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Sitemaps

Sitemaps are a must for every website.

What Are Sitemaps?

A sitemap is, as one might guess, a blueprint or map for a small business website. Sitemaps are often found on the home page, including organized links to other pages on the site. The use of sitemaps can be beneficial for websites that contain lots of different pages. Especially websites that may otherwise be difficult to navigate.

The goal of a sitemap is to tie all of the pages on a website together. It makes the website more cohesive as a whole and easier to access via a search engine.

 

There are two types of sitemaps, and each serves a unique purpose:

An HTML sitemap is presented for the reader rather than the search engine. It includes a list of hyperlinks to pages and can be organized in a variety of ways. When writing code for an HTML sitemap, it can be as simple as using the <ul>, <li>, and <a> tags.

An XML sitemap works to help search engines and spiders find what information is presented on the website. This makes it easier for the reader to find websites that discuss the topics they are researching more accurately. The XML format is currently the standard for distributing sitemaps. However, it can be more challenging to write code.

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Search Engines & Spiders

One of the main goals is to optimize search engine results. Search engine optimizations (SEO) allows readers to find websites with the most accurate content they are looking for and quickly. XML sitemaps are designed specifically for the benefit of search engine optimization. 

Search engines such as Google send ‘spiders’ to crawl through websites to review their contents. A spider, also known as a crawler, is a bot that explores web pages accessible through a search engine. Spiders are deployed by the search engines and allow the search engine to catalog the websites they are searching. They ultimately work to optimize the speed and accuracy of search results, thus improving SEO. Testing a new website using a mock spider may increase the likelihood of the site being found by potential readers.

Search engines will send spiders at scheduled times throughout the day. Spiders will only spend a certain amount of time crawling each website, making sitemaps all the more useful. Sitemaps will give the spiders direction as to which pages they should prioritize. This ensures that the search engines can be aware of the site’s most important and relevant information. As search engines look for the most relevant results to a given search, sitemaps can make all the difference.

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History of Sitemaps

The first sitemaps were developed and introduced in 2005 by Google, around ten years after the first search engines emerged. They were developed for the same purpose: organizing websites and aiding in search engine optimization. Following the release by Google, other search engines quickly announced support for sitemaps. They have continued to be used by web developers around the globe since.

In the beginning, sitemaps were anything but optional. As early search engines performed unskillfully, mapping the contents of each website was vital to their appearance as search results. Also, they did much of the heavy lifting when it came to the speed and accuracy of search engine queries. Over time, they became common practice and were implemented by virtually every site on the web. 

Fast forward

Because of their simplicity, they have not changed much. One of the most noticeable differences between early and modern sitemaps is their formatting. Modern HTML sitemaps can be formatted using images and videos, as well as plain text. They can be organized into more obvious categories using CSS to make them even easier for the reader to navigate.

Modern sitemaps do not place importance on metadata such as change frequency and priority as early sitemaps did. While they are still very much common, modern sitemaps are not the necessity they once were.

Over the two decades, they have grown quite efficient. Today, it is likely that a search engine can find a website with relevant content without needing a sitemap. This has led to some debate among web developers as to if sitemaps should exist or not.

Despite some back and forth, there seems to be a consensus for the time being. Most developers agree that websites should continue to implement them, though they are not as helpful as they once were.

They continue to provide structure to large websites. Also, they aid inconsistency between websites overall. Ultimately, a sitemap can only serve to benefit a website as there are no real downsides to having one.

Business Websites Benefit When Using Sitemaps

Although sitemaps may not be strictly required, there are several benefits that a sitemap can provide:

  • They provide a new level of organization that is vital for large and growing websites. On the one hand, they allow readers to find content more easily.
  • There is a  structure for developers to work off of as they build the website over time. Serving as a website outline or skeleton, they give developers direction as they move forward. They give guidelines on how to format and categorize new pages. 
  • By outlining the layout of a website, they can aid in the flow of information presented. Also, they often result in a more readable website in general.
  • They can serve as an index or directory and may underscore the key points in the content as they prioritize the most important pages. A sitemap can help search engines and readers mentally catalog the information on the site.
  • By directing spiders to the most important information, they can help direct online traffic towards the website. In doing so, they can aid in improving the speed at which search engines process results.

Better to have one

In general, the benefits of a sitemap will always outweigh the cost of the time it takes to develop it. A good sitemap may encourage readers to spend more time on a website. Readers may be interested in diving deeper into the site as the contents of each page are presented to them.

When To Implement Sitemaps

Many developers are questioning if they are really worth the time or effort they can take to implement. This is large since modern search engines can find most content without ever referencing a sitemap.

SEO company experts generally agree that a sitemap must exist. The benefits it will provide with search engine optimization outweigh any inconvenience that may come with writing one.

However, some site map situations may present more of a gray area.

If you are using a host such as WordPress, a sitemap may already be generated by the host automatically! Likewise, if your website is small and laid out, a sitemap may be an unnecessary step. This would be the case for a site with only a few pages, clearly linked to the main page. Crawlers will likely crawl the entire site within the time allotted to spend on the site for these sites.

If your website is bigger but still organized, a sitemap will be a helpful precaution. While not necessarily required, a sitemap will show the spiders which information is the most important on your site. Search results matching the more important information on your site will more likely be directed to you.

A Sitemap may also be important if your website is new and does not link to external websites. Most websites are found through their connections to other websites. If your site is new and not yet interconnected, a sitemap will be a route to direct traffic to you.

As Google says, “using a sitemap doesn’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 sites will benefit from having a sitemap, and you’ll never be penalized for having one.”

How to Implement a Sitemap

They can be quite simple to implement. In fact, website builders such as WordPress will often add a sitemap to your website for you. There are also sitemap generators online to make them more accessible to newer developers. However, if you are proficient with HTML, writing a sitemap on your own should come with little difficulty.

An HTML sitemap is generally written as an unordered list. Each list item

Writing an XML sitemap will be a bit more challenging. While it is possible to write an XML file, it requires proficiency with the programming language XML. Often, it is much more realistic to use a service that generates the XML file automatically. These services update the sitemap over time as you add pages to your site.

There are several suggested best practices when implementing a sitemap. As mentioned previously, running a web crawl yourself using an independent service will improve the efficacy of your sitemap. Any duplicate content that may be highlighted should be removed as it may cause adverse results with a search engine. Sitemaps should also be edited to reflect the correct priority ranking of each page on the website.

Many search engines, including Google, will only review sitemaps that are less than 10MB. For this reason, bigger sites may need to take steps to implement smaller sitemaps. Options include using multiple sitemaps or limiting the content that is presented to only the most important pages.

 

Takeaway

Despite questions within the web development community, sitemaps are anything but optional. But Sitemaps are vital to the efficacy of digital marketing services:

  • Accuracy in search results
  • Timeliness of search engines
  • Website organization

While it may be easier to skip the sitemap, choosing to implement it instead is the right call.

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