105 - What Is A Website XML Sitemap & Why Do I Need One

Day 105 - What Is A Website XML Sitemap - why do I need one and how do I use it to improve my SEO

Imagine two high street stores or galleries - which one has the most number of visitors come in, the small shop with one window and a handful of products in the window or the larger shop with multiple windows and lots of products in each window? Of course it is the larger shop because it is much more likely to catch the attention of passers by with one or more of the many products displayed in the windows.

With bricks and mortar shops there is of course a larger cost associated with having larger window space and filling it with more product and there is an assumption that if you see that space externally then there will be so much more inside and you might spend an hour or more wandering around a single store.

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Now imagine these 2 stores that are the same size with the same window displays. 1 store hounds the press for editorial and appears in every local paper and the other waits for word to get around and the press to come to them in their own time? Of course the 1st will do much better quicker because word will get around quicker because of the extra publicity.

Online it is just as important to show all elements of your website to passers by in the hope that they will come in and look around. Showing people your homepage is very important but can you tell people everything about you and your products in a single page? No of course not, that is why you create so many other pages on your website with each page focusing on a specific aspect about you, your products, your services and so on so it is important that all of those pages not just your homepage are easily found in search engines like Google as each page will create a new opportunity for customers to find you and come into your website. The more times you can be seen the more visitors you will get. The really good news is that if you create the website yourself, unlike bricks and mortar shops it will not cost you more to have more window displays to attract your customers. Even if someone creates the website for you the relative cost of extra pages to attract customers is far less than bricks and mortar windows but can be far more effective if done well!

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A website sitemap is in simple terms just a list of key pages on your website that you want customers to be able to find. There was a time when you would use a HTML text based sitemap visibly on your website to help customers navigate around your website and as an additional aid to your standard menu. Most modern websites these days, however, have a combination of main menus, a secondary menu to aid navigation as well as footer and page hyperlinks so people are less likely to get lost in your website.

The key reason for having a sitemap these days is to aid search engines. Search engines will 'spider' your website. This means they will read each page and then follow links in each page to other pages to then read them before deciding what the page is about and whether or not to include it in the search engine. To get your website included in search engines, therefore, you simply need to have a link to your website from another website. That way when the search engine 'spiders' that website looking for pages that it may not already know about it will find your website and include it. Then it will start a process of 'spidering' your website by following the links in it to as many pages in your website as it can find.

Because there are millions of websites to spider and many of those with hundreds of pages it can take the search engines weeks to find your website this way and then even longer to find all of its pages and there is no guarantee that it will find all of its pages.

A sitemap contains a list of all the key pages in your website. By submitting your sitemap to Google (which accounts for 80% or more of search engine traffic at time of writing) you make things much easier for it by telling it about your website and where all the main pages are so that it can do its job much more efficiently. If it has a sitemap for your website it will include your website and its pages much more quickly than just waiting for it to happen and it should pick up all the main pages you want it to and ignore pages you don't want it to (yes there will usually be some of those!).

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Before you submit your sitemap you should decide which pages you want to submit. By default most sitemaps will usually include the main pages referenced in your visible menus only. You might have lots more pages that visitors can access through hyperlinks, clickable buttons and so on in your website but that are not connected the menu. By asking your website design software to include these pages in your sitemap Google will get to know about them quicker rather than having to spider them much more slowly. How to do this will vary but if you are using Jimdo as I discussed in Day 9 - Create Your First Website then you do this by going to 'menu', 'SEO', 'SEO' then 'website' then ticking the box 'include hidden pages in my sitemap'. If you are using another company look for a help topic on this subject or Google 'how to create an XML sitemap ' followed by the name of your web design software or company.

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You might then want to exclude some pages from the sitemap and search engines. There will usually be an option for each page in your site to say 'noindex' which tells search engines not to include the page in the search engine index and another option 'nofollow' which tells the search engine not to follow links to other pages from that page. Don't worry at this point if you cannot think of pages you want to exclude you can always come back to this later. Typically if you have a page or pages on your website that contain useful information but perhaps are off at a tangent from the main focus of your website you might be happy for people to access those pages from within your website but don't want to advertise them externally in the search engine to avoid weakening your main message. If using Jimdo you can access these options in 'menu', 'SEO', 'SEO', 'Basic' for each page on your website.

So how do you generate your sitemap? Well the first bit will vary depending on where your website has been created. If you are using Jimdo the good news is that your sitemap will always be there you simply need to know where it is. It will usually be at https://www.yourdomain.xx/sitemap.xml so mine, for example, can be found at https://www.instinctive.co.uk/sitemap.xml. Once you know where your sitemap is copy and paste its URL into your web browser so you can check what is in it and it might give you more ideas for pages you want to include and exclude from it.

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So the final question is how do you submit your sitemap to Google? Well in my recent post 104 - Register With Google Search Console I told you how to register your website with Google Search Console. If you have not yet done that you will need to do that first. Once you have simply click on 'sitemaps' then 'add a new sitemap', paste in the URL of your sitemap and press the submit button.

Once you have submitted a sitemap keep an eye on its status. It should change to 'success' once it has successfully read it and crawled your pages. This may take a day or two but will usually be much quicker than letting it find your pages on its own. Check the number of 'discovered URLs'. Is this around the figure you were expecting? If not check what you have told it to include and exclude above. As you continue to make changes to your website from this point forward it is not necessary to resubmit your sitemap, Google will usually find your changes on its own. There is an option to submit individual pages quickly which I will cover soon but if you make lots of changes all at once, resubmitting your sitemap may help Google along and speed up the process of locating the changes.

Who has submitted a sitemap for their website? Have you examined the sitemap? Were there any surprises? Anything that shouldn't be there or anything missing?

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