of web pages – its SEO value is in communicating directly with search engines, enabling the pages crawled to be included in search results sooner, bumping your site’s visibility, and boosting traffic.
Benefits of having an XML sitemap for search engine crawlers
Search engine crawlers are like digital spiders that traverse the internet, hopping from one link to another indexing web pages along their path. An XML sitemap offers crawlers a complete list of pages to examine – those can be all your pages or particular ones you deem relevant.
In instances where some pages are not adequately linked to others, XML sitemaps act as a safety net, ensuring these missing pages are accounted for and indexed, even though they might be hard to discover. Thus, it becomes a way to compensate for weak internal linking.
How do XML sitemaps help search engines discover and index pages on your site?
New websites and sites with dynamic content that lack external links leading to them usually benefit the most from using a sitemap. Search engine crawlers interpret information from XML sitemaps as instructions for indexing, including existing pages that might not be easily discoverable independently.
Along with the pages listed in an XML file, valuable metadata is included, such as when the page was last updated, how frequently it is changed, and its relative importance concerning others on the same site. That is what search engines read out to make a quick decision during a sitemap index.
Importance of XML sitemaps for large or complex websites
Large and complex websites use sitemap files as a root directory, simplifying the discovery and indexing. Sites with archived pages that aren’t easily reachable via links from the homepage also benefit in this regard.
For instance, the dynamic nature of an ecommerce site suggests that it frequently adds new pages for new products and removes old ones, making it challenging for search engines to keep up.
You can further implement customizations so that your sitemap tells Google to prioritize particular pages over others so that those are crawled more frequently or recognized as more important in search results.
And with that, the question of how to create such an XML sitemap arises.
How to create an XML sitemap?
To make the process of creating an XML sitemap straightforward, even for those without extensive technical knowledge, we have boiled it down to tools and methods, considerations, and common mistakes.
Tools and methods for generating an XML sitemap
Pretty much any available CMS today offers options for generating an XML sitemap. For example, the Yoast SEO plugin for WordPress can do it automatically.
Those not using a CMS or prefer a more hands-on approach can utilize an online sitemap generator. These tools crawl your website much like a search engine, generating an XML sitemap on the pages they find.
Keep in mind that If you use a sitemap generator, you might have to manually add some missing or archived pages for the list to be truly exhaustive.
Considerations for including or excluding pages or URLs
A well-structured XML sitemap includes the most relevant pages and excludes irrelevant ones, such as archive pages or duplicate content (which has to be taken care of anyway).
Websites, and larger ones in particular, often have a lot of new pages being added to the existing pages, so keeping your content clean and SEO-friendly is a big denominator in the role an XML sitemap can play for you.
Although there is no limit to the number of URLs an XML sitemap can contain, Google recommends keeping each XML sitemap to a maximum of 50,000 URLs. If your site exceeds this number, you can use multiple XML sitemaps organized under a single XML sitemap index file.
Common mistakes to avoid when creating an XML sitemap
As with any technical process, you can encounter common pitfalls with XML sitemaps that are entirely avoidable when you know them.
A common mistake would be considered forgetting to remove broken or non-existent pages after generating your XML sitemap. It can confuse search engine bots and may even affect your site’s performance, so to avoid that, thoroughly check your pages before creating the sitemap.
Another of the sitemap errors you could face has a chance of occurring when your site changes. Whenever you add, remove, or significantly modify a page on your site, your sitemap should be updated to reflect these changes.
Take note that while an XML sitemap acts as a navigation board for crawlers, it is not a replacement for a well-structured website that provides a user-friendly experience.
How to submit an XML sitemap to search engines?
Once you have created your XML sitemap, the next step is to submit it to search engines so that they are informed of its existence and location.
Best practices for submitting an XML sitemap to search engines
From the several ways that come up for submitting, the most widely adopted one is directly through a search engine’s webmaster tools. For Google, this would be Google Search Console.
After adding your website to GSC, you can submit your sitemap URL through the Sitemaps report. It ensures that Google knows exactly where to find your sitemap, enabling you to monitor its status and any errors that may arise during the crawling process.
Bing also has a similar feature in its Bing Webmaster Tools, allowing you to submit sitemap files. Given Bing’s popularity after its integration with AI, this is an excellent way to widen your reach even further.
How to verify that search engines have successfully processed your sitemap?
Upon submitting your sitemap to Google and other search engines, you must verify it is successfully processed. Fortunately, that’s easily done as well.
If you use Google Search Console and have submitted your sitemap in the Sitemaps report, Google will check it and inform you if it finds any issues. You can then correct them and resubmit your sitemap.
Remember to regularly monitor your sitemap’s status, as that allows you to spot and address potential issues that could impact your site’s visibility in search results. GSC provides data on sitemap errors, so it will point out anything that might require your attention.
Common issues that can prevent the successful submission or processing of your sitemap
While submitting sitemaps is straightforward, some problems might appear regardless of your execution.
They include the following:
- Incorrect sitemap format. XML’s protocol must be followed when you generate an XML sitemap. If you are using a plugin, this should not be a concern, but if you are manually creating such a file or files, you might want to check for any errors in your lines.
- Sitemap too large. Google has a limit of 50,000 URLs per sitemap and be no more than 50 MB large when uncompressed.
- URLs in the sitemap blocked by robots.txt. This webmaster text file instructs web robots how to crawl pages on your website, and if it includes directives blocking search engines from accessing specific pages, that can cause some complications.
- Sitemap contains invalid URLs. All URLs in your sitemap should be valid and accessible. If it includes broken or inaccessible URLs, crawlers get confused and might not deem your website as well-organized.
XML sitemaps and SEO performance metrics
One of the ways that XML sitemaps support SEO is by making it easier for search engine bots to find and index your web pages.
Complex websites with many pages and those with dynamic content that is regularly updated pretty much always have at least one XML sitemap or a whole sitemap index file that ensures search engines are informed of all the relevant pages. As a result, that leads to more organic traffic and better overall website visibility in search results.
Additionally, when you combine Google Search Console with other marketing tools like Google Analytics, you can more accurately identify problems that may be preventing your website from performing as well as it could.
Utilizing XML sitemaps after you know their role and how they work expands your view and puts your hand on the wheel of a proactive approach to managing your site’s SEO that can give you a competitive edge.
Frequently Аsked Questions
What happens if I don’t include an XML sitemap for my website?
Search engines might have a harder time discovering and indexing all the relevant pages on your site, especially for large and complex websites. Therefore, Google will not show your site in search results.
Can I exclude certain pages from my XML sitemap?
Yes, you can, particularly those pages you know don’t contribute to your site’s SEO value.
Are there more specific tags I can use in XML sitemaps?
Yes, there are tags meant for certain types of content. For instance, the image:image and image:loc tags are used to specify the image URL of any images on the page, enhancing their visibility in SERP.
How does Google Analytics interact with my XML sitemap?
Google Search Console is the tool that does this because it is used for sitemap submission and monitoring. Google Analytics provides insights into your site’s traffic without directly interacting with your XML sitemap.