What is a Sitemap?
A sitemap is a file that lists all the web pages of your website. Its main purpose is indexing your website for search engines.
There are different formats (for different purposes): .html, RSS, but the most common and widely accepted sitemap format is .xml.
What’s in a sitemap?
First of all, it holds Metadata: General information about the web page, such as
- When the page was last updated,
- How often the page is changed,
- The importance of the page relatively to other URLs on this site
The main part of the sitemap is the listing of your website URL’s, each on a separate line. It lists the web pages that make up your site so that search engines get to know about the organization of your content.
“It’s a collaborative crawling system that enables you to communicate directly with Google to keep us informed of all your web pages, and when you make changes to these pages.” — Source: Google
How often should you update your sitemap?
A sitemap needs to be updated from time to time.
How often that should be really depends on how many updates you make to your website.
If you publish one blog post per week, I would suggest you create a new sitemap once a month.
If you publish new blog posts in a bi-weekly rhythm, I would renew the sitemap every six weeks, assuming your website hasn’t undergone other important changes.
On the same token, if you do major changes to your website, it’s best to round that up with a new sitemap.
Do you have to have a Sitemap?
To put it bluntly, you never have to anything;
however, if you want your site to be easily accessible, and findable through search engines, it would be a very good idea to have one.
Seriously, having a sitemap is particularly useful for a new website that has only very few external links to it.
But for an established website it is just as useful, as crawlers might overlook some of your newest content.
A sitemap will improve the crawling of a website for the search engine bots, when:
- A website is really large
- A website has a large archive of pages that are either isolated or not well linked to each other
- A website is new and has only few external links to it
Using a sitemap won’t guarantee that all the items in your sitemap will be crawled and indexed, as Google processes rely on complex algorithms to schedule crawling. However, in most cases, your site will benefit from having a sitemap, and you’ll never be penalized for having one.
A sitemap doesn’t really affect your ranking in a search engine’s search results, but it allows search engines to make more accurate rankings and searches. It’s about actualization.
Creating a Sitemap
Theoretically, you can create a sitemap manually, but I reckon it’s not as much fun.
I would suggest you use a tool that does the work for you. I am going to make a few tool recommendations, which are easy to use and free of charge. All you need to do is register yourself, and run through a short approval process.
Free Sitemap Generator – This is my favorite tool so far. Upon registration you can create sitemaps for up to 3 websites that do not have more than 5’000 pages each, for free. With a premium account websites up to 25’000 pages are spidered. – [Free & $$]
Script Socket – Simple tool to generate a Google sitemap. – [Free]
Sitemapdoc.com – spiders only 500 URLs of a website, so this is only for small websites. The good thing with this tool is you can edit the sitemap, and switch between the .html and .xml version. – [Free]
XML-Sitemaps.com – The free version indexes only 500 pages, whereas the paid version allows you to have unlimited URLs indexed. – [Free & $$]
Submitting your Sitemap
Once you have created your sitemap it’s time to let search engines know about it.
Even though search engines do crawl your site every now and then and check for new content, it makes sense to submit it manually, to let them know there is new content that they should know about.
How to submit your sitemap to Google
1. Sign in to Google Webmaster Tools.
2. Click ADD A PROPERTY
3. Enter http://www.yourdomain.com/sitemap.xml (replace “yourdomain.com” with your website’s URL).
4. Follow the instructions to verify you own the website.
5. Click CRAWL in the left side menu.
6. Click SITEMAPS in the menu that appears.
7. Click ADD/TEST SITEMAPS.
8. Enter sitemap.xml after “http://yourdomainc.om”.
9. Click SUBMIT SITEMAP.
How to submit your sitemap to Bing & Yahoo
1. Sign in to Bing Webmaster Tools.
2. Click on MY SITES in the left menu.
3. Enter the URL for your website, and click ADD.
4. In the Add a sitemap field, enter http://www.yourdomain.com/sitemap.xml (replace “yourdomain.com” with your website’s URL).
5. Click ADD.
6. Click SAVE.
Bing will create a small verification file named BingSiteAuth.xml. It serves the purpose of identifying you as the rightful owner of your website, by verifying that you have access to the website’s server. Hence, you will be asked to place this file in the root directory of your website and confirm with Bing once this is done.
If you see the need to submit your sitemap to Baidu (popular search engine for China & Singapore) or Yandex (popular search engine for the Russian area), you can find the sitemap submission URLs for these search engines in Wikipedia.
The steps outlined above are not only for initially submitting the sitemap, but also for updating it.
The file for the sitemap (sitemap.xml) is stored in the root directory of your website. You can access it via FTP and move it from your computer to your host’s server, where your website data is stored.
When you renew your sitemap file, you simply replace the old file with the new one. They will have the identical name [sitemap.xml], so always verify the file’s date to make sure the replacement was successful.
After you replace the sitemap file, it’s best practices to ‘ping’ the search engines to let them know there is a new file. It speeds up the process of actualizing the search results of your site.
Over to You
After all, creating a sitemap is one of the basic maintenance tasks website owners need to do from time to time – given that a website is undergoing changes. Writing blog posts regularly or actualizing website content are the kind of changes that require these updates.
After you have done this once, you will realize that it isn’t much of a technical challenge. It is a maintenance issue. A few clicks, some waiting time until the file is ready for download, another few clicks and off you go.