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What are sitemaps and why are they important?

Sitemaps are pretty self-explanatory: they map out websites by tabs, categories and pages. Some SEOs swear by them and others aren’t so convinced and some are swayed depending on search experiments and Google’s recommendations. Here’s what we know:

  • They’re great for indexing.
  • They don’t do any harm.

You get two kinds of sitemaps, one for users and one for search engines. The user sitemap is written in HTML, while the sitemap for search engines is in XML. User sitemaps link to each page using highly relevant anchor text – usually the page title – so that users can find what they are looking for quickly. Search engine sitemaps are a little more complicated.

Are sitemaps important for SEO?

The short answer is yes.

The longer answer is it depends.

Sitemaps help get the pages in your site indexed quickly. If you add new pages to your site and they are automatically added to your XML sitemap (which is what happens, it’s quite beautiful), they will be crawled within a matter of minutes.

Without an XML sitemap you could wait hours before your new pages are indexed. It sounds like a small difference, but online timing is everything.

XML sitemaps are also very important for websites that are flash heavy. We’ve mentioned before that search engine crawlers or bots or spiders don’t like flash; they can’t read it. What they can’t read they can’t rank. So if you add an XML sitemap to a flash site, search engines at least know that there is something there, even if they’re not too sure what it is.

But, they don’t do much for search results. They won’t boost you up the rankings and they won’t get you more traffic.

As backend tools they are indispensible. As frontend tools they are helpful.

Why else are sitemaps important?

According to Google, XML sitemaps are important if:

  • Sites have dynamic content.
  • Sites are new and have few incoming links.
  • Sites are large, with volumes of content pages and no clear internal linking strategy.

XML sitemaps provide additional meta data to search engines that HTML sitemaps don’t have to provide to users. For instance, an XML sitemap will tell crawlers when last a page was updated. It will even tell them how often they can expect the page to be updated (every two weeks, two months). It specifies which pages are more important than others and lets crawlers know what they can expect on certain pages, i.e. video, image or text.

It goes even further. If you have a video on a page, you can tell the crawlers how long it is, whether it’s suitable for audiences of all ages and whether it’s your own creation or comes courtesy of Creative Commons or some other licence.

Don’t forget HTML

HMTL sitemaps are also important for large sites, or sites with content that is several links deep. Many sites have pages that don’t appear on any navigation menus and not everyone has the patience to follow link after internal link to try and find what they’re looking for. They go to the sitemap and viola, problem solved.

It’s important to make users aware of your sitemap. Don’t bury it where they need a sitemap to find it. Most websites have a sitemap link at the bottom of every page, in the footer.

One last caveat: Google specifically states that having a sitemap will not guarantee crawling or indexing. Instead it says that sitemaps will help improve crawling schedule and improve site crawling. They add, “In most cases webmasters will benefit from sitemap submission, and in no case will you be penalised for it.”

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