A lot of SEO experts struggle with the question of whether to create a sitemap or not. Some believe that it is unnecessary, and they can do without it. And then some firmly believe that sitemaps are a must for any website.
The short answer to end this dilemma is that sitemaps are always useful for your website. You might face challenges if you don’t have one, but you will never be penalized for having one. So, to be on the safe side, create a sitemap for your website if you don’t already have one.
But, before we get into the sitemap best practices to improve SEO, let us first understand, in more detail, what sitemaps are and why they are essential.
What is a Sitemap?
As the name suggests, a sitemap is essentially a map for your website that helps search engine crawlers understand and navigate your site better. In a more technical sense, it is a file that lists the pages and other files on your website and the relation between them.
Search engines use this sitemap file to crawl your website more intelligently. It helps them crawl and index your webpages in a better way.
Tip - You can view the protocol for sitemaps here - https://www.sitemaps.org/index.html
How Do Sitemaps Help with SEO?
In terms of SEO, sitemaps provide a direct advantage as they help search engines crawl your website and index your pages better. This allows them to understand your website’s content better and rank your pages for the most relevant search queries.
And the better search engines understand, and index your pages, the higher your search rankings for the relevant search queries will be.
Sitemaps are especially helpful for large websites or ones that have a lot of unlinked pages. In these cases, sitemaps help show the relationships between pages and help search engines understand your site better.
What Sitemap Best Practices Should You Follow?
There are many sitemap best practices that SEO experts recommend. But we have done our research and compiled a list of the most useful ones. Here are seven fundamental sitemaps best practices that you should follow to improve your SEO.
1. Prioritize Your Webpages
One of the best sitemap best practices that you should follow is to prioritize your webpages. The sitemaps protocol by Google allows you to rank your webpages and give them a score between 0.1 and 1.
The pages that you give a higher score to will be crawled more often than the ones with a low score.
As a rule of thumb, assign higher scores to your dynamic pages where you update the content more frequently. For example, if you have a blog where you add content regularly or keep updating your posts, score these higher.
Similarly, pages like “contact us” or “about us” that are more static--and are not frequently updated--should get lower scores.
Resist that urge to assign high scores to all pages. As much as you value them, search engines are more objective. They won’t be able to differentiate between your dynamic and static pages, and you could lose some of the benefit.
2. Categorize Your Content Properly
The fundamental purpose of a sitemap is to help search engines understand your website’s structure and content. For that, it is crucial to categorize your content correctly so that the commonalities and hierarchies are clear.
So, correctly categorizing your website’s content is an essential sitemap best practices that you can follow.
For most websites, the primary content structure is homepage, then categories, and their subcategories. And, this follows the same hierarchical order.
The key point here is to segment the categories, and subcategories based on the commonality of content. This will ensure that all similar content is clustered together in one category and is not scattered. This is not just a good sitemap best practice, but also improves your site navigation for your users.
3. Use a Tool to Create a Sitemap and Submit it to Google
Another useful sitemap best practice is to use a sitemap-generator tool to create sitemaps. It is much easier and faster to create sitemaps using tools than it is to create it manually.
If you have a WordPress website, then you can use the Yoast plugin and directly enable XML sitemaps from the plugin itself. For other websites, you can use Google XML Sitemaps to create XML sitemaps.
The next step is to submit the sitemap to Google using your Google Search Console.
From your dashboard, click on “Sitemaps.”
Add the sitemap URL in the blank space, as shown below.
Successfully submit the sitemap and check the added sitemap in the “Submitted sitemaps” section.
4. Place the Sitemap on Your Homepage and the Root Directory
When it comes to sitemap best practices, the placement of HTML sitemaps in the right places is important. This gives your website visitors easy access to information.
HTML sitemaps are primarily designed to provide easy site navigation to your users. And, placing a sitemap right on your homepage is a best practice that makes it easier for users to navigate your website. People can check the sitemap and the list of URLs to find what they are looking for, instead of checking various categories and subcategories individually.
Another advantage of this strategy is that search engines also start crawling from your homepage. So, if any new links are added, those will be easier to find if a sitemap is right there on the homepage.
Similarly, in the case of XML sitemaps, you need to place them in the root directory to achieve similar results.
5. Restrict the URLs for Each Sitemap
This is one of the sitemap best practices applicable only for medium to large websites. Large websites have a lot of links that might be too much to add in just one sitemap. Therefore, if you have enough links for each category, you can create a separate sitemap for each.
This will help you organize things in a better way and avoid any chaos. If you have too many links, it could confuse your readers; and may be identified as a link farm by the search engines.
Another way of limiting URLs is to use canonical versions in your sitemap. For example, if you have multiple URLs for different product variants, then you should include only the main product page URL in your sitemap. You can use “link rel=canonical” tag to tell the search engines which of those pages is the main page.
6. Never Include “Noindex” URLs in Your Website’s Sitemap
Noindex URLs are the ones that you don’t want the search engines to crawl or index. These might be utility pages that you don’t want showing up in search results but are useful for your website. You may have added the Noindex to these pages using the meta robots method or placing the noindex tag in your robots.txt file.
If you don’t want these to be indexed, then there is no point adding these in your sitemap because then you will be wasting your crawl budget. Moreover, it gives a contradictory message to the search engines.
If something is in your sitemap, it is supposed to be important enough to be indexed. And, “Noindex” tags give just the opposite message - that those URLs don’t need to be indexed. This lack of consistency is confusing and should be avoided.
So, follow the sitemap best practice of excluding all noindex pages from your sitemap to maintain consistency and save your crawl budget.
7. Leverage Dynamic Sitemaps for Large Websites
For large websites with many pages and frequently-added content, follow the best practice of using dynamic sitemaps. Dynamic sitemaps are the ones that have a set of rules that enable them to get updated when pages are added or removed automatically. This means it will stay updated, which is another sitemap best practice that you should follow.
In dynamic sitemaps, you can create various rules and logic that make it dynamic. For example, you can create a rule that can help it identify when a page should be added. Or you can create a rule that determines if a noindex page needs to be changed to a regular page.
Moreover, dynamic sitemaps are faster to access and hence, more convenient for search engines to crawl. And, these have fewer chances of being corrupted, while a static sitemap can be easily corrupted.
So, as a best practice, you should use dynamic sitemaps if you have a large website.
Sitemaps are powerful and are a foundation of SEO. You should use sitemaps to improve your site’s rankings by helping search engines crawl your website more intelligently.
However, there are certain sitemap best practices that you should follow to do it the right way. These best practices will help you create sitemaps the right way and ensure that they perform their function well.
Leverage the sitemap best practices listed here to create, submit, and update your sitemaps the right way.
If you have any questions regarding this post, feel free to ask those in the comments section.