XML vs HTML sitemap: What is the difference between them?

In the battle of XML vs HTML sitemap, it really comes down to who or what is using the tool when deciding which is the winner for certain needs. It’s amazing how often we’re asked if sitemaps are still important. In short; it’s a very loud "yes." It just depends on what you’re doing with them. The differences between an HTML site map and XML site map, or "sitemap," as you’ll also see it, seem pretty simple, but they make a world of difference.

All in all, the goal for both of them is to provide a better experience and direct you to the things you actually want to see. Whether you generate them with a search engine spider or web crawler, knowing the capabilities of the different resulting sitemaps is absolutely a must.

What is the difference between XML sitemap and HTML sitemap?

The main difference between an HTML sitemap and XML sitemap is what they’re made up of, which determines who uses them and why. How directly people interact with these tools, though, couldn’t be more opposite. In the end, though, remember that both of them are for the benefit of the end-user. In the comparison chart and sections that follow, we’ll go over the finer points of what makes a XML sitemap and HTML sitemap important even though they’re so very different.

Ultimately, a well-delivered user experience is vital to any operation. That user-friendly encounter consists of many more minor actions that collectively create an experience that people will crave more of and remember for a long time. Search engine optimization (SEO) and the various types of sitemaps are just some of the building blocks we use to create that unique experience.

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XML vs HTML sitemap comparison chart

We’ve assembled this comparative chart to help illustrate some fundamental differences in the HTML vs XML sitemap matchup. We’ll dive a bit deeper into each example as we go long. Before we begin; a couple of quick notes;

  • XML is the abbreviated form of Extensible Markup Language
  • HTML means HyperText Markup Language.
ComparisonXML sitemapHTML sitemapWhich to use
PurposeFor search enginesFor human eyesDepends on your needs
CreationSitemap generatorSitemap generatorBoth
For SEO?Directly usedRarely used for direct SEOBoth
For humans?Not easily readable by humansMuch easier for humans to readHTML sitemap
LimitationsLimited to certain capabilitiesNearly unlimited options when presenting to humansBoth

HTML sitemap vs XML sitemap comparison points in depth

Here we’ll go over those finer points about the differences (and similarities) of these powerful tools and what they mean for your website’s success. You’ll notice they aren’t exactly subtle differences, so it’s essential to have a solid understanding of each one.

Difference between HTML and XML sitemap purposes

The XML’s purpose is to help search engines find your site and determine the importance of the pages of your website (subpages, too) so more users can benefit from using your site. This is mission critical for both large and small websites. Google Search Console, Yahoo and Bing aren’t designed to make guesses about content that exists on your website. However, search engines are great at offering what they do know your site contains. You just have to tell them what that content is for it to be effective.

On the other hand, HTML sitemaps are for the purpose of helping human eyes take in information about the setup of a site and provide easy navigation to the available pages. HTML contains actual links that can be clicked to get you anywhere within a site and can include any other information the site owner and designers think the user should know.

Difference between XML and HTML sitemap creation

Both types of sitemap can easily be created with our sitemap generator for whatever your needs may be. Here at Slickplan, creating an XML file such as a WordPress XML has always been possible, and we’ve just added the ability to produce a Google XML file.

Our generator works by simply entering the website URL of the site you wish to crawl, typically the homepage, unless you’re crawling certain parts of the site only, then the bots/crawlers do their thing. Et voilà! You’re all set. Publicly available webpages can be run through a search engine crawler to pump out the perfect XML sitemap protocol, often with relative quickness. In short — creating sitemaps of either type is the same process for both. Most generators allow you to select what kind of file type you’ll be exporting as so you can decide from there which one you’ll need and for what reasons.

XML sitemap vs HTML sitemap for SEO

An important factor in your SEO planning is ensuring you have a proper sitemap — and using a sitemap planner ensures you nail it. Your XML sitemap file is directly accessed by search engines and is one of the simplest yet highly effective tools in SEO.

HTML is better suited to human consumption. HTML used to have some sway in search engine results, but XML quickly took the spotlight as a more powerful option. XML just works better for search engines. If we break down what SEO means, you’re quite literally optimizing a search engine’s results to show what you have available that may be relevant to a potential end-user. Between the use of robots.txt files, metadata, the list of links and internal linking, your sitemap is a vital webmaster tool when aiming to improve your search rankings.

Sitemap XML vs HTML for humans

As mentioned, an HTML sitemap is designed more for use by people looking for better site navigation. You’ll see this a lot in the footer of websites. Even ours (go ahead and scroll, we’ll wait.) With this type of sitemap, people can decide what they feel are critical pages and easily access them. Page priority and significance are determined by the individual user rather than a computer bot reading and ranking the complex information via an XML sitemap.

HTML is just more ideal for human eyes. For those using it as a resource when browsing whatever site you fancy, it’s simply easier to read and links can be clicked to get where you’re going.

XML vs HTML sitemap limitations

First and foremost, user error is a biggie. It can be easy to remember to create an XML file for a new website, but a sitemap index doesn’t automatically update when new content and new pages are added. This is especially true for sitemaps being manually submitted to Google Search Console, for example. Your SEO is only as effective as the latest version of the file.

Another limitation is that while a content management system (CMS) will typically create a sitemap file to send off to Google and beyond, you may be overlooking a giant hole in your work by not checking to see if it was what you thought it was. What does that mean? A common error is believing your CMS is handling this for you and coming to find out your website structure was actually way off the mark. This can be due to a miscommunication between who built the site and the webmaster or just a poorly structured site and minimal site planning, all the way down to lack of experience.

The shock usually comes in the form of thinking the crawler messed up. The reality is that crawlers and sitemap generators don’t make things up. They’re just not that creative. They’ve got two functions; read and write.

Sitemaps also shouldn’t be viewed in the way information architecture is. For a clear picture of the differences and similarities between information architecture vs sitemap, we’ve got you covered. They’re both 100% must-do items, and while they might be related, it’s more of a distant cousin-type relation.

There are also major differences between sitemaps vs user flow diagrams vs wireframes. They all might sound similar and they do play significant roles in creating the best user experience for a website or app but you have to know how to use them and when.

In terms of a sitemap vs wireframe, sitemaps, which we’re discussing here, have a few purposes but are far different from wireframes which users would never see. Think of wireframes as individual page blueprints or schematics. Meanwhile, user flow diagrams, as the name suggests illustrates the process users take to complete tasks. Another example of things your users will never see but should be experiencing.

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Should you use sitemap.xml or sitemap.html (or both)? Our conclusion

The short answer here is a resounding yes to using both. They’re both invaluable tools. Having a working understanding of what they’re each good for is beneficial if you want them to be effective. The major takeaway should be that XML files are confusing for humans and should only be used with crawlers; HTML is user-friendly (it should be anyway) and can be presented to your end-user right there on your site.

Sean LeSuer

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