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A beginner’s guide to SEO sitemap: The basics and more

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August 31, 2023

All websites need sitemaps to even be on a search engine. They detail the content and structure of a website, acting as an indexing guide for search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo! and more. Thus, you need to understand sitemaps to optimise your site's search engine exposure, guarantee thorough indexing and improve user experience. Mastering sitemaps is key to having efficient website performance and building a strong online presence. Learn the basics of optimising this SEO factor in our guide to sitemaps here at QWERTYLABS.

What is an SEO sitemap?

A sitemap is a clear hierarchical list or diagram outlining the website content structure. You can think of it as the website’s underlying layout that makes for efficient organisation and website navigation. Search engines like Google and Bing use sitemaps to better understand the website's layout so all pages are indexed and displayed accurately in search results. 

Sitemaps present a clear overview of the site’s layout and content. They’re important visual tools that enhance both user experience and search engine optimisation.

Sitemap format

Sitemaps have two main formats: Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). You can think of these varieties as two ‘styles’ of organising content between pages and websites. Each type has its own benefits. Delve into them below:

XML sitemaps

XML sitemaps are machine-readable files that detail the structure and content of a website. They include individual pages with critical metadata such as the latest change date, priority, and frequency of updates. They’re designed for search engine crawlers to streamline indexing.

These sitemaps are either stored in the root directory of the website or sent directly to search engines via their webmaster tools. They help search engines completely index a site, ensuring that all relevant pages are scanned and included in search results.

HTML sitemaps

HTML sitemaps are web pages of a hierarchical list of links to different pages on the site. They provide users with a short overview of the website's structure to make searching and accessing material easier. They’re designed with the user in mind, so they’re more cohesive and intuitive to navigate than XML sitemaps. 

HTML sitemap vs. XML sitemap

The primary difference between HTML and XML sitemaps lies in their purpose and audience. XML sitemaps are tailored for search engines, helping them crawl and index better. They also offer metadata that informs search engines about the importance and update frequency of each page, helping them rank higher. On the other hand, HTML sitemaps cater to human users. They offer an organised list of links for easy navigation and an enhanced browsing experience.

See how the two differ, specifically in purpose, format, content and location, below:

  • Purpose - XML sitemaps assist search engines in extensive indexing, whereas HTML sitemaps assist individuals in navigating sites and discovering new material.
  • Format - XML sitemaps are machine-readable files, while HTML sitemaps are web pages with clickable links.
  • Content - XML sitemaps offer metadata and information about each page, whereas HTML sitemaps only provide web page links to users.
  • Location - XML sitemaps are often put in the website's root directory or uploaded using webmaster tools, whereas HTML sitemaps are available on the website and are usually linked in the footer or navigation section of the menu.
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Types of sitemaps

Each sitemap needs to have a ‘type’, so its use cases, subsections, and content are clear for its users. Additionally, having a clear distinction on the type of sitemap you’ll use will better fit the search query and the reader’s needs. 

In this section, we’ll be looking into the 5 types of sitemaps namely page, video, news, image sitemaps and sitemap indexes.

Page sitemap

Many websites have a page sitemap in an XML format that gives an overview of what the page is, what the company does and what else the site has to offer. They give a full list of web page URLs so search engines can crawl and index material more effectively which increases the likelihood of ranking on search engines. This then increases the likelihood of ranking on search engines and that the pages of a website are appropriately reflected in search results, making user discovery easier.

Video sitemap

Popular video-sharing sites like YouTube and TikTok are examples of websites that use video sitemaps. They include video metadata such as titles, descriptions, durations, and thumbnail URLs. Video sitemaps are designed for websites that contain video information, whether short-form or long-form types of media. They assist search engines in properly identifying and ranking video content, making them essential for video platforms. 

News sitemap

News sitemaps ensure timely indexing of news content for news-related websites like the New York Times or The Washington Post. They provide important information such as publishing dates, titles and keywords. This then allows search engines to post relevant news content as they happen in real-time, making them especially significant for media sites. 

Image sitemap

Image sitemaps are intended for websites with many photos. They contain information such as picture URLs, captions and licence information. Image sitemaps are useful for galleries and e-commerce platforms because they allow search engines to index photos, increasing image search exposure correctly.

Sitemap Index

Lastly, we have a sitemap index, which acts as a page that contains all the page sitemaps. This makes it easier for search engines to easily identify and scan different portions of a website. Similar to a building directory, a sitemap index categorises and leads search engines to specific sitemaps so they can extensively cover a website and ensure visitors can quickly access the required information.

Why are sitemaps important?

Simply put, sitemaps make each web page more discoverable on search engines. They create a well-structured website architecture so search engines can easily understand content relationships on your site and accurately display your pages on search engine result pages (SERPs). This improves site visibility and allows easier navigation for visitors. They can easily find what they're looking for once they click on the site, boosting user engagement and on-page metrics like average time on the page.

How do search engines use sitemaps?

Search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing use sitemaps to improve the crawlability and indexing of websites. This is because sitemaps serve as roadmaps for search engine bots as they navigate the website's content structure. Search engine optimisation (SEO) also greatly benefits from sitemaps since they assist engines in interpreting the architecture of the site, making it simpler to assess content relevance and importance. Essentially, sitemaps promote effective communication between websites and search engines, improving visibility and encouraging a consistent online experience.

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Step-by-step guide on how to create a sitemap

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Man and Woman Discussing Site Map Creation Strategy. Flowchart Sitemap on Digital Computer Monitor. Workflow Process. Designers Creative Team. Cartoon Floral Design Vector Flat Illustration

Learning how to make a sitemap can give you more understanding of the work that goes into it and how to make a site truly crawlable. Keep reading to learn how to make a sitemap.

  1. Identify your main categories and subcategories

You first need to establish your website’s focus. Then, determine the main categories and subcategories relevant to your goal. Afterwards, you can then map out the hierarchical order of your website's content. 

  1. Draft your sitemap

Follow a syntax format accepted by search engines and manually draft your sitemap on a text editor like Windows Notepad or TextEdit. Edit your robots.txt file if you don’t want crawlers to access specific pages. To make this part simpler, you can use a generator tool or let your CMS generate one for you. 

  1. Upload your sitemap into your website’s root directory

Once your sitemap is done, use a sitemap validator tool to rectify any errors. Then, upload it into your website’s server in the root directory to make it accessible and crawlable for search engines. 

  1. Submit your work

Lastly, submit your sitemap to popular search engines like Google, Bing and others through their respective webmaster tools. They will then be aware of your sitemap's presence and can efficiently index your website's content. 

Website sitemap tool and plugins

While you can manually create a website sitemap, using tools to automate one for you is easier and more efficient. They have up-to-date features compatible with the latest search engine updates, so you won't have to take extra steps in learning them. This section explores popular examples of sitemaps for websites to make sitemaps creation and organisation easier.

Yoast SEO (WordPress plugin)

Yoast SEO is a WordPress plugin that provides a variety of SEO features, including sitemap building. It creates XML sitemaps that include pages, articles, categories and other custom post types for maximum optimisation and customisation. As you produce new content, the plugin keeps your sitemap up to date, meaning less work for you. Yoast SEO also includes an HTML sitemap to help people navigate your website more successfully so that they can maximise their time.

Screaming Frog

Screaming Frog is a sophisticated SEO spider tool capable of crawling websites and producing thorough data, including sitemaps. With this tool, you can detect broken links, analyse information and generate XML sitemaps, making for a cleaner site. This tool is especially beneficial for larger websites since it gives insights into your site's structure, hierarchy and difficulties.

Google XML Sitemaps

Google XML Sitemaps is a WordPress plugin that generates XML sitemaps alone. It is intended to assist search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo to better index your website. When you produce or edit content, the plugin generates a dynamic sitemap that is immediately updated. This increases the chances of your site ranking in SERPs, resulting in more organic traffic.

XML-Sitemaps.com

XML-Sitemaps.com is a web-based application for creating XML and HTML sitemaps for modest to large websites. It's ideal if you don't utilise WordPress or want a stand-alone solution. This tool ensures that your website is correctly indexed by search engines, allowing consumers to quickly discover your information. It also updates your sitemap automatically, so you won’t have to.

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Sitemap best practices and tips for your brand

Take the next best steps to optimise your sitemap design for crawling and indexing. Check them out below:

Include all important pages

Some of the most relevant pages in a sitemap include the homepage, key product and service pages. These offer valuable information visitors would want to know before going to other pages. So, prioritise them first and make sure their contents are relevant and substantial. Doing so creates a well-organised sitemap that promotes effective search engine crawling, indexing, and user navigation, resulting in a better user experience and increased exposure.

Organise your sitemap

Effective sitemap practises include organising each page logically and according to similarity. Divide pages with related subjects into various categories to provide easy navigation. A well-structured sitemap improves search engine comprehension, facilitates smooth user journeys, and encourages the discovery of relevant material.

Use descriptive URLs

Using clear and concise descriptive URLs makes for a good sitemap quality. Avoid generic or ambiguous URLs that can mislead readers. A well-structured sitemap should match your website's hierarchy while offering URLs that give clear insight into their contents.

Optimise title tags

Optimising a sitemap means creating unique and descriptive title tags for each page. These tags should reflect the content's relevance and purpose concisely. Use keywords strategically to improve search engine comprehension and let searchers know what to expect on your page. This leads to greater search visibility, a better user experience and higher click-through rates, all of which enhance overall site performance.

Provide concise meta-descriptions

When readers search for content, they frequently look at a webpage's meta description to determine if it is related to their search query. That’s why you should provide brief and compelling meta-descriptions to attract readers. Make a concise and useful summary of the page to entice people to click. These descriptions should give a clear picture of the content and its importance. 

Effective meta-descriptions not only increase click-through rates (CTR) but also assist search engines in understanding the context of each page, resulting in increased user engagement and search exposure.

Keep your sitemap up to date

Doing this ensures site security and search relevance. Let's assume your website has already risen to the top of search engine results pages. Updating your sitemap keeps it in this place. 

Review and update it regularly to reflect the current condition of your website. Add new pages as soon as possible, and remove old ones that aren’t as important. A current, reliable sitemap guarantees that search engines successfully crawl and index your most recent material. By following these guidelines, you can maintain optimal search engine exposure while still providing consumers with a realistic depiction of your site's products.

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Troubleshooting tips for sitemaps

Just like in any code, problems can arise in your sitemaps. You should have a troubleshooting protocol for such instances so your user engagement won’t dip. Discover what errors to expect and the tips and techniques for fixing them in this section:

Check the sitemap for errors

First, check for sitemap errors. Any irregularity or difference from the original published sitemap should be reviewed quickly to avoid prolonging the problem. If users report issues, assess and fix them quickly.

Common sitemap errors

  • Broken links - These may be easily identified when the webmaster clicks on the link and it does not redirect to another page.
  • Incorrect format - This error occurs when sitemaps don’t follow the XML rules. It can cause search engines to become confused when indexing or crawling a site.
  • Large sitemaps - A sitemap might get so vast that it overwhelms search engine crawlers, slowing down the indexing process. This is frequently caused by providing unnecessary or duplicate URLs.
  • Missing or incomplete URLs - When URLs in a sitemap are missing or incomplete, search engines lose out on important material. This might occur as a result of human mistakes or modifications that are not reflected in the sitemap.

Ensure accessibility

Check that your website is accessible to both users and web crawlers or spiders. All material on an accessible site is easily navigable and interpretable. Web crawlers rely on this accessibility to fully index your website, which improves search engine exposure and user engagement.

Validate sitemap

Evaluating the sitemap format once it’s been created avoids parsing errors and inconsistencies. It guarantees that your sitemap follows XML requirements and is free of discrepancies. Use online sitemap validation tools to uncover possible errors and make the required adjustments. Doing this makes indexing easier and more accurate for search engines.

Submit sitemap to webmaster tools

Upload your sitemap to webmaster tools such as Google Search Console (GSC) to inform webmasters about the structure and pages of your site. This makes for more effective crawling and indexing. GSC provides insights into your site's performance and indexing status, allowing you to quickly solve any possible issues and ensure optimal search engine exposure.

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How to submit a sitemap to search engines

After ideating, creating and organising your sitemap comes the final step: submitting it to search engines. This guarantees that your website's structure is crawled and indexed efficiently, allowing search engines to correctly interpret and rank your content. Indexed material is then displayed in search results, increasing the visibility and user engagement of your site. 

Learn how you can submit your sitemaps to two popular search engines: Google and Bing.

How to submit a sitemap to Google

Submitting a sitemap to Google only takes a few steps:

  1. Log in to your Google Developer account and go to Google Search Console (GSC).
  2. Select the property or website for which you wish to submit the sitemap.
  3. Go to the ‘Sitemaps’ section and select ‘Add a new sitemap.’
  4. Enter your sitemap URL and click ‘Test.’ Make sure no errors are noted.
  5. Once you've tested your own sitemap, click ‘Submit’ to formally upload it to Google for indexing and crawling.

How to submit a sitemap to Bing

Let’s take a look at the steps in submitting a sitemap to Bing.

  1. Log in to your Bing Webmaster Tools account.
  2. Select the website for which you wish to submit the sitemap.
  3. In the left menu, navigate to the ‘Sitemaps’ section.
  4. Click ‘Add a Sitemap’ and enter the URL of your sitemap.
  5. Confirm and submit your sitemap to the site. Bing will then crawl and index your website using the specified sitemap and give you a report shortly.

Why submit a sitemap for improved indexing and crawling?

Submitting a sitemap is a must for SEO practice since it acts as an organised map directing search engines through your site’s content structure and hierarchy. This facilitates effective crawling and indexing so search engines can fully comprehend and accurately show your content to readers. This higher visibility then leads to increased organic traffic, leads, conversions and eventually, sales.

Sitemap tools and techniques for monitoring and updating website sitemaps

Once your site has been launched, all that’s left to do is SEO monitoring and checking if user experience and its performance are up to the company’s standards. To easily monitor and check for updates on sitemaps, you’ll need the help of tools like Google Search Console, XML Sitemap Generators, Website Analytics Tools and Regular content audits. Below are more details on each tool.

  • Google Search Console - Checks indexing status, identifies crawl issues and submits sitemaps for quick updates.
  • XML Sitemap Generators - Automates the development of sitemaps while assuring correctness and timely updates. 
  • Website Analytics Tools - Analyses user behaviour and interaction, then refines your sitemap depending on your findings.
  • Regular content audits - Reviews and updates sitemaps regularly to reflect new material and preserve indexing efficiency.

Improve your sitemap for better on-page metrics with QWERTYLABS

Maintaining your sitemap is a rigorous process that only begins with submitting it to search engines. Follow a roadmap detailing what to do next, from monitoring performance to constantly updating and checking user accessibility to ensure efficient site indexing every time.

Here’s where QWERTYLABS’ team of content creators, SEO analysts and webmasters can help. We offer essential services like sitemap creation on top of smart content creation, link building and brand protection. Inquire about our services and know more about how we can help you grow.

Frequently asked questions

What are sitemaps used for?

Sitemaps are organised guidelines that define a website's content, allowing search engines to scan and index it more efficiently, increasing content exposure, and facilitating user navigation.

Is a sitemap necessary?

Sitemaps are essential for efficient SEO. They guarantee complete indexing and assist search engines with understanding content linkages, hence improving search visibility and user experience.

How many sitemaps should I have?

The number of sitemaps you need is determined by the size and complexity of your website. In most cases, a single complete XML sitemap is enough; however, bigger sites may benefit from numerous sitemaps for different content kinds. Just make sure that the overall sitemap is organised and still easy to crawl through.

How to find the sitemap of a website?

Adding "/sitemap.xml" to the end of a website's URL, such as www.thisisanexample.com/sitemap.xml, will often take you to its sitemap. You may also look for sitemap references in the website's robots.txt file.

How to check the sitemap of a website?

To access the sitemap's content, enter the URL straight into your web browser. Alternatively, for verification, utilise internet tools or browser extensions that can evaluate and show the structure and URLs of the sitemap.

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