Understanding and Creating XML Sitemaps

Sitemaps vs. sitemaps – Yes, Virginia…there is a difference

Before getting into the details and purpose of XML Sitemaps, it’s important to understand the difference between a sitemap (lowercase) and a Sitemap (uppercase).  A sitemap is an HTML file, typically accessible to website visitors, which contains a link to each page of a site that visitors might find useful.  It is generally a single page composed only of text-based hyperlinks that can be used to find a specific page more easily – such as a “Contact Us” or specific product page – without being distracted by website design elements or page layout.  While search engines are likely to access an HTML sitemap during the course of crawling a site, this page is not constructed or intended for indexing purposes.

An XML Sitemap, on the other hand, is an XML file that is not intended for use by a website’s visitors, but by the search engines themselves.  The Sitemap itself is a UTF-8 encoded file that is created specifically to help search engines more efficiently index all of a website’s pages – particularly those that may not be linked to by outside sources or through the site’s text navigation itself.  Google follows the accepted Sitemap Protocol 0.9, as published by Sitemaps.org.  It’s also important to note that what we are discussing here are standard Sitemaps.  There are also Video, Mobile, News, Code Search and Geo Sitemaps that can be created for different types of content.

Is a Sitemap Necessary?

While the value of Sitemaps to SEO has been the subject of a great deal of discussion with opinions varying from “Sitemaps are essential” to “Sitemaps are useless”, the fact remains that an XML Sitemap is merely a file that provides search engines with information about a particular website and its pages.  While some may contend that Sitemaps are overrated, others take on a “maybe, maybe not” or “it can’t hurt” stand.

Google attempts to locate a Sitemap file at http://www.domain.com/sitemap.xml – however this Sitemap location can be changed within the Google Webmaster Tools control panel, should the Sitemap exist at an alternate URL.  In my opinion and experience, and particularly because Google searches for a Sitemap by default, there is no reason to not have one.  However, to answer the question, “is a Sitemap necessary?, the short answer is, “no – it is not necessary.”  Submitting a Sitemap to Google does not lead to higher rankings, nor is it a guarantee that a page will be indexed any more quickly than it would otherwise.

A Sitemap does, however, provide search engines with useful information that can help it crawl a site more efficiently, such as the last time the page was updated, how often the page typically changes and a specific page’s importance relative to the site’s other pages.  In an XML Sitemap, that information is displayed as follows:


Building a Sitemap

Some people shy away from creating and submitting a Sitemap because it requires a specific protocol that must be followed, as illustrated by Google’s Webmaster Tools Sitemap Protocol.  For some, having such specific requirements is intimidating and they prefer to not do it at all, rather than do it wrong.  If you’re that person, I have good news.  Thanks to some useful tools, creating a Sitemap file is easy.  In fact, there are a number of online tools that will do it for you – for free – provided that your site isn’t made up of tens of thousands of pages. 

  • XML-Sitemaps.com – this tool will build a Sitemap for free for sites up to 500 pages.  If your site has more than 500 pages, they offer a standalone version of their software that will create a Sitemap with no limit on the number of pages for only $19.99 – and for an additional $10 they will even install the software for you.
  • XMLSitemap.com – this site provides links to a number of free tools that will help you create XML Sitemaps that vary from web-based tools to PHP scripts.
  • Google (XML) Sitemap Generator for WordPress – as is usually the case, WordPress users can rejoice!  There is a plugin that will create an XML Sitemap for you, and SO much more.  This plugin not only creates the XML file, it is highly configurable and can be set to include and exclude certain pages (such as categories, author and tag archives – which you may have a NOINDEX command on and wouldn’t want included in an XML Sitemap).  Not only that, it can be set to rebuild the XML file automatically upon any change to your WordPress site or blog, as well as notifying Google, Yahoo!, MSN and Ask.com automatically whenever the Sitemap is rebuilt.

Sitemap Generated – Now What?

Provided you’re not a WordPress user and don’t get to take advantage of the automation the above referenced plugin provides, once you’ve generated a Sitemap file in XML format, all that remains is to upload it to your domain’s root directory (if you don’t know how to go about doing this, you should probably leave this task to your Webmaster) and then submit it to Google.  Luckily, Google makes it pretty easy.  Here’s the step-by-step:

  1. Log in to your Google Account
  2. Follow the “Webmaster Tools” link
  3. Click on the “Sitemaps” link to the left (if your Webmaster Tools account includes more than one domain, you will need to choose which domain first)
  4. Input the file’s location – if the XML file is uploaded into the root directory, the file location will simply be sitemap.xml; if you placed the XML file in a folder, the file location will be folder/sitemap.xml

For more information regarding XML Sitemaps, visit Google’s About Sitemaps page and accompanying Sitemaps FAQs post at the Official Google Webmaster Blog.

Written by
Alysson Fergison
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