Sitemaps: what you need to know

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Here’s all you need to know about the famous sitemap file and its impact on SEO. This tutorial explains the risks of misunderstanding the usefulness of the sitemap and gives many tips.

A sitemap contains all the documents (in other words, the web pages) of a site and presents them in a hierarchical way. This means that the structure of the whole site is faithfully duplicated in this synthesis. To understand the sitemap, one must have taken the time to become familiar with the structure of websites: a standard website is composed of individual HTML documents, stored in various folders and interconnected by hypertext links. All this data is stored in the webspace. In the sitemap, the pages are saved with the corresponding URLs.

At the starting of the World Wide Web, the sitemap was created primarily to facilitate user navigation. Often used as a frame in addition to the main content, the sitemap allowed visitors to go from one site to another at any time, without having to navigate through a sequence of clickable links. Nowadays, the navigation process is usually handled much more elegantly, but the sitemap is still justified. On the one hand, having this additional navigation tool can increase the ergonomics of the site, and on the other hand, the search engines use the sitemap.

XML vs. Sitemap sitemap HTML: comparison

Sitemaps are usually discernible in two versions: one in XML format and the other HTML. If the goal is to make the sitemap accessible to visitors, then the HTML version must be chosen. It is essentially an additional document that is part of the site and can be incorporated into the structure of it just like any other HTML page. A sitemap created in XML format is primarily for search engines. XML is a mark-up language just like HTML, but XML offers more features.

As a result, HTML and XML sitemaps both have advantages and disadvantages. An HTML navigation file can be used by visitors to the website without complications. Users can easily find their way to the site through links when they search for something in particular. That’s why the sitemap is like a search function or a navigation bar. Thus, the sitemap is an additional component of the website, enhancing ergonomics. Nowadays, the sitemap is not usually integrated as an executive. Instead, it is common to provide a link to the document in question, above the header or footer of the site, for example.

If you create an XML sitemap, you can submit it to Google’s Search Console. Your sitemap will be even more useful: it will help the search engine to better understand your entire website. XML also allows you to create a video sitemap. Indeed, it is difficult for Google and other search engines to read the content of video files, which makes the search engines dependent on additional data, called metadata. If you have embedded videos on your site and want Google to include them in its video search, then you must provide a video sitemap.

This involves creating an XML file that provides data on the different videos on the site. The data includes the title and description of the video file, the URL of the secondary page on which the clip is played, a link to a thumbnail image, and the storage location of the video player you used. The same strategy also applies to images, so that they appear in image searches.

Sitemaps in SEO

Sitemaps play an important role in search engine optimization (SEO). Why that? Because search engines use programs (the famous search robots) to screen the Internet in order to understand it and to make an index as complete as possible. When such a program arrives on a website, it follows hypertext links to know the content. There is no guarantee that the search robot will be able to save all subpages, however. This process is particularly relevant for very large websites. A sitemap (both in XML and HTML format) simplifies the search engine robot process by providing an index of all web pages.

Even for pages that are not very well linked to other pages, a sitemap is more than helpful. Indeed, search robots always follow hypertext links to move on the World Wide Web. That’s why each page should be discoverable via hypertext links. Google cannot guarantee that the robot will consider each page, but the chances are higher. The sitemap is also relevant if the website is still relatively new and few or no other websites offer links to its pages.

An effective sitemap in XML format provides the search engine with additional data on the website: When was it created? How often has it been updated? What is the relationship of a page with the other pages of the website? How important is the content in relation to the overall appearance?

Although one can generally say that an HTML sitemap is more user-oriented and its XML counterpart to search engines, both are important in terms of SEO. Sitemaps in HTML format are important in terms of referencing because these documents are also taken into account when reviewing a site. When determining the order of referencing search results, Google also pays attention to the ergonomics of websites. A well-organized sitemap improves ergonomics and can lead to better SEO.

Create a sitemap: examples

Creating a sitemap is not a difficult process, but using a sitemap builder makes it even easier. The best course of action depends on the format you choose. The HTML sitemap is usually easier to create. For that, it is enough to know some basic rules in HTML (in particular, how to correctly place the links). By using the HREF attributes, you can compile a list with links. In fact, webmasters direct more energy towards the creation of sitemap or the adaptation of its design to the rest of the site.

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