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An introduction to XMLs sitemaps & their importance for SEO

Sitemaps have been our bread and butter here at Slickplan for years. We’re a bit partial to the process. Creating an introduction to XML sitemaps was a no-brainer and keeping it up to date in this ever-changing industry has always been a priority. We’ve selected and compiled the best information to bring to you the gospel of SEO XML sitemap use. In Google’s name, amen.

Dan Walter

In less than an hour with Slickplan I was able to accomplish more in communicating my needs for a new website than my web designers were able to communicate in several weeks. Thanks!

Dan Walter, President and CEO of Performensation

What is an XML sitemap in SEO? An introduction to XML sitemaps

Before we take the deep dive into the sea of specifics for XML sitemaps, we need to take a look at the basics. What exactly is a sitemap and where do you even find it? To have a better understanding of the complex bits, it’s important to have a look at the what and where.

XML sitemap definition

An XML sitemap is a tool webmasters and their teams use to inform search engine crawlers like Google Search Console, Yahoo, Bing etc., of the available web pages and how they’re structured within a website with the intent to offer the best pages for relevant searches. The "XML" portion of the sitemap.XML definition comes from the acronym Extensible Markup Language.

Even though we’ll be discussing XML sitemaps here, it’s good to know that there are a couple of other key types of sitemap files; HTML and visual sitemaps.

Pro-tip, making a visual sitemap first can dramatically improve the XML version. More on that later.

How to find XML sitemap pages

You’re unlikely to find an XML file/sitemap index file in an obvious and public-facing part of a website. They’re made for search engines to interpret; not people. You could try to, but shoving bamboo under your fingernails would be more fun, honestly.

If you have an existing website, you likely already have access to a Google XML sitemap file on the backend of your site. It varies between tools, but a quick search of your chosen CMS help desk should show you how to access the root directory. Some sites can be found simply by typing into your browser address bar YourWebsite.com/sitemap.xml — replacing "YourWebsite" with the right domain, and hitting go. Note that this method doesn’t always work because the page may be private.

Find sitemap.xml

Quick note: if someone offers to find/create your sitemap and submit it for you for a fee, the answer is no. You can either do it yourself or your CMS is doing it for you as you read this. Any offers like this, unless it’s part of a full-service situation with a website building tool or company, would be unnecessary and potentially fraudulent.

There’s a long list of things that can go wrong letting possible scammers access this kind of information on your behalf. If you need the refresher course on website security — this may be your next bit of reading.

Those tools for creating an XML sitemap include things like Slickplan’s very own XML sitemap generator (free to all with an account), Yoast SEO plugin for dynamic sitemaps, the Google XML Sitemaps plugin for WordPress websites, and a host of webmaster tools. Little argument necessary in saying these tools can put together a file for you with far more precision and efficiency than doing so manually.

If you’re looking for a sitemap example to match your needs, or you’re in the market for some templates to use for your own Slickplan projects, we’ve got you covered.

Are sitemaps still important?

If you’ve ever even thought to ask questions such as, "do I need a sitemap" or "are sitemaps important for SEO", then you’re at least on the right track. The short answer is heck yeah, they’re still important.

Sitemaps are still very relevant to today’s internet and should never be left out. Although there are some people who do say otherwise — bear in mind, those may be talking about the process of manually making an XML file and submitting it as opposed to the automated process, compliments of your CMS. But make no mistake — the one your CMS made isn’t going to waste.

They’re vital for many reasons, but mainly they help search engines by showing them what your site structure actually looks like which leads to more accurate search engine result pages (SERPS) that include your content. This has been, and will continue to be, the gold standard for indexing websites for the foreseeable future.

Since SEO is, of course, the optimization of search engine functionality, you can easily see how sitemaps directly contribute to that success.

Do sitemaps help SEO rankings?

We get asked, "does a sitemap help SEO" quite often, and the answer needs to be broken down into sections.

  • Firstly, sitemaps do have an impact on SEO, and they’re a powerful SEO tool for telling Google and company what you’ve got.
  • Secondly, they do help search engines understand the structure and layout of your website (it is a map, after all).
  • Finally — and this is a but; a big but. The word "rankings" gets a bit tricky here. There is evidence that refutes the claim that having an XML directly affects how your site ranks on Google. The evidence? Google’s very own Gary Illyes. The caveat? He said "not direct anyway."

Gary Issles on Sitemap XML

The question and answer are worded kind of in the reverse, as opposed to "does this help my site’s ranking," but the idea behind it works both ways.

So what about indirectly?

For starters, adding things like page priority tags. While these are not cross-checked between websites, they may — if you’re a believer in the method — they may be used to show which pages are considered important within the grand scheme of your site. Ranking-wise, although there is not a direct link to success in beating competitor pages, it does allow search engines to better rank what your site does offer in relation to the search terms.

In the same breath, XML files contain information like publish date and last modified or lastmod as well as changefreq or change (update) frequency indicators. These can indirectly have some pull on your ranking because the quality pages that are actually valid and current will display before older or less important pages. External links and internal linking loc tags (location tags) also contribute to the popularity of pages. And really, let’s be honest, Google is just one big popularity contest between websites.

How are sitemaps important for the SEO process?

Now that we’ve determined the importance of sitemaps to SEO, let’s discuss the question how are sitemaps important for the search engine optimization process? Think of it as giving Google and other engines a big cheat sheet — a map of your site and how to get around. To have great SEO, you need to be sure those engines know when to hit the gas on pages within your site.

How to optimize a sitemap for SEO

The how to optimize your google sitemap portion of this program will be broken down into smaller sections. There’s really no one way to do this, and some SEO tips may not apply to your website’s sitemap, but skipping optimization can have a negative impact on the user experience and, ultimately, your revenue.

Page priority and XML sitemap optimization

Sitemap priority tags have been a topic of debate for quite some time with some folks using them religiously while others think they’re dated and useless. In truth, it’s tough to say who’s right on this one.

Sitemap priority values come in 11 flavors. They range anywhere from 1.0 down to 0.0 — where 1.0 is the most important and newest pages with new content, all the way down to 0.0 being used for older content, outdated content and things that have less value to the site but not little enough value to delete entirely.

How often should I optimize my XML sitemap?

Your sitemap index is a never-ending project if your site actively has changes being made. This obviously will be different for everyone, so it has a few deciding factors. A bakery that adds or even swaps out product pages every month (considered new pages), makes changes to internal linking and removes pages as they are no longer needed, will want to optimize once per month or more.

A news website with constantly changing articles and pages, large websites or ecommerce sites that change daily; these need constant attention and daily optimization. If there are any changes to the structure of the site, priority tags (if you subscribe to the idea), URLs etc., you need to update them often for SERPs to be accurate and get traffic from people looking for what you offer.

The more you change, the more you update. It’s that simple.

Consider skipping lastmod tags

In the same line of thinking as changefreq or change frequency attributes telling engines how often it gets changed/updated, lastmod or last modified tags tell engines when the last time individual pages got some love and were updated. Similar to page priority attributes going the way of the dodo, Google’s Gary Illes and John Mueller have both mentioned these are overlooked by Google, one reason being that webmasters just aren’t that good at keeping these tags up to date on sitemaps. Mainly because they’re busy actually doing the updates to the pages themselves. #Relatable.

Noindex pages

Simply put, don’t add Noindex pages to your sitemap.

These can include, for example, utility pages on your site that are useful on the site but not important to search engines. Pages should only appear on your sitemap because you want them indexed.

If you don’t want it indexed, adding Noindex can be done via the meta robots method or by adding the Noindex tag in your robots.txt file. If it’s listed as a URL, the crawlers will spot it and well… mission failed.

SEO XML sitemap best practices

Whether you’re new to XML sitemapping or you’ve had some practice, it’s always good to stay on top of the latest and greatest in best practices. There are some definitely-do items and some situations where things can go wrong. Buckle up.

How large should your sitemap be?

As we’ve said, having an XML for Google to index is important especially for large sites which will require you to create a large sitemap XML. The best way to create a sitemap for large sites is through the push/pull process. Either push your site’s homepage URL through an XML sitemap generator for big sites like ours, or pull the file from your CMS.

Be advised, an XML sitemap for a large site may actually be in the form of multiple XML files. The page limit per sitemap is 50,000, so if you have more than that, you’ll need more than one file. Other than that, if it fits on one, you’re done.

Duplicate pages/content

This is where things can really muddy the sitemapping waters. Duplicate pages and content add unnecessary confusion to the process and can be detrimental to search engines indexing the things you actually want indexed.

Let’s say for example you submit a sitemap in Google Search Console and it tells you that you’ve got 1000 pages but you were expecting 1200; you have a problem. Google is likely flagging pages as duplicates and this is no good. It can also be confusing to people visiting your site when multiple pages seem to just be the same thing.

Additionally, duplicate pages can affect your crawl budget. A crawl budget is a specific number of pages that the fine bots of Google can and will crawl in a given period of time.

  • SlickTip 1: Unique and quality content is the name of the game and duplicate content or poor internal/external linking can be a buzzkill.
  • SlickTip 2: If the number of pages your site contains exceeds the crawl budget, those pages will not be indexed. For most websites though, this is not a problem. This is something that will have a great effect on larger sites with massive numbers of pages.

When sitemapping meets information architecture

Another best practice is to have a healthy understanding of the difference between sitemap and information architecture.

Sitemaps deal strictly with site structure/layout of pages within the site as a whole and information architecture deals with the ​​structure of the content within that website or family of sites and how users will interact with it.

Additionally, user flow can sway the way your information architecture is built, and in turn, how your sitemap is laid out. More information about the difference between sitemap vs user flow can be found in that link.

Validation

Making sure your sitemap passes all the checks and balances is a big priority. You can pretty much be certain XMLs from your CMS will be valid but if you received it via any other source, running it through a Google sitemap validator is a great idea.

It’s stupid simple to do (and can be done right here with Slickplan) and can save you a massive headache. Getting a boatload of errors in Google Search Console because of a faulty XML file is a big bummer and gigantic time suck. A few clicks in a validator can save you a lot of time.

Visually stunning (a little extra credit)

Earlier we briefly mentioned visual sitemapping. This can be helpful for a couple of reasons. Site planning and site managing. We occasionally get the concerned question "why is the crawler making my site one big straight line" and the simple answer is, because that’s how your site is set up.

Crawlers and sitemap generators (of all sitemap file types) only have two functions. Read and write. They aren’t creative and don’t have a sense of humor, so what you have is what you’ll get in the result. If there’s no clear hierarchy of pages, with parent/child pages, content silos and whatnot, it’s a great indicator that some changes need to be made to the site’s structure.

If you’re creating a website from the ground up, it can be helpful to use a sitemap planner (yep, that’s us again) to build that structure visually.

What does that mean?

As we’ve discussed before, XML files are extremely tough for people to read and comprehend. You just can’t get a good sense of how pages relate to each other between all the code and jargon. A visual sitemap, on the other hand, is all about making it easy to understand relationships between pages.

You can build out your content pages, service/product pages, company info, etc. in a structure that resembles a family-tree. Your homepage sits at the top, with the architecture of the rest and ultimately the navigation of your site being clearly built out below. Simple, straightforward and again, easy to understand. That’s what a visual sitemap is for.

How does this relate in any way to XMLs?

Well, if your site’s page structure looks good visually, it’s going to translate to a well made XML file that search engines can index more easily. You’ve seen it with your own eyes in a way that human eyes can understand. Most people couldn’t tell you if an XML is in order or not. So make it easy on yourself and check into the visual version as well.

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Our conclusion on sitemap XML SEO

The big message here is that XML sitemaps still have a place in the heart of site planning/managing and beyond. Whether you choose to do them by hand (which is not the best course of action), pulling them from your CMS, or pushing them through a generator, they carry a lot of power and can really up your SEO game. If you’re concerned you’re doing it wrong or made a mistake you can always use resources like ours to create and validate your XML sitemap and boost your search ranking in the process.

Use of sitemap in SEO FAQs

  • What type of sitemap is the most important for SEO?

    The various types of sitemaps in SEO can all seem like they do the same thing but truthfully, XML sitemaps are most important because they deal directly with search engines. Sitemaps and SEO are intricately related so using multiple types helps, but the best for SEO? That's XML.

  • What is the difference between XML sitemap and HTML sitemap?

    The difference between these file types lies in what they're made of and who uses them. XML is made up of code best read by computers for indexing. HTML sitemaps are regular text files that are easy for people to read and may even be found on the site itself.

  • How do search engines use sitemaps?

    Search engine bots take the file, read it and then process it. That information becomes available for relevant searches but keep in mind it's not checked against other sites. How your pages rank against competitors is based on other factors, most notably the actual content on the pages.

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An introduction to XMLs sitemaps & their importance for SEO

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Refine UX with a superior sitemap

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