If you bring up sitemaps with a group of SEOs, you might hear a lot of different opinions about whether you need one. Some SEOs will tell you Google is smart enough to uncover your underlying site structure and doesn’t need XML sitemap files to understand how to crawl your site. Others will insist it’s a crucial part of technical SEO.
In fact, Google itself says most websites will benefit from having a sitemap and that it “can improve the crawling of larger or more complex sites, or more specialized files.”
Ultimately, a sitemap makes it easier for Google and other search engines to crawl and index your site, increasing your chances of showing up in search results. Even if Google can discover your web pages on its own, why not make Googlebots’ job easier, maximize your crawl budget, and make sure Google finds the pages you want it to?
In this article, I’ll explain what XML and HTML sitemaps are and why you should use them. I’ll also analyze a sample XML sitemap so you can see precisely what it is and share sitemap best practices that you can implement right now.
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What Is an XML Sitemap?
An XML sitemap is a text file containing the indexable URLs on your website. It’s presented in Extensible Markup Language, more commonly known as XML. The XML format is web-friendly and easy for web crawlers to read.
Why Does My Website Need an XML Sitemap?
The primary function of a sitemap is to help search engines find relevant pages on your website and index them. They also help crawl bots understand how your site is structured.
While including pages on an XML sitemap doesn’t guarantee Google will index them, it does make it easier for Googlebot to find and crawl them. If you have an extremely large website or don’t have an internal linking strategy in place, your XML sitemap makes all of your pages discoverable — including orphaned pages that aren’t linked to from other pages on your site.
Now that you understand why having a sitemap is important, let’s look at three sample sitemaps you can include on your website.
XML Sitemap Example
Let’s analyze an XML sitemap example to see what it looks like in real life.
Here’s a typical sitemap.xml example from our site:
It’s for our WordPress site and was dynamically generated.
Here’s what an example XML Sitemap looks like:
Not all XML sitemaps look like this sample sitemap. Our sitemap is formatted to be readable by humans, but sometimes, an XML sitemap looks like raw HTML. After all, the primary purpose of XML sitemaps is not to be read by users but to help search engines understand what your site is about.
Here’s another dynamic sitemap.xml example for the Victorious site:
This is a particular type of sitemap called a sitemap index. It houses links to multiple sitemaps for our website. Clicking on https://victorious.com/resource-sitemap1.xml will lead you to our blog sitemap, while the other links will take you to other subdirectories.
HTML Sitemap Example
Another Google sitemap example is an HTML sitemap, also known as a visual sitemap. Just like in the sample XML sitemap, an HTML sitemap lists out all the pages you want to be indexed.
HTML sitemaps are multipurpose. They’re usually made to look just like a regular page on your site and include a navigation menu, footer, and everything else you might expect to see on a page. While they’re more user-friendly than XML sitemaps and are designed to be read by humans, they’re still beneficial for search engine robots.
If you want to see an HTML sitemap example, check out ours:
If you have a WordPress site, you can use a plugin to create an HTML sitemap.
Sitemap Best Practices
Now that I’ve shared a couple of sitemap examples, let’s go over the best practices you should follow when creating a sitemap. These best practices apply to both XML and HTML sitemaps.
1. Use a Dynamic Sitemap
Having an automatically generated sitemap is crucial for large websites. Whenever you add, update, or remove a page, your dynamic sitemap will automatically update.
2. List All Your Important Pages
Make sure your sitemaps contain all the pages you want to be indexed. Otherwise, you may find that your newer pages aren’t indexed as quickly.
3. Make Your Sitemap Accessible
Your sitemap should be located exactly where Google expects to find it. If search engines get a 404 error when trying to access your sitemap, it may take them longer to index your site and understand your website’s structure.
4. Exclude Noindex URLs from Your Sitemap
Sitemaps help your visitors and search engines properly navigate and crawl your website. Adding noindex pages to your sitemap will confuse search engines and may negatively impact your crawl budget.
I generally recommend excluding archive pages from your XML sitemap and to noindex them as well (ex. blog category pages, tag pages, author pages, date archive pages, etc.). Only canonical pages need to be included in your sitemap.
5. Don’t Include Redirects
Your XML files should only include published URLs. If you delete a URL or use a 301 redirect, make sure to remove that URL from your XML sitemap file. A dynamically generated sitemap will automatically do this for you.
6. Include Your Sitemap in Your Robots.txt
It’s also best practice to keep your XML sitemap in your site’s robots.txt file. Your robots.txt file details which directories search crawlers should and shouldn’t index. Providing your XML sitemap in the same file makes it clear you want Google and other search engines to access it and index those pages.
7. Check Your Index Coverage in Google Search Console
If you have a well-maintained sitemap, you can double-check that Google’s indexing the number of pages you expect.
Go to ‘Coverage’ on the left sidebar of Google Search Console to see which pages are indexed and which are excluded.
8. Perform Regular Sitemap Maintenance
Check your XML sitemap regularly and update it as needed. Make sure there are no errors that could prevent search engine crawlers from accessing it.
9. Upload Your Sitemap to Google Search Console
If you make significant changes to your sitemap, upload your new sitemap to Google Search Console.
How To Create a Sitemap
If you want to create a sitemap from scratch, use a text editor like Notepad that lets you save your document as an XML file. You’ll need to use sitemap protocol schema, which you can find at Sitemaps.org.
This can be a time-consuming process — especially if you have a large website. Plus, you’ll need to manually update your sitemap whenever you add new pages.
Rather than using a sitemap template or creating one from scratch, use a tool like Yoast that creates and updates a dynamic sitemap. This way, you reduce the possibility of errors and can more easily maintain your sitemaps.
Once you have your website sitemap, submit the URL to Google Search Console. While Google will eventually find it on its own, submitting it through GSC expedites the discovery process.
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