In plain and simple terms a website sitemap, or as it is more commonly known – sitemap, denotes a model of the content that the website has and is designed in order to enable users as well as search engines to navigate the website efficiently.
A sitemap is usually a list of pages that is arranged hierarchically, often organised according to topics or according to the structure of the organisation it belongs to – as is the case in many websites designed only to provide information about the organisation rather than to transact business.
A sitemap also houses documents in XML format which provide search engine crawler bots with instructions. A sitemap can also provide the user with highly valuable metadata – such as the last time the page was updated, the frequency of page changes, importance of URLs, etc.
Different Types of Sitemaps
Sitemaps are hardly a novelty and have been around for decades. They have always formed part of the very best in web design practices. However, from an SEO standpoint, the HTML format sitemap is non-functional while the new XML format is much better suited to the modern needs and requirements.
A sitemap may have various iterations depending on whom it is designed for. For example, a sitemap may be in plain HTML format enlisting all the pages or major pages that are present and working on the site if it is designed for lay users. A sitemap, however, will be designed in a wholly different manner when it comes to search engines.
In that case, as has been previously mentioned, the sitemap would include XML documents that are aimed to provide instructions to the crawler bots belonging to various search engines. This helps in efficient and seamless indexation of the site on various search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo Search.
When Does One Needs Sitemaps?
In today’s world a sitemap is a necessity for indexation on web search results. However, while every website is encouraged to include sitemaps, the following four criteria, if found in any website is in dire need to engage sitemaps.
1) Large Website
In the event that the website being indexed, or which the owner of the website wants to be indexed with a reputed search engine, the size of the website plays a crucial role.
For example, a site that is large has a long story to tell in the form of its content. What this means, is that while the website has no shortage of good content, the search engine crawler boots will have a hard time seeking out keywords and images from the websites. In such cases of large websites, the sitemap – if included – forms a huge part of the indexation process and makes it smooth.
2) Large Archived Content
In addition to sheer size, the volume of content as well as the bad organisation of the included content of the website will also reflect poorly on the website.
Many a times, it is seen that an otherwise important website has been poorly ranked in search engine results due to the bad indexation of its pages which can be traced back to the faulty design of the site itself and the lack of reference among pages on the website. In such cases, the crawlers might miss pages and the content on them and this might reflect poorly in search results and rank the website lower than both capable and incapable competitors.
A sitemap largely does away with this problem of lack of proper organisation by providing the bots with a blueprint of the website. In such a case, the bots have crystal clear and precise instructions about the pages to index and the content to index from the pages. They do not have to run the risk of missing pages entirely and also of not overlooking the indexation of keywords.
3) No or Few External Links on the Site
External Links (commonly known as backlinks) have been discussed in some length in this article before. The crux of that discussion was that the external links are an important tool to not only boost the visibility of the websites, but are an indirect measure of its trust, respect among peers and popularity. The backlinks are links that other sites make to your site.
For example, if my website includes the link to one of website pages, then this is a backlink or external link from your viewpoint. This not only reflects the trust I put in the content you generate, but also provides an avenue to my audience to explore your work.
This is an effective audience referral involving no cost and just mutual collaboration or genuine discovery and impression in the favourable. Thus, External Links are considered as the more genuine measure of a websites popularity and thus, websites with higher number of backlinks are ranked higher on the search results. Sitemaps does away with this.
4) Media Rich Content
When we think of websites, we only think of text content when, in reality, websites are multimedia. Thus, media-rich content can also be indexed and additional information gleaned from them for improving the site’s performance. Furthermore, multimedia features enable Google to glean additional useful information which can give the said website an edge in search result rankings.
Benefits of Sitemaps
The Benefits of Sitemaps are immense, and they can be summarized as follows:
1) Google Can Find You Better
Backlinks are external links that Google and other search engines such as Bing and Yahoo use to find a website and the content that it displays. A downside of this process is that it is very time consuming, which is where the sitemaps come in.
If there is a sitemap present on the website, the owner or admin of the website can submit the sitemap to google or other search engines through the specific tools released for this purpose – such as the Google Webmaster Tool. This highly increases the rate at which the process of crawling and indexing the website takes place by Google and other search engines.
2) Quicker Crawling on Sites
The world moves quickly and if you have stale and outdated content on your website, the world will pass you by. Thus, it is imperative that in order to maintain high ranking on search results, the website you own update its content regularly. This will keep the website relevant and fresh against the competition.
However, this also entails adding new pages or reordering pages or even designing the pages differently and moving around the content within the page in a bid to better reflect the updated news or outlook of the owner of the website. In each of these cases, the sitemap will be modified to great degrees and therefore the changed and updated sitemap must again be shared or uploaded using the relevant tools to the various search engines.
The upside is that since the original sitemap already been shared with the search engines, the crawlers would now scan for changes in the sitemap and update the indexation as required. Since the web crawler bots of various search engines have no need of indexing the entire sitemap again, but only the parts that have been updated and changed, the entire process of indexation and crawling goes much faster.
3) Better Reporting
Use of a sitemap on the website results in better crawling and indexing and in turn helps in the generation of better reports for the website by the search engine tools such as Google’s Google Webmaster Tool. These reports pertain to the different aspects of the website and provide deep insights on its effectiveness.
For example, the performance report generated by the Google Webmaster Tool displays important metrics regarding the performance of the in google searches. This usually denotes figures of the average number of times the site comes up in search results, the average position it occupies in results of search, the click through rate and any other special features which are associated with the results. This information can prove extremely beneficial when it comes to analysing and improving the site’s performance.
4) Get Discovered
A new website is usually unknown as it has not been indexed under any search engine. In such a case, the use of a sitemap makes it easy for web crawlers – which are virtual robots made by search engines and released all over the internet – to take note of your site and crawl it, thereby indexing it with the relevant search engine.
Without a sitemap that is shared with the search engine, the process of indexation becomes a virtual impossibility as it the crawlers will not be able to detect the existence of the website and even if they do they are going to do it with very little alacrity.
Generating and Submitting a Sitemap
There are several steps in the generation and the submission of sitemaps to search engines. The steps are simple and not complicated. First, we will talk about how to generate the website sitemap and then we will discuss the modalities involved in sharing the sitemap to the search engine.
For the purpose of all or any examples we will use Google as the target search engine. The process, however, is more or less similar for all the major search engines that are used today.
There are two ways to generate a sitemap and the method you choose depends on the level of expertise you possess in the field of computers and electronics. Both the methods involve the use of specific tools geared towards the generation of sitemaps.
The first method is the more difficult of the two as it involves the download of a sitemap generator. While more complex than the alternative method, the user has more control over the output he receives in this method. The google sitemap generator can be downloaded from a number of vendors who offer similar software performing the same function – generating sitemaps. Most software generators use some sort of coding language and out of these a Python script is the one that is most commonly used.
The second method of generating a sitemap is relatively simpler in comparison to the first method and involves the utilisation of an online sitemap generation tool. This is helpful and simple since the user is not expected to tinker with the programming scripts. Rather, the entire work will be handled by the server on which the tool is running.
However, there are a couple of downsides to this approach. First of all, these tools are not properly optimised as per Google’s requirements and the search giant has repeatedly and explicitly stressed that it has not tested such tools and certainly not verified them. This might result in results that are less than ideal as per Google standards. Secondly, the user has little or no control on the outcome or result that will be generated, thereby further compounding the problem of reliability on the solutions supplied by these online sitemap generators.
2) Sharing with Google
Once the sitemap has been generated by either of the above two methods, the sitemap needs to be uploaded to the site. The immediately next step would be to notify Google of the new sitemap and wait for the sitemap to be indexed. The notification to Google must be in the form of addition of the website to the owners’ google sitemap account. In addition to this, proof of ownership of the website is mandatory in order to add the site to the sitemap account of the supposed owner.
Conclusion – Importance of Sitemaps