A good XML sitemap acts as a roadmap of your website which leads Google to all your important pages. XML sitemaps can be good for SEO, as they allow Google to quickly find your essential website pages, even if your internal linking isn’t perfect. This post explains what XML sitemaps are and how they help you rank better.
What are XML sitemaps?
You want Google to crawl every important page of your website, but sometimes pages end up without any internal links pointing to them, making them hard to find. An XML sitemap lists a website’s important pages, making sure Google can find and crawl them all, and helping it understand your website structure:
Above is Yoast.com’s XML sitemap, created by the Yoast SEO plugin and later on we’ll explain how our plugin helps you create the best XML sitemaps. If you’re not using our plugin, your XML sitemap may look a little different but will work the same way.
As you can see, the Yoast.com XML sitemap shows several ‘index’ XML sitemaps: …/post-sitemap.xml, …/page-sitemap.xml, …/video-sitemap.xml etc. This categorization makes a site’s structure as clear as possible, so if you click on one of the index XML sitemaps, you’ll see all URLs in that particular sitemap. For example, if you click on ‘…/post-sitemap.xml’ you’ll see all Yoast.com’s post URLs (click on the image to enlarge):
You’ll notice a date at the end of each line. This tells Google when each post was last updated and helps with SEO because you want Google to crawl your updated content as soon as possible. When a date changes in the XML sitemap, Google knows there is new content to crawl and index.
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If you have a very large website, sometimes it’s necessary to split an index XML sitemap. A single XML sitemap is limited to 50,000 URLs, so if your website has more than 50,000 posts, for example, you’ll need two separate XML sitemaps for the post URLs, effectively adding a second index XML sitemap. The Yoast SEO plugin sets the limit even lower – at 1.000 URLs – to keep your XML sitemap loading as fast as possible
What websites need an XML sitemap?
Google’s documentation says XML sitemaps are beneficial for “really large websites”, for “websites with large archives”, for “new websites with just a few external links to it” and for “websites which use rich media content”.
Here at Yoast, while we agree that these kinds of websites will definitely benefit the most from having one, we think XML sitemaps are beneficial for every website . Every single website needs Google to be able to easily find the most important pages and to know when they were last updated, which is why this feature is included in the Yoast SEO plugin.
Which pages should be in your XML sitemap?
How do you decide which pages to include in your XML sitemap? Always start by thinking of the relevance of a URL: when a visitor lands on a particular URL, is it a good result? Do you want visitors to land on that URL? If not, it probably shouldn’t be in your XML sitemap. However, if you really don’t want that URL to show up in the search results you’ll need to add a ‘noindex, follow’ tag. Leaving it out of your XML sitemap doesn’t mean Google won’t index the URL. If Google can find it by following links, Google can index the URL.
Example 1: A new blog
Say, for example, you are starting a new blog. You will want Google to find new posts quickly to make sure your target audience can find your blog on Google, so it’s a good idea to create an XML sitemap right from the start. You might create a handful of first posts and categories for them as well as some tags to start with. But there won’t be enough content yet to fill the tag overview pages, making them “thin content” that’s not valuable to visitors – yet. In this case, you should leave the tag’s URLs out of the XML sitemap for now. Set the tag pages to ‘noindex, follow’ because you don’t want people to find them in search results.
Example 2: Media and images
The ‘media’ or ‘image’ XML sitemap is also unnecessary for most websites. This is because your images are probably used within your pages and posts, so will already be included in your ‘post’ or ‘page’ sitemap. So having a separate ‘media’ or ‘image’ XML sitemap would be pointless and we recommend leaving it out of your XML sitemap. The only exception to this is if images are your main business. Photographers, for example, will probably want to show a separate ‘media’ or ‘image’ XML sitemap to Google.
How to make Google find your XML sitemap
If you want Google to find your XML sitemap quicker, you’ll need to add it to your Google Search Console account. In the new Search Console, you can find the sitemaps in the ‘Index’ tab. You’ll immediately see if your XML sitemap is already added to Search Console. If not, you can add your sitemap on top of the page:
Within the old Google Search Console you can see your sitemaps by navigating to ‘Crawl’ and then clicking on ‘Sitemaps’. Click on the ‘Add/Test sitemap’ button which you see on the right of the arrow in the image below if you haven’t added your XML sitemap.
As you can see in the image, adding your XML sitemap can be helpful to check whether all pages in your sitemap really have been indexed by Google. If there is a big difference in the ‘submitted’ and ‘indexed’ number on a particular sitemap, we recommend looking into this further. There could be an error preventing some pages from being indexed or maybe you need more content or links pointing to the content that’s not been indexed yet.
Yoast SEO and XML sitemaps
Because they are so important for your SEO, we’ve added the ability to create your own XML sitemaps in our Yoast SEO plugin. XML sitemaps are available in both the free and premium versions of the plugin.
Yoast SEO creates an XML sitemap for your website automatically. Click on ‘SEO’ in the sidebar of your WordPress install and then select the ‘Features’ tab:
In this screen, you can enable or disable the different XML sitemaps for your website. Also, you can click on the question mark to expand the information and see more possibilities, like checking your XML sitemap in your browser:
You can exclude content types from your XML sitemap in the ‘Search Appearance’ tab. If you select ‘no’ as an answer to ‘show X in the search results?’ then this type of content won’t be included in the XML sitemap.
Read more about excluding content types here.
Check your own XML sitemap!
Now you’ve read the whole post, you know how important it is to have an XML sitemap, because having one can really help your site’s SEO. Google can easily access your most important pages and posts if you add the right URLs to your XML sitemap. Google will also be able to find updated content easily, so they know when a URL needs to be crawled again. Lastly, adding your XML sitemap to Google Search Console helps Google find your sitemap fast and it allows you to check for sitemap errors.
Now go check your own XML sitemap and make sure you’re doing it right!
Read more: WordPress SEO tutorial: definite guide to higher ranking »
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