Sitemaps for SEO: How To Use a Sitemap

A light blue map with lines and squares on a dark blue background.

In the ever-changing world of SEO, sometimes the simplest fixes are the ones that benefit you the most. Behold, the sitemap. This simple but effective tool is a great low-effort, high-impact way to fuel your site’s visibility in organic search.

Learn what sitemaps are, why they’re important, and how you can use them on websites of any size to make it as easy as possible for search engines to discover and index your content.

What is a sitemap?

A sitemap is a page on a website that lists the links to all of that site’s URLs. It also provides additional information about those links, such as how often they’re updated and how important they are for search engines. They are created primarily for search engine crawlers (automated programs that browse the internet systematically to index web content for search engines), although their information can be a helpful reference for webmasters as well.

Why are sitemaps important?

Sitemaps allow search engines to quickly and easily discover content on your website so they can index it and display that content on relevant search engine results pages (SERPs). This is important because content that isn’t indexed can’t be found on SERPs, and ranking at the top of SERPs can provide cost-effective, organic traffic to your website. 

A sitemap isn’t the only way search engines can discover content—they crawl external links from one website to another and then crawl internal links within a site. A sitemap does, however, make this process much more efficient and helps surface content that may be harder to find through internal links.

It’s a bit like the store directory in a mall. Sure, you can wander in and out of all the stores, but that will take a while and you’ll surely miss a number of them. The store directory, on the other hand, allows you to see every single store in one easy-to-read list.

What are the different types of sitemaps?

Image sitemaps

An image sitemap lists the URLs of images on the website to help search engines crawl and index them for ranking in image searches. A comprehensive image index is particularly useful for industries where users more frequently make visual searches, such as fashion, beauty, and home décor.

A correctly configured image sitemap should list the page’s URL, followed by all images on that page with the image’s URL in a <image:image> tag.

Video sitemaps

A video sitemap is similar to an image sitemap, except it lists videos instead of images. A video sitemap can only list videos hosted on your website and not ones that are from a third-party source (e.g., uploaded to YouTube and embedded on your site).

A correctly configured video sitemap should list the page’s URL, followed by all videos on that page with the video’s URL in a <video:video> tag. You can also add additional information about the videos, such as the title, description, duration, view count, and publication date.

News sitemaps

A news sitemap lists news articles that a publisher wants to submit to Google News. This helps search engines easily access newsworthy content for faster crawling and indexing, which is key when people are looking for the most up-to-date information.

A news sitemap also contains additional publisher-specific information, like the publication name, date, and title.

Mobile sitemaps

A mobile sitemap contains links to mobile versions of a website’s content. While these are useful if you have separate desktop and mobile versions of your site, Google strongly discourages this setup. If your website is responsive and works well for mobile users, a mobile sitemap adds redundancy and may confuse Google’s crawlers.

HTML sitemaps vs. XML sitemaps

There are two types of sitemap formats to consider for your website: HTML sitemaps and XML sitemaps.

What is an HTML sitemap?

An HTML sitemap is a page on your website with links to all of its content. It’s called an HTML sitemap because the content is served via the HTML (hypertext markup language) content of the page.

HTML sitemaps, such as the one from LOLA’s ecommerce store, below, are designed to help users find content. HTML sitemaps do not have any SEO benefit and should not be used in place of an XML sitemap.

LOLA sitemap that shows pages under "shop by category" and "other information"

What is an XML sitemap?

An XML sitemap is a file on your website made using a type of code called extensible markup language (XML). This type of sitemap is designed for search engine crawlers, not users. As you can see in the screenshot below of Shopify’s own XML sitemap, it only contains the code for the sitemap and no branding or user-friendly content.

A screenshot of a sitemap example.

An XML sitemap may provide additional information for each URL such as:

  • Last modified. The <lastmod> tag notes the date the URL was last modified. It should always be in YYYY-MM-DD format.
  • Change frequency. The <changefreq> tag tells search engines how often the page is updated. The value should be written as hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, always, or never.
  • Priority. The <priority> tag tells search engines how important each page is. 1 is the highest and 0 is the lowest. If no value is provided, the default is assumed to be 0.5.

Should I use an HTML or XML sitemap for my website?

All websites should use an XML sitemap to help search engines crawl and index content. You may choose to use an HTML sitemap to help users, but there is no SEO benefit to this format and users are unlikely to use the sitemap on modern websites. An HTML sitemap should never be used in place of an XML sitemap for SEO purposes.

How many sitemaps should my website have?

You may often hear about “the” sitemap but most sites actually have multiple sitemaps. This could be sitemaps for different types of content, as mentioned above, or sitemaps grouped by sections on the site (such as a sitemap for the blog, one for product pages, etc.).

If you have multiple sitemaps, you should have a sitemap index file. This is basically a sitemap of sitemaps—instead of linking to individual URLs it links to each specific sitemap file.

Tips for making sitemaps

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when creating a sitemap for your website:

Submit your sitemap to search engines

Submit your sitemap to Google and Bing. Web crawlers can still find your sitemap if you don’t submit it, but it’s a good practice to make it as easy as possible for them to crawl your sitemap regularly. On Google, this is done via your Google Search Console account, and on Bing, your Bing Webmaster Tools account.

When submitting your sitemap, you should submit the URLs for the sitemap index as well as individual sitemaps.

Only list relevant URLs

A sitemap doesn’t need to include all of the pages on your site. It should only include ones that you want to be indexed by search engines. That means you can leave out pages like your privacy policy, password-protected pages, post-purchase pages, and anything else that you don’t want the search engine to crawl and display on SERPs.

In addition, a sitemap should not contain any external links, only pages on your site. Keep each XML sitemap file limited to 50 MB and fewer than 50,000 URLs. If your site is larger, create multiple sitemap files and a sitemap index file.

Include relevant information

A good sitemap links to the important pages on your site, but a great sitemap includes as much additional information as possible about those pages. This includes when it was last modified, how frequently it’s updated, and image tags. The more information you can provide, the better search engines can understand what to do with your content and how frequently they need to crawl it.

Organize your sitemap into groups

Structure your sitemap logically and hierarchically, grouping similar types of content such as product pages, blog posts, and service pages. This makes it easier for search engines like Google and Bing to crawl and index your content. 

Sitemap FAQ

How do you create a sitemap?

Many popular content management systems (CMS), like Shopify, will automatically generate a sitemap for your website. You can typically find this under the site or SEO settings in your back end. You can also learn how to create a sitemap yourself or use a sitemap generator.

What is the most commonly used format for sitemaps?

XML and HTML are the most common formats for sitemaps, although HTML sitemaps are less popular than they used to be and no longer offer any SEO benefit.

How do you submit your sitemap to Google?

You can submit your sitemap to Google by verifying a Google Search Console property for your website, going to the “Sitemaps” section, and submitting the link there. If you have multiple sitemaps, make sure to submit the URL for the sitemap index file as well as each individual sitemap.