In this installment of our “Improve Your Website” series, I’d like to focus on one of the invisible elements of your website that can have an impact on your site’s success. I’m talking of course about the creation of an XML Sitemap, which is one of several SEO best-practices employed by web developers in the know to help your site get fully indexed by the search engines, ultimately helping your ranking and traffic numbers. First I’ll give you a brief overview of what the heck they are, and then we’ll talk about some of the benefits and how to add one to your own site.
What Is an XML Sitemap?
Let’s take a look at the official Wikipedia definition first:
The Sitemaps protocol allows a webmaster to inform search engines about URLs on a website that are available for crawling. A Sitemap is an XML file that lists the URLs for a site. It allows webmasters to include additional information about each URL: when it was last updated, how often it changes, and how important it is in relation to other URLs in the site. This allows search engines to crawl the site more intelligently. Sitemaps are a URL inclusion protocol and complement robots.txt, a URL exclusion protocol.
The webmaster can generate a Sitemap containing all accessible URLs on the site and submit it to search engines. Since Google, MSN, Yahoo!, and Ask use the same protocol now, having a Sitemap would let the biggest search engines have the updated pages information.
As you can see, an XML Sitemap is geared solely toward search engines. Your site visitors will never see your XML Sitemap; it is invisible to your traditional customers and is viewed only by search engine spiders or bots. It greatly improves the ability of the major search engines to index your site, basically hand-delivering pages to get indexed.
What Are the Main Benefits?
If you have an older site that was built before creating XML Sitemaps was standard operating procedure for web developers, you might be saying, “My site is already indexed, why do I need a Sitemap?” Indeed, search engines can and will index your web site without the benefit of an XML Sitemap. However, having an XML Sitemap is like hand-delivering your pages to a search engine tied up with a bow. It includes additional information that search engines typically “guess” at, like page importance and how often each page gets updated. Plus, the fact that you are taking the time to generate an up-to-date XML Sitemap signals to search engines that you are serious about your website and getting accurately indexed, which in turn motivates them to rank you higher than someone who doesn’t adhere to best practices.
Most of all though, keep in mind that search engines don’t index your site once and that’s it. They will return periodically to re-index your site and contents. They look for new content and meta data, interior and in-bound links, and more. Then re-rank you against competitive sites. If your site has changed, they’ll return quicker to re-index you next time, to make sure their search results are as accurate as possible. However, there’s no set formula or schedule, and if you have recently re-designed your site or made a major content update after a long period of no activity, submitting an XML Sitemap to the search engines is like a prompt for new indexing that typically takes less 1-3 business days. If you don’t submit an XML Sitemap for indexing, your guess is as good as anyone’s on when the search engines will re-index your content.
So How Do I Add an XML Sitemap?
This is something you can do yourself with a little tech savvy and time. Or you can engage one of our designers to take care of the task for you. Typically, the whole process will take a web designer around 30 minutes, but it may take you longer the first time around since it potentially requires setting up three new accounts.
- Use a free program to generate your XML Sitemap (like, http://www.xml-sitemaps.com), then save the file. If your website has more than 500 pages (which can happen on sites with inventory or other dynamic content), you’ll probably need to buy a program.
- Upload the new file to your website using FTP access. If you do not already have a username and password, contact your web host’s technical support. The file should be copied to the root directory.
- To submit your XML Sitemap to Google, you’ll need a Google Account. (You can create a free account if you don’t already have one.) Using Google’s Webmaster Tools, you’ll first need to verify that you are the owner of the site by adding a second file generated by Google to the root directory of your site. Once they verify that you’ve uploaded that verification file, then you can submit the URL of your XML Sitemap for indexing. For more info see: http://www.google.com/webmasters/sitemaps/
- To submit the file to Yahoo!, you’ll need to follow a similar procedure. For more info and to get started with Yahoo! see: https://siteexplorer.search.yahoo.com/mysites
- To submit to Bing, you’ll have to prove you are owner of the site once again. You can get started here: http://www.bing.com/webmaster