Last updated on May 24th, 2023 at 08:44 am
When you publish your website, it’s thrust into a churning sea of billions with similar names and often identical content, all with the same goal of being seen by users. But you have the advantage over those other sites. Why? Because you’re smart enough to implement tools like sitemaps when you hear about them.
What’s a sitemap, you ask?
This post will tell you everything you need to know and exactly how to make one. Let’s get right into it.
First off, a sitemap is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a map that crawlers use to navigate your site, and it adds a lot to a website’s ranking potential. To understand how, let’s take a minute to understand what crawlers are and take a quick dip in the ever-evolving subject of SEO (Search Engine Optimization).
Crawlers are bots that “crawl” your site’s pages to see what they’re about and how they relate to other pages. They follow links and menu items, noting keywords found on each page, as well as their hierarchy.
To do this, they check where each keyword is found (in the title, heading, image caption, body, meta data, etc.) and assess how important each keyword is relative to others found on that page. Crawlers then send this data back home to the browser, which “indexes” the data to be used by its algorithm.
When a user types a search query like “what is a sitemap” into Google or another browser, its algorithm searches the entire index for sites that have content matching the keywords in the query. There are 200+ criteria in Google’s algorithm, and the company makes adjustments to it near-constantly (Think every day or thereabouts).
Why is this important?
It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes, you don’t want crawlers to take every page into account when ranking your site. Many pages, like “My Cart,” “My Account,” and old, outdated blog entries (which you should update or delete ASAP.) don’t represent the main reasons people would want to visit your site, to read an up-to-date article on your blog, for instance.
If your website contains a sitemap file, then only the pages featured in the map will be indexed, and crawlers know to ignore any other pages found connected with your domain. With billions and billions of web pages to go through, this is a great help to Google in serving up the best content for your searchers’ queries.
By helping the algorithm determine which content your audience is likely searching for, you give your site a better chance of appearing higher in the SERP (Search Engine Results Page).
Ok, I get it. How do I make one?
There are two types of sitemaps: XML and HTML. The former is primarily for crawlers, while the latter is useful for human visitors.
As you likely know, HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language. It’s a coding language that uses
<tags></tags> to represent data in a visual form. The result is that the content between the tags is displayed and can have styles applied to its contents.
XML stands for Extensible Markup Language, and it’s much like HTML, except that it deals with pure data instead of including non-essential styling. Another difference is that in XML, there are no pre-defined tags like there are in HTML:
<div>, etc. Instead, the author “invents” each tag as needed.
Use these tools to make an XML sitemap, or skip ahead to the HTML section. There are a number of tools you can use. If you really want to, you can create the file by hand (we’ll cover XML syntax in a separate tutorial), but it’s usually worth it to use a tool like one of the following:
This is Studio O’Riley’s recommendation. And if you use the Yoast WordPress plugin, you already have a sitemap because, unless you disable the feature, Yoast creates one automatically. Note: You still have to submit your sitemap to Google Search Console to get the most out of your sitemap. To do this, simply follow these steps:
- Create your Google Search Console account.
- Connect your site using the onscreen instructions.
- In the left sidebar, open the “Indexing” dropdown menu.
- Click on “Sitemaps.”
- Open another browser tab and sign into WordPress.
- Make sure the Yoast Plugin is installed and active, and if not:
- In the left sidebar, click on “Plugins.”
- Choose “Add New.”
- Search for “Yoast SEO.”
- Install the plugin.
- 1. Click “Activate.”
- Once Yoast is active, open the plugin’s dropdown menu by clicking on “Yoast SEO” in the left sidebar of WordPress.
- Click on “Settings.”
- Choose the “XML Sitemap” card and follow the on-screen instructions.
- Copy the sitemap URL path provided by the Yoast plugin.
- Back in Google Search Console, under “Sitemaps,” paste the sitemap URL path into the indicated field and submit your changes.
Yoast is a fantastic resource for SEO, definitely a tool to keep in your back pocket. From their WordPress plugin to their many, many tutorials and articles, you’ll learn something valuable every time you use Yoast.
Like Yoast’s sitemap tool, this is a simple tool that automates the creation process, writing all the code for you. The site claims that it can even submit your completed sitemap to Google Search Console automatically for free! There are limits, though, and you may need to subscribe to a paid plan for unlimited use of this tool.
Full disclosure: When I tested the automatic transfer, it didn’t work. It created a sitemap, but didn’t transfer it to Google Search Console, even giving me a false “Success!” message. But it created a great downloadable sitemap, which you can submit manually.
Note: It’s not enough to create a sitemap. You have to put it in the right place. Once your file is created, place it in the root directory of your site’s file manager. (The Yoast plugin does this automatically.)
WriteMaps is much like the other two tools, but only three sitemaps are free. Beyond that, you’ll need to subscribe to their pro plan.
Note: You’ll still have to place your sitemap in the root directory of your site’s file manager.
RankMath is a competitor for Yoast SEO on WordPress. RankMath has the advantage of providing both XML and HTML sitemaps, as well as helping you configure all the SEO options you want.
HTML sitemaps can help crawlers navigate your site, but they’re primarily for human users. They can help visitors find exactly the content they’re looking for, even on a site with millions of posts or pages. That’s why Google’s algorithm gives sites with an HTML sitemap a higher ranking than those without: because when you have one, your content is easier for both bots and people to sort through.
Again, you can write an HTML sitemap by hand (I’ll cover HTML syntax in a future article.), but it’s much easier to use a tool like RankMath:
- Install and activate the RankMath Plugin in your WordPress backend.
- In the left sidebar, open the RankMath dropdown menu.
- Click on “Sitemap Settings.”
- Choose the HTML Sitemap tab and configure the settings to your preferences.
- If you choose “Shortcode,” simply copy/paste the indicated code into a shortcode block anywhere on your website, and you’re done!
- If you choose “Page,” simply create a blank WordPress page before assigning the sitemap’s location in RankMath, and now you’re done!
Congratulations! If you’ve followed the steps in this article, you have both an XML and an HTML sitemap! Different sources will tell you different things, but having both types doesn’t hurt, and it might help. Google encourages the use of both in order to aid users and crawlers alike.
Creating a sitemap takes only a few minutes, and when you’ve done it once, you can do it again even faster. Don’t let the internet happen to you. Happen to the internet. Take control of your website and be the change you want to see in your user engagement.
Check back next week for more tips and tools like this!