There are many technical tasks that can have a profound impact on where your site ranks in Google search results. Whilst most of the tasks that move the needle in SEO are done off-site, on-site tasks can be just as important. If SEO is part of your marketing-mix, learning how these tasks impact your activities is crucial.
Sitemaps are just one of those technical elements that (if configured improperly) can cause issues with your sites pages being seen or crawled in search. This article will walk you through all the basics of sitemaps including how to make one, how to upload it to your site, how they fit into branding and digital-marketing, and how to make sure Google knows about it.
What Is A Sitemap?
It's basically a model or map of a sites pages. They can be compiled in many formats but the most common for use in SEO is the xml format. These sitemaps are built using XML tags and is known as the XML protocol. That's just a fancy way of saying that Google and other search engine systems can understand this language.
When viewed by a user on a web page, the XML markup is not present and the user merely sees a list of URLs.
Why Are Sitemaps Important?
For Users: For real people, sitemaps provide a bare-bones guide of all the pages on a site. Webmasters can configure sitemaps for users (known as user-facing) to be prettier and easier to understand with categories and more organization. They are yet one more tool in your marketing strategy to make your site easier to use for your visitors.
For search engines: Sitemaps are a way for search engines to see all the pages that are on your site. Unlike real people however, search engines are interested in crawling all the pages on a domain so that they can index or save the pages to their database.
In SEO: If you're trying to get a site to rank well in search, creating a map is a best practice for making sure that the search engine knows about all your pages. It is also a good way to tell if all your pages are linked together properly.
How Do I Create A Sitemap?
There are two easy ways that you can create one for your site.
Third party websites: There are numerous websites on the internet that will allow you to create a map for free. They have web-based tools that basically allow you to paste a URL into a text box, select a file format, and then they'll generate a sitemap. A great one to use is xml-sitemaps.com.
Many of these services will crawl a limited number of pages (most of the time around 500 -- 600 pages). Beyond that they usually charge a token fee for more pages.
Wordpress plugins: If your website is built on the Wordpress platform (and is self-hosted like not on wordpress.com), then there are numerous plugins that will generate a sitemap automatically. The process for making a sitemap within a plugin varies based on which one it is and many of the good ones just do it with the click of a button. A great one to try is the Yoast SEO plugin.
Note that if you do not have a self-hosted Wordpress site, then you cannot use a plugin. Other content management systems like Joomla, Orchard, Umbraco, or Drupal may have their own plugins. If your site is custom built not using a CMS then the xml-sitemaps website is your best bet.
What Do I Do With The Sitemap After It Is Created?
For the purposes of SEO, you will submit your site to Google Search Console (formerly Google Webmaster Tools).
Some important points before submitting to Google;
- Not submitting your site to Google does not mean they won't see it. Google crawls the internet every day and will eventually find your site no matter what unless you have explicitly told them (through meta no-index tags) not to crawl your site.
- You must have submitted your site to Google Search Console and verified it to submit a sitemap. You can learn more about that here https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/6259634?hl=en
- You need to upload your sitemap to your website before you can submit it to Google. Depending on how your site is built there are a variety of ways to do this. Wordpress sites should already have a sitemap generated by a plugin if you went that route. Custom sites you will need to add the sitemap using an FTP program or have your developer do it.
Now you are ready to submit to Google Webmaster Tools. Follow the steps below;
- Log into Google Search Console
- Click on the website that you want to submit a sitemap for (your site may be the only one in the account).
- Click on the menu item in the left column labelled 'crawl' then click on 'sitemaps'.
- Click the red 'add/test sitemap' button in the top right-hand corner.
- Enter the location on your site where the sitemap is stored (note as a best practice you should store the sitemap in the root of your domain or in other words directly after the .com) then click the blue 'submit' button.
That's it. Google will then crawl your sitemap and you're done.
How Can A Sitemap Affect My Sites Position In Search?
Creating a sitemap and submitting it to Google will not help your site rank better in search results. In SEO, there are tasks that can make it easier for Google to crawl and index your site and then there are tasks that make it so Google ranks your site higher in search results. Creating and submitting a sitemap will influence the former but not the latter.
In other words, not having a sitemap or having a poorly configured sitemap can have a negative impact on Google seeing some or all your pages in a timely manner. This can throw a wrench into your online marketing and SEO activities for your site.