What is an XML sitemap & how does it help SEO?
n XML sitemap is a 'map' that's designed to help search engines find their way around a website. It doesn't, however, look like a traditional map. It's simply a file that lists the URLs (web addresses) of your website's publicly viewable pages and files.
You can find your - or another business' - sitemap by adding /sitemap.xml to the end of the homepage URL. For example, https://www.sainsburys.co.uk/sitemap.xml.
XML SITEMAPS: THE BASICS
XML (Extensible Markup Language) sitemaps are created specifically for search engines. If you're not familiar with markup languages, they can look a little bit intimidating.
Here's an example of one that I just created using an online sitemap generator.
As you can see on the screenshot above, the sitemap lists all of the publicly viewable pages on my website. It also tells us when each page was last updated - lastmod - and how important the page is - priority. When it comes to priority, pages are displayed from most important (1.0) to least important. However, keep in mind that, at this point in time (July 2019), Google doesn't pay attention to priority.
Let's take a look at another sitemap example. This time, it's from online clothing retailer Baukjen.
Here we don't see the brand's actual sitemap; we see a sitemap index. This is telling us - & search engines - that there are 4 sitemaps to be viewed. Loc tells Google & Bing where each one can be found.
WHY HAVE MORE THAN ONE?
Why have more than one xml sitemap? There are a number of reasons. Your website could be really big & sitemaps are limited to 50,000 URLs. You might use a plugin like Yoast (see screenshot, below). Or, you might just prefer having a 'neater' set up - having separate sitemaps for landing pages, products, etc. - like Baukjen's.
HOW DO XML SITEMAPS HELP SEO?
If search engines can't find all of the pages on your website, they won't be able to crawl & index them. This means that these pages won't appear in any search results. When this happens, you can lose a lot of traffic &, as a direct consequence, miss out on sales, leads or other conversions. Sitemaps help to stop this from happening. By providing search engines with a list of your site's URLs, you're doing all that you can to ensure that no page goes uncrawled.
There are a number of reasons why some pages on your site can be missed by Google & Bing. Search engines rely on links to find new content; if pages are really deep within your website (i.e. not easy to find via the homepage) or you've unknowingly created a few orphan pages, search engines can struggle to locate them.
Like all things SEO, there's no way to guarantee that search engines will pay attention to your sitemap. However, that doesn't mean that you should avoid them. The pros & cons of having one (or more than one!) should be reviewed by each business.
DOES YOUR SITE NEED A SITEMAP?
So, now you know what an XML sitemap is & you understand how it can help increase your website's online visibility. In part 2 of my sitemaps series, I address the question, does my website really need an XML sitemap? Watch this space - link coming soon! ♦
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Beylkin is the founder of Words on Marketing. She began her marketing career in Australia in 2005, working for an early stage startup. Since this time, she's worked with brands big & small, from Microsoft & Montcalm Luxury Hotels to Quiz Clothing & cranberry panda. Now based in London, she spends her days helping individuals & brands achieve more with marketing.