October 11, 2023

What Is a Sitemap and How Do Search Engines Use Sitemaps?

If you’re here, you’re probably already aware that sitemaps can make a massive difference to a website’s visibility in search engines. But because of the technical nature of the topic, it might often be intimidating to know where to start from. Don’t worry though, we’re here to answer all of your burning questions and demystify the topic. But first, what is actually a sitemap?

A sitemap is a blueprint of your website that’s there to simplify Google’s job of crawling your website. It includes a list of all of the pages and files on your website that you consider important and key information about those assets.

Read on to find out what a sitemap looks like and how to create one for your website. We also look at how search engines use sitemaps and the benefits of having a sitemap for SEO.

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What is a Sitemap?

When you visit a new city, you might find yourself opening a map of it and finding the places you want to visit to help you get around. Of course, you can always ask people for directions and while this often does the job, it can take longer or get confusing.

The same thing applies when Google visits your website; if there is a map of your online place, then Google wouldn’t have to waste time asking for directions and instead, can just get straight to the desired spot – the page you want to rank!

A sitemap is essentially a page/file that shows all pages on your website. Within the sitemap, you can also add any additional files you have; e.g. videos, images, etc.

By adding a sitemap to your website, you’re helping search engines better understand the structure of your website and hence, find your pages quicker.

Types of Sitemaps

There are two main types of sitemaps: XML sitemaps and HTML sitemaps. 

XML Sitemaps

An XML sitemap is created solely to help search engines understand your website better. For example, this is our website’s sitemap. It features all key pages on the Wildcat Digital website, the date that those pages were last modified, and the number of images each page has. 

Wildcat tip: once you have the XML sitemap of your website, submit it to Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools, plus any other search engines your target audience uses. This will make a massive difference to the speed at which search engines discover new and existing pages.

HTML Sitemaps

While XML sitemaps are solely created for search engines, HTML sitemaps are there to facilitate your website visitors’ journey. 

An HTML sitemap, also known as a human-readable sitemap, usually takes the form of a single page that lists every single page of your website. You might think that’s too simple, but it’s exactly what’s needed to help users have a quick look and find what they’re after.

You’d usually link to the HTML sitemap in your website’s footer.

And here’s something handy: to make the HTML sitemap more user-friendly, you can split the pages into different categories. For example, start with your top-level pages (homepage, categories, etc), and then list Product Categories, then Products, etc. Of course, make it tailored to your website. Simply ask yourself the question ‘What would be the easiest way for me to find a page in the sitemap?’ and then you’ll find what’s the best way to structure it.

The benefit of an HTML sitemap is clear: you’re making sure website visitors can navigate through your website quicker in case they’re looking for something specific. Human-readable sitemaps can also improve internal linking.

What Does a Sitemap for a Website Look Like?

An XML sitemap can take multiple forms, but it’s usually either a single page with all URLs of a website listed on it, or a page with multiple sitemaps within it.

For example, the XML sitemap of our website has all of our pages, grouped into 6 individual categories (sitemaps): a sitemap with all blogs, a sitemap with all current job adverts, a sitemap with all categories, etc. We’ve done it in this way so that it’s easier for search engines to understand our website’s architecture and connection between the different pages.

An HTML sitemap can take multiple forms depending on how you create it. For example, below you can see Broadleaf Tree Surgery’s human-readable sitemap. It has all key pages on the left, all service pages in the middle, and all location pages on the right-hand side.

How Do I Create a Sitemap?

There’s no one way of creating a sitemap. Our top advice here is to use a plugin, which will automatically add new pages or remove any deleted/redirected pages. This will save you tons of time and ensure your sitemap is up to date. 

Creating an XML Sitemap

To create an XML sitemap, we recommend using the Yoast SEO plugin if you’re using WordPress. It’s super easy to set up and the plugin takes care of everything: updating the sitemap with new pages, creating dedicated sitemaps for the different types of pages, etc. Follow this step-by-step guide and start seeing the results.

If you’re using WordPress, but for some reason you can’t or you don’t want to use a plugin, then you can create a dynamic sitemap in PHP. This requires having technical website knowledge, so ask your website’s Developer for help.

Using Shopify? You’ll be pleased to know that Shopify automatically creates a sitemap for your website. Simply type your homepage URL and then add /sitemap.xml to it; that’s your sitemap! If you run into any issues, check out Shopify’s advice for sitemaps.

Reminder: once you’ve generated your XML sitemap, remember to submit it to Google Search Console and other engines. 

Creating an HTML Sitemap

When it comes to human-readable sitemaps, again there are multiple plugins that can help you generate this. Once again, even if it seems tempting to just create the page manually, it’s best to use a plugin or create it in PHP  so that you don’t need to worry about updating it manually.

The WP Sitemap Page and Simple Sitemap plugins are two of our favourites for generating an HTML sitemap. 

On Shopify, it’s slightly trickier as you need to fiddle around with the code. Ask your Web Developer or get in touch if you need help with this and all things SEO.

Finally, don’t forget to add a link to your sitemap in the footer.

How Do Search Engines Use Sitemaps?

Your XML sitemap is the first thing Google sees when it arrives on your website. Once Google and other search engines ‘visit’ your sitemap, they see the URLs on your website and from there, they start crawling and indexing them.

You might think ‘Surely, search engines don’t need the sitemap; they can just use the navigation and internal links to find the pages they need to crawl’. Yes, but what if you have thousands of pages or have pages which are not linked to from other pages? 

That’s where having a sitemap comes in handy. It makes it easier for Googlebot and other search engine bots to discover new/existing pages and understand your content.

Benefits of Sitemaps for SEO

Need Help Creating a Sitemap?

If you’re ready to take your website to the next level, get in touch. We can create an XML and an HTML sitemap for you, while also ensuring there are no other technical issues on your website that might be impacting your website’s visibility. 

Sitemaps FAQs

What Are Google’s Best Practices for Sitemaps?

Have a look at Google’s official documentation for more best practices

Do Small Websites Need a Sitemap?

Google suggests that if your website is under 500 pages, you don’t necessarily need a sitemap. However, considering that creating a sitemap and submitting it can take less than 30 minutes, it can be beneficial to have it from the get-go.

How Do I Get Google to Index My Sitemap?

Simply submit your sitemap to Google Search Console and Google should discover it within 48 hours. You can see when Google’s last read it and how many URLs it has discovered.

If you run into any errors, make sure to check Search Console Help for further advice.

Post by

Svetlina Dimitrova

SEO Account Manager

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