Understanding XML Sitemaps

  • A sitemap is not a list of the pages on your website.
  • It is not necessary to include every page in the sitemap.
  • Ignore the "Priority" and "Change Frequency" tags.

XML sitemaps are arguably one of the simpler technical elements of search engine optimization and are often misunderstood. To better understand and use XML sitemaps efficiently, it is helpful to know what they are and what they are not.

What are XML sitemaps?

In its simplest form, a sitemap serves as a roadmap for search engines to discover the most important content on your website and to gain broader context about the overall structure of your website. Not only do sitemaps provide search engines with a list of URLs, but they can also help search engines find newer content or content that is deep in the website’s architecture. This helps websites with poor internal link structure.

Sitemaps tell Google what to index.

Common Myths About XML Sitemaps:

A sitemap is not a list of the pages on your website. It is not necessary to include every page in the sitemap. Most websites contain sensitive content like investor information or content that does not provide a great user experience through search, like login or account pages, as well as content that is behind paywalls or pages that return non-200 response codes. These are examples of pages that should not be made available to search engines and cannot be included in a sitemap.

Sitemaps are not needed if my website is well laid out. While good infrastructure is always important, an XML sitemap is intended to serve as an indicator of the most important content you want to crawl and consider for indexing. If you have an enterprise-level site, relying on your infrastructure only to ensure crawling and indexing is probably not the safest option. Setting up your sitemap to include your most important pages will help search engines understand what you think is your most important content. Since the search engines work with crawling budgets, this can be a beneficial approach for larger websites. If your website has more than 50,000 URLs with important content, creating a sitemap index with multiple sitemaps might be the way to go.

Sitemaps tell Google what to index. An XML sitemap does not guarantee that a page will be indexed, only that it will be considered for indexing.

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Use XML sitemaps to your advantage

Ignore the “Priority” and “Change Frequency” tags:

Two popular markup elements in XML sitemaps are the priority and change frequency tags. Many webmasters use this markup to improve crawling efficiency and highlight the primary content of a website. Google’s John Mueller stated that Google ignores these two signals. However, he has indicated that the use of the lastmod markup is used when analyzing a sitemap by Google. If you focus on that tag and make sure you are providing the correct URLs, you can be sure that your sitemap is being crawled efficiently and making the most impact.

Make your sitemap available to search engines:

An important first step to making sure your most important content is discovered is learning how to create a sitemap and place it in the root directory of your server.

Next, make sure you provide a link to your XML sitemap in your robots.txt file. This file is one of the first places a search engine bot visits when it comes to a website. There you will find instructions on what content to crawl and what to avoid. By including a link to your sitemap, you ensure that search engines recognize and crawl your content.

A final step is to physically submit your sitemap to the Google Search Console and Bing Webmaster Tools. According to Google’s Webmaster Forum, they don’t check your sitemap every time it’s updated, only the first time they notice it. After that, don’t check your sitemap until they’re notified that it’s changed. This can be done using the Google Search Console’s sitemap tool and using the ping feature, which prompts Google to crawl your sitemap by sending an HTTP GET request:

For example.

Include only valid URLs:

It is imperative that your sitemap is based on URLs that are indexable and return a 200 OK response code. Webmasters, SEOs, or development teams should check their website’s sitemap regularly to remove pages that return 404 errors, 300 response codes, and 500 level server errors. This can be done manually by crawling the sitemap or using the Google Search Console XML sitemap report to identify invalid URLs. Remember that search engines operate on a crawl budget, so any non-indexable URL increases the likelihood that a valid URL will not be crawled.

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It is imperative that your sitemap is based on URLs that are indexable and return a 200 OK response code.

Use consistent, qualified URLs:

Consistency is important to a properly formatted XML sitemap. Make sure that you are using consistent protocols. If your website is a secure website (uses HTTPS) make sure the sitemap and all urls use the secure protocol. Otherwise, your sitemap will contain redirects that could affect your crawling efficiency and indexing.

Use consistent subdomains. Since the XML sitemap provides insight into the architecture and organization of websites, each subdomain should have its own sitemap. This also helps in keeping your sitemaps as compressed as possible.

Add unique urls:

Make sure to include only canonical versions of URLs. URLs containing parameters or session IDs can be considered duplicate and should be excluded. Otherwise, crawling efficiency and overall indexing can suffer. As you conduct regular sitemap audits, be sure to look for non-canonical URLs and remove them. Using the Google Search Console sitemap report can help you identify non-canonical URLs easily. It is a best practice to review this report regularly. In addition to using Google tools through the search console, SEOs and webmasters can use to identify non-canonical URLs and pages that are returning non-200 response codes for further scrutiny of your XML sitemaps.

Do not insert non-alphanumeric characters:

A sitemap must be UTF-8 encoded. URLs must use entity escape codes for characters such as ampersands (&), single quotation marks (‘), double quotation marks (“), less than (<), and greater than (>). In addition, URLs should only contain ASCII characters.

Limit the size of the sitemap:

The size of XML sitemaps can quickly get out of hand, especially on larger websites such as ecommerce websites. If a sitemap gets too large, it can have a negative impact on the number of URLs crawled and indexed, and it can cause your web server to stop working when it has to serve large files. To counteract this, XML sitemaps should be limited to 50,000 URLs and / or no larger than 50 MB. This means that larger websites may need to use multiple location mappings in a sitemap index file.

For larger sitemaps, breaking up chunks of content into your own sitemaps can help keep the content organized and avoid the bloating of sitemaps. Creating separate sitemaps for videos, pictures, and blogs might be a good idea.

Use tools to create XML sitemaps:

There are many tools that can help in creating XML sitemaps. Many CMS have dynamic sitemap creation options that allow you to manage what content is published in your sitemap file. A CMS like WordPress has several plugins for managing sitemaps.

Now that you know how to create, format, set up, and edit a sitemap, it is time to prepare your list of your most important items to include and submit to the search engines.

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