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One of the first steps in ensuring that your website follows basic SEO best practices is to create a sitemap. Having this file can increase the indexability of your website and reduce the time needed for getting your new content in search engine results.
What is a Sitemap and Why Do You Need It?
A sitemap is a text file that maps the structure of your website and lays out the hierarchy of its pages and connected files. Although it may look funny from today’s perspective, sitemaps were created with the idea to help companies that developed search engines. Back in 2005, when the first sitemap specifications were published, all the search engines had limited resources. Finding a way to save time needed for their bots to scan millions of websites on the internet was essential to the success of modern search giants like Google, Bing and Yahoo.
To make things easier for the bot crawlers coming to scan websites, sitemaps were created. Thanks to them the bots can now scan the complete website structure in a matter of seconds, and add this information to search engine indexes much faster. Today websites are visited by bots and indexed daily, sometimes even hourly, as search engine systems have grown faster and more sophisticated.
But does this mean that you don’t need a sitemap anymore?
Although some SEO experts say that sitemaps are redundant nowadays, having them is beneficial for you, especially if you own a large or a very complex website. Also, if your website is relatively new and/or small, with little external links leading to it, creating a sitemap and submitting it to the search engines will speed up its indexing.
Tangible SEO Benefits of Using Sitemaps
In any website audit, a sitemap is always one of the top 10 recommendations. The SEO benefits of creating a sitemap are clear – scanning your website becomes easier for crawlers coming from search engines.
Helping Crawlers Determine the Importance of Your Pages
By defining priority levels in sitemaps you assist the bots with recognizing more important pages and with how often they should come and revisit them. As your competition for the time and attention of these bots are all other websites in the world (over 1.7 billion of them), the easier you make their job the more they will favor your website and come back to it more frequently to scan for changes.
Faster Indexing & Crawl Budget Optimization
By adding a sitemap you can also save on a very important resource – the crawl budget for your website. If you use a sitemap to define exactly which pages and files you want to be indexed, this reduces the time needed for the bots to scan your website. This can put your website in front of the competitors in search results, as your news or blog posts will be indexed faster and gain more SEO relevance compared to others covering the same topic.
Duplicate Content Prevention
A well-defined and maintained sitemap will prevent any conflicts caused by duplicate content on your website. Although this is normally resolved by setting canonical parameters in the CMS, these settings can also be reflected in the sitemap. This way you can prevent being penalized for duplicate content, and also save a bit of the crawl budget, as some pages are skipped by bots scanning the site.
Another important function of the sitemap is to point crawlers to pages that are not linked from any other page on your website, making sure they get indexed too.
Some SEO consultants insist that you create both an XML sitemap as an inventory of URLs for the crawlers and an HTML version, which is accessible by website visitors and is more readable. This can be useful for very large websites as the HTML sitemap can serve as secondary navigation for users helping them to quickly find exactly what they are looking for. Also, it actually helps the crawlers to navigate the complete structure of your website more easily, as they are designed to read HTML files.
You should keep in mind that sitemaps cannot contain more than 50,000 URLs or be larger than 50 MB, so if you are managing an extremely large website, you might need to split the sitemap file into several smaller ones.
How to Create a Sitemap?
Creating a sitemap is really easy, and does not require any technical expertise or advanced SEO knowledge. Depending on the platform that you are using to build and maintain your website, you might already have this file on your website. To check if your website already has one, type in the following in your browser:
If the browser returns a 404 error, then you need to create this file. If you do have an XML sitemap, you will get a page that looks something like this:
A large proportion of websites use one of the popular content management systems, such as WordPress and Drupal, where you can create a sitemap automatically with the help of numerous plugins. Among the most popular ones are Yoast SEO and All in One SEO, primarily used for other, more advanced SEO tasks. These plugins automatically create and update your sitemap when you add a new page or update an existing one, so no further action is required from you. And if you use one of the website builder platforms like Wix or Squarespace, just look into the help section to find instructions on how to deploy an automated sitemap for your website.
In a small number of cases, where your website doesn’t have an automated way to create a sitemap, you need to create it manually. There are many tools available online, but you need to note that many of them are not so reliable and have numerous limitations in free versions. On the other hand, using a tool like Screaming Frog (which is limited to 500 pages in the free version) or some of the advanced SEO tools like Ahrefs can bring forth multifaceted benefits. Not only will you be able to create a sitemap file you can use, but these tools will also give you a whole new set of useful insights on how to improve the technical SEO of your pages and improve your website’s overall performance.
You’ve Created a Sitemap. What Comes next?
If your website is brand new, you should create an account in the Google Search Console for this website, and submit the newly created sitemap to it. You need to do this only once, as all further updates are done automatically in random intervals. Only if you have a new page that is extremely important to you, can you re-submit the sitemap to GSC, hoping that it will get indexed faster. But with the latest Google algorithm and crawler updates, this has become a largely obsolete practice.
And if you have a very large site, a news portal, any other site that adds a lot of content daily, or an eCommerce site that frequently changes the available products, then you should consider creating Dynamic Sitemaps. They contain rules that automatically update the sitemap structure as new pages are added, changed, or removed.
As you’ve seen, adding a sitemap to your website is not a major challenge, and in most cases is a one-time operation and is a highly recommended practice. The benefits of this action will come through time, like with any other SEO-focused improvements that are destined to improve the organic performance of your website.