A sitemap, or XML sitemap, is a text file that lists every page of your site that is designed to help search engines crawl your site. It’s published somewhere on your site (usually domain.com/sitemap.xml) and then you can submit it to Google and Bing via their webmaster tools. A XML sitemap looks like this:
In theory, XML sitemaps help Google find and crawl all the pages of your site. In reality, modern search engines do not need sitemaps to understand or index your site. A sitemap does not in any way influence the ranking of your site. It will not convince Google to index a page that Google decided not to index. Though a sitemap lets you tell search engines how often to index pages, search engines generally ignore those instructions and figure out their crawl schedule on their own.
Basically I’m telling you that a XML sitemap is not useful for the vast majority of sites out there. About the only time a XML sitemap will do anything for you is when you have orphaned pages (pages that are not linked to from any other page). And the solution for those pages is to make sure they’re part of the site hierarchy.
As SEOs we continue to build sitemaps mostly because clients expect us to — or because competing agencies use the lack of a sitemap as a way in to steal clients. But the fact is you almost certainly don’t need one, and having one will not help your SEO.
How to Make a XML Sitemap If You Really Want One
You can make a sitemap my manually creating it in excel or in a text file. There are also a lot of free automatic sitemap generators out there, and they do a fine job. If you are creating a sitemap yourself, manually or programmatically, the formatting details can be found here.
Once you’ve created the sitemap, just upload the file to somewhere on your site.
Submitting Your Sitemap to Google
To submit your sitemap ust log into the Google Search Console for your site and from the left menu select Crawl > Sitemaps. Then click the big Add/Test Sitemap button in the upper right corner. Just give Google the URL where you have uploaded your sitemap and click Submit Sitemap.
Once you do, Google will eventually get around to checking it out, and by the next day will report to you how many pages of your sitemap it has indexed. Large sites will quickly note that Google gleefully reports to you how it’s ignoring tons of pages on your sitemap — again, a sitemap does not improve the chances that Google will index your pages.
It’s important to note here that Google is not telling you how many pages it has indexed, but instead is only telling you how many pages on your sitemap it has indexed. For example: you might have 100 pages on your sitemap, and Google tells you it’s indexed 98 out of the 100. However, Google may well have thousands of pages of your site indexed, including URLs you never even knew you had!
One Useful Thing About Sitemaps
The one nice thing about sitemaps is you can use them to get Google to tell you how much of your site it’s crawling.
The way to take advantage of this reporting is to split your sitemap into multiple different site maps, each covering a different selection of URLs. For an ecommerce site you might have your product pages on one sitemap, category pages on another, and list pages on a third. A large service-based site might put all the About pages on one sitemap, pages describing services on another, and blog posts on a third.
This then gives you slightly better insight into what Google is indexing. If you find that only half your pages in one category are indexed, you can then start investigating to find out which ones are being left out and why.
It’s worth stressing, however, that this kind of process is only really worthwhile for large sites. If your site only has a few hundred pages you are not going to have any issues within indexation.
For the smaller sites that I run, including AwesomeDice.com and WarcraftHuntersUnion.com, I didn’t even bother with sitemaps. And I’ve even run sites with millions of pages without XML sitemaps (including one where we finally created a sitemap, and sure enough, it made zero impact on our indexation, rankings, or traffic).