Understanding Sitemaps

One of the main reasons small business owners and marketers avoid investing in SEO strategies is because they’re deemed too complex. It’s possible to watch a TV ad or see a sponsored story immediately pay off on Facebook, but what value does SEO have? Is it even worth using if some of the more challenging SEO best practices require intense developer hours with no immediate ROI?

Our goal is to demystify the idea that SEO is a challenging marketing strategy and show you how it adds value to your business, starting with sitemaps. Keep reading to learn how sitemaps can improve your search value and make it easier for you to manage your website.

What Is a Sitemap?

Image via Flickr by Tinh Te Photos

Simply put, a sitemap is a list of pages on your website. If a search engine were to review your sitemap, it would understand the website layout and the types of content you share before it started crawling. This gives it a better idea about what it’s going to find. In the same way that you wouldn’t set out on a hiking trail without a map and an idea of where you wanted to go, Google and other search engines don’t want to explore your website without knowing what’s in store.

You can learn more about sitemaps on Google’s Support page, but one of the most useful sections provides a list of criteria to understand if a sitemap is right for your business website. A few of Google’s criteria include:

  • Your site is large: A sitemap prevents Google from overlooking important content or updates.

  • Your site pages don’t link to each other: If your archives operate in silos and don’t interact, the crawlers might miss important pieces of content.

  • Your site is new: If you lack external links and a long search engine history, then a sitemap can alert Google to pages that aren’t linked to other websites.

  • Your site uses Google News or other sitemap-compatible annotations: Some companies use these features on a website to boost visibility, and they submit the sitemap to pull valuable data.

While these criteria provide a rather lengthy explanation for when websites need to have a sitemap, they show that almost every website is likely to need one for at least one specific purpose. New sites likely need sitemaps to share their updates and make sure that web crawlers find any new posts, while new or isolated websites need sitemaps to grow their exposure. Even if a sitemap isn’t right for your website now, you may need one later as you grow and change your goals.

What Kinds of Sitemap Options Are There?

The easy part of website management is deciding whether you want a sitemap or not. The hard part is actually developing one. The experts at Moz list three common types of sitemap languages you can choose from, along with the pros and cons of each one. They also recommend using websites like XML-sitemaps.com where you can build your own maps for your website. The top three sitemap choices include:

  • XML (Extensible Markup Language) sitemaps are the recommended format for most websites. They are incredibly easy for search engines to read and can be easily generated online.

  • RSS (Really Simple Syndication) sitemaps can easily be coded and can automatically be updated. However, beginners may find that these sitemaps are harder to manage.

  • Txt (Text File) sitemaps don’t allow users to add metadata, but they’re easy to use. These sitemaps have one URL per line.

Depending on your developer hours and website needs, the language you choose will change. In most cases, you will want a simple and easy-to-manage sitemap that regularly updates automatically as your website changes. This means you should only have to interact with it when there are dramatic changes or updates to your website.

How Can You Launch Your Sitemap?

Once you have your sitemap created, the next step is to submit it to the search engines. Google’s Webmaster Tools and Bing’s counterpart typically make it easy to submit your sitemap for crawling. They test your sitemap for errors and alert you about any problems they experience, ensuring that the search engine crawlers find everything correctly. The testing tools are particularly appreciated by beginner SEO marketers who are still unsure about what they’re doing.

Most SEO experts encourage site owners to keep the sitemap in the site root where search engines can easily access it when they crawl your pages. This also makes placement easy on your developers — especially if you change developers and they need to get a feel for your website’s layout.

How Do Sitemaps Boost Your SEO?

The more pages search engines index from your website, the more trust it gains. By highlighting all of your pages on your sitemap, you can ensure that search engines don’t miss important content.

Over time, search engines are able to determine that a great piece of content on your website wasn’t a fluke and that you’re not stealing content from other sources. As search engines like Google increase the trust levels of your website, you’re likely to see an increase in your rankings over time.

The experts at SEO Hacker conceded that having a sitemap alone won’t dramatically boost your SEO value; you also have to create valuable content on those pages that appeal to readers and web crawlers. However, if you have really great content that isn’t getting the attention it deserves, then having a sitemap for your website can give it more visibility. The amount of effort that goes into creating and maintaining a proper sitemap often pales in comparison to the long-term organizational and SEO benefits to your website.

You don’t have to be an SEO guru who understands every technical aspect of your website to benefit from organic search marketing. By knowing how tools like sitemaps can help your website and benefit your rankings in the long run, you can set yourself up for SEO success and happy website developers.

About the author

Amanda Dodge