If you knew inspectors were coming to approve a building for commercial use, you’d probably set things up for them beforehand, get an idea of what they wanted to check, and be on-site to walk them through the premises. That’s pretty much what a sitemap does, but for search engine crawlers. It provides them with a layout of the website, a hierarchy of each page’s importance, and a rough time frame for when they should come back around again to inspect for updated keywords.
Creating a sitemap for SEO is fairly straightforward. Although it can be time-consuming for larger sites, a suite of tools can help streamline the process or even automate it. It’s also just good practice, given the importance of a website in the user’s overall experience of a business. Just as preparing a property for inspectors provides a good opportunity to tidy up and ensure essential infrastructure is in working order, so too can the process of creating a sitemap provide a good overview of your website’s overall structure and coherence.
What is a sitemap?
A sitemap is a file that provides a structured list of all a website’s pages, helping search engines like Google understand the site’s organization and content hierarchy. This enhances the site’s discoverability in search results. The file contains a list of every URL you want crawled and ranked, as well as their relative importance to each other, their last update, and their frequency of update. For ecommerce sites, sitemaps guide search engine bots through product or service listings, categories, and relevant pages.
There are two types of sitemaps: one written in XML (extensible markup language) and the other written in HTML (hypertext markup language). XML sitemaps are created so search engines can crawl and index your site. Specialized sitemap formats exist for websites primarily focused on presenting imagery and video, and “news sitemaps” help websites like Google News and Google Discovery prioritize surfacing timely news stories.
HTML sitemaps help with crawlability, helping search engine bots move from one page to another. HTML sitemaps help bots discover more pages.
Why create a sitemap?
The benefit of creating a sitemap is that it helps search engine bots crawl more pages on a regular basis, which can improve your website's rankings, as rankings are linked to on-page optimization. Google uses sitemaps to help its bots better crawl and index sites. Arthur Camberlein, technical SEO and data specialist at Shopify, says, “Remember to list all the website URLs you want to index. Don’t include pages like ‘/cart’ or ‘/contact’, for example. [And] take the time to create an XML sitemap, because it helps bots efficiently crawl your pages.”
Sitemaps can help you:
- Index new pages quickly. If your site frequently adds or updates products, a sitemap helps search engines quickly identify these changes, leading to faster exposure.
- Enhance user experience (UX). UX designers also produce sitemaps so they can create a website layout that’s intuitive and easy for users to navigate.
- Prevent duplicate content issues. Avoid including non-canonical URLs in your sitemaps. Doing so may prompt bots to crawl these URLs, which wouldn’t benefit your website. Your website’s XML and HTML sitemaps should only contain self-canonicalized URLs that are indexed (as opposed to not indexed) and return a “200 HTTP” status code.
- Appeal internationally. If your ecommerce business operates in multiple regions and languages, you can create separate sitemaps for each locale, so search engines use the appropriate versions in each location.
How to create a sitemap
- Gather all your URLs
- Code them in XML
- Add your sitemap to your website
- Submit your sitemap to search engines
Before creating a sitemap, decide whether you want to automate the process. One or multiple elements of your tech stack may have already created a sitemap for you. For example:
- Shopify dynamically creates a sitemap for all websites built on its platform, including international variants.
- The popular web publishing tool WordPress allows users to take advantage of plug-ins that generate sitemaps automatically.
- Screaming Frog, Ahrefs, and Link Sleuth have tools that can help generate an automated sitemap for your website.
If you’ve used any of these, you can skip directly to step four to learn how to submit a sitemap to the search engines of your choice. If you want to make one manually, though, the process is fairly straightforward.
1. Gather all your URLs
The first step is to get all of your website’s URLs together in one place. If you have a very small website, you can do this by clicking on each page and pasting the URLs into a text document. For larger websites, consider using site crawlers (like Screaming Frog or Site Bulb), exporting the list of URLs from your content management system (CMS), or pulling them from the landing page data of your analytics platform.
2. Code them in XML
Next, add the data that enriches this list of URLs for crawlers. Using a text editor like Notepad (Windows) or TextEdit (Mac), or a code editor like Sublime Text, begin creating the XML code for the sitemap. For each web page, you’ll list its:
- Location. This is just its URL.
- Last modified date. This is written in the format YYYY-MM-DD.
- Change frequency. You can list its update frequency as always (for constantly updated pages), hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, or never (if the page is likely to remain static).
- Priority. This ranges from 0.0 (least important) to 1.0 (most important). You typically want your homepage listed as 1.0, major pages at around 0.8, and lower-importance blog posts at around 0.6.
Do this for every page, then save the file as sitemap.xml.
3. Add your sitemap to your website
The next step is to take your sitemap and attach it to your website. Locate the root folder of your website and upload the sitemap file. Now that the sitemap is online and accessible via browser, capture its URL for the next step.
4. Submit your sitemap to search engines
Finally, you need to let search engines know you’ve done the work. (Even if you automated the creation of their sitemap with a tool, you’ll still have to take this step.) Go to Google Search Console or Bing Webmaster Tools, find the tab listed “sitemap,” and paste the sitemap URL you just created. At this point, you’ve given the engines all the instructions they need, and if there are any glitches with the information you provided, they’ll surface them for you.
Sitemap best practices
Consider following these tips when building and maintaining your sitemap:
- Use tools. Your CMS, website builder, or analytics program may have tools to help streamline or automate the process of building a sitemap. Unless you’re really interested in getting to know XML and your full site hierarchy, make use of them.
- Use sitemap indexes for large websites. If you have more than 50,000 URLs to index, build multiple sitemaps nested together using a sitemap index.
- Prioritize high-quality pages. When categorizing each page’s priority, emphasize the key landing pages and category pages, so search engines know they’re more important than, say, a very old blog post.
- Consider which pages to block. Search engines cannot index pages that are password protected, so do not add those to your sitemap.
- Consider publishing an HTML sitemap for users. Many major websites have HTML sitemaps that delineates the hierarchy of the website and its pages. This doesn’t really help with search engine optimization (SEO), but it can be a useful tool for visitors looking to scope your full offerings in a different format.
- Validate your code.Code needs to be perfect to work properly. Before uploading a manually coded sitemap, use a code validation tool like W3C Markup Validation Service or TutorialsPoint’s XML Validation Tool.
- Update your sitemap periodically. Set yourself a reminder to upload a new sitemap occasionally. If you’re frequently adding lots of new pages, consider doing this every couple of weeks. If you’ve performed a dramatic redesign, update your sitemap quickly so the new pages are reflected in search engine results. Even if you have a relatively static page, consider giving it an annual once-over.
How to create a sitemap FAQ
Should I make a sitemap for my ecommerce site?
Yes, creating a sitemap for your ecommerce site helps search engines crawl and index your product pages, improving visibility in search results.
How do I create a free sitemap?
You can create a free sitemap using online tools or content management system (CMS) plug-ins.
Does Google have a sitemap generator?
No, Google doesn’t provide a standalone sitemap generator tool.
How do I create a sitemap using HTML?
To create an HTML sitemap, manually code a web page that lists and links to your website’s main pages, as well as their relevant category headers. This can help users navigate the site, but you will also need to separately create an XML sitemap for SEO.
What should be included in a sitemap?
A sitemap should include the URLs of all important pages on your website, such as the home page, product and category pages, blog posts, and other relevant content, organized in a structured format. XML sitemaps also generally include update frequency and the relative importance of pages.