A XML sitemap is a file that lists the pages within your website. Sitemaps live on your server and help web crawlers understand the structure of your website so they can find your content and index it so people can find it on search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. For webmasters, though, sitemaps are an easy, low-maintenance way to get a quick SEO boost.
What is a XML Sitemap?
Sitemaps can be lists of pages, media or files on a website. Your website may have one sitemap for your pages, one sitemap for your blog posts, one sitemap for your images and so on.
For SEO purposes, sitemaps are usually written in XML, a common markup language. These XML sitemaps might look like a long list of URLs to us, but they are a perfect map of your website for search engine bots. From your XML sitemap, bots learn where your pages are on your website (and how they connect), the URLs for important videos or images on your site, and a little about each page, like whether it’s canonical or if it’s a translated version of another page on your site.
Every website should have an XML sitemap. It takes very little time and expertise to set it up (it might already be done for you), minimal maintenance after it’s uploaded, and it gives your website more visibility on the web, meaning more potential readers and buyers. Luckily, making an XML sitemap and submitting it to Google and other search engines isn’t hard. All it takes is a bit of time and six easy steps.
1. Check to see if you already have one
There’s a decent chance your site already has an XML sitemap, so make your first job to confirm you actually need to create one.
The easiest way to check is to type your domain followed by “/sitemap” or “/sitemap.xml” into your browser’s address bar.
For instance, with gaming website IGN, you can access their sitemap by typing in “https://www.ign.com/sitemap.xml”
Another way of checking is to use a sitemap checker tool. Look up your domain, and the tool will tell you whether that site has an associated sitemap.
Depending on your content management system (CMS), your website may already have an automatically generated sitemap that will keep itself up to date (also called a dynamic sitemap).
If you’re using any of the following CMSs, you don’t need to worry about making or updating your own sitemap:
For all others, check your CMS’s documentation to see whether or not they generate a sitemap for you. If you already have a sitemap, skip Steps 3 and 4. However, you should still follow our other steps to give you the chance to optimize your site structure and submit your sitemap to search engines.
2. Plan your site structure
Before you go about creating your sitemap, check to see if your website’s site structure is optimized for better SEO and indexing. Your site structure is how your site’s pages are laid out and connected to each other.
The best site architecture is shallow, meaning no more than three clicks from your homepage to any other page on your site. This kind of architecture makes it easier for readers to access your content and helps bots better index it because it doesn’t require them to navigate through as many pages to get the info they want.
If your site is new, sketch out exactly how your site will be organized by sorting your planned pages by theme and importance level. Top-level content is the main pages you’d see on your homepage menu, while 2nd or 3rd level content would be more specific pages that would be navigated to from their respective top-level pages.
For older websites, optimizing site structure can be challenging because moving content around (changing its URL) risks its current SEO value. If you find your current site is unorganized, you have a couple of options:
- Move content to a new URL and use a 301 redirect to tell users and Google of the move (could affect rankings)
- Begin to place new content in your improved site structure
- Delete old content (that isn’t ranking well) and create new, refreshed content in a more organized place in your site structure
- Depending on your situation, a mix of all three would be ideal to slowly move yourself to a better site structure.
In the meantime, work on your internal linking to improve your indexing. Do this by mapping out your current content with a visual sitemap tool and finding opportunities to improve internal linking between relevant pages. So, if you have a higher-level category page about insurance and multiple lower-level pieces about kinds of insurance, make sure you have internal links connecting all the lower-level pieces to the primary insurance page. As well, connect the lower-level kinds of insurance pages to each other wherever it makes logical sense. Increased internal linking can give your content an SEO boost by strengthening the overall topic cluster they’re a part of.
By improving your site structure and internal linking, you improve your SEO by:
- Identifying (and removing) duplicate content
- Improving UX
- Strengthening topical authority
- Boosting your indexability
When you’ve finished optimizing your structure and internal linking, it’s time to generate your sitemap. If you are going for the slow and steady approach of gradually improving your structure over time, continue on to make a sitemap now (if your CMS isn’t doing it for you already), and you can redo your sitemap when your changes are done.
3. Generate a sitemap
Generating a sitemap is the easiest step in this process. Several free tools will generate an XML sitemap for you. We’ve listed the best ones depending on your situation.
For WordPress users, consider using one of WordPress’ many plugins. Popular sitemap choices include:
If you’ve already got the paid version of an SEO tool, see if they offer a sitemap generator as a part of their plugin. Many popular SEO tools do.
For everyone else, you can generate a sitemap using third-party software. Two easy options include:
With XML-sitemaps.com, simply enter your domain on the line and let it scan your website. When it finishes, you can download an XML sitemap file to use in the next steps. This program will create a sitemap for a website of up to 500 pages. After this, you’ll need to pay for the Pro account, which costs $41.88 for a year.
Another popular option is Screaming Frog, which will also create an XML sitemap for free for websites with up to 500 pages. For larger websites, you’ll need to pay £149 a year. Of course, this price is more than xml-stemaps.com, but Screaming Frog can also help with other SEO tasks like site auditing.
The other selection we’ll make is to add images to your sitemap. By adding images, you can make it easier for search engines to index your images on image searches. To include images in your sitemap, click on the “Image” tab, and select “Include Images.”
When you click “Include Images,” the third box (“Include only relevant images…”) will be checked automatically.
Finally, click Next, and you’ll download your XML sitemap file. Now we can upload your file on your website for crawlers to find.
4. Add your XML sitemap to your website
For most sites, adding an XML sitemap to your website will require you to access your root directory through cPanel, a control panel for web hosting platforms. cPanel is a GUI designed to make it easy for non-coders to make changes to the more technical aspects of their websites, like adding a sitemap.
Most popular hosting platforms like Bluehost, GoDaddy, and HostGator include cPanel for free as part of their services. However, if you use a different web hosting platform, double-check whether you have access to cPanel with a quick Google Search or a look at your web host’s documentation.
To add your XML sitemap to your website, start by signing into your cPanel file manager. If you don’t know your login information (your hosting platform should have given it to you), you can recover the information by following this recovery process or check with your hosting platform.
5. Submit your XML sitemap to Google Search Console
You’re now in the home stretch. With your sitemap created and uploaded to your website, you just need to submit it to search engines. The most important search engine to submit it to is Google.
Once you’re done, log in to your GSC account and click on “Sitemaps” on the left-side menu. Then, add the URL of your sitemap in the “Add a new sitemap” box. If you don’t see it, make sure your Google account has owner permissions.
If everything is successful, you should immediately see the status beside your sitemap read as “success.” It will, however, take some time before your site actually gets crawled.
Once Google finishes crawling your site (this could take a couple of weeks), return to GSC and check that all of your important pages have been indexed. Unfortunately, you won’t get notified when your site gets crawled, so check your Sitemaps Report on GSC every couple of days to see if the “Last Read” section beside your new sitemap has been updated. It’s normal for Google not to index everything on your site, especially if your website is quite large. You can see what Google has indexed in its Index Coverage Report. To find the report, click on “Coverage” on the left-side menu.
Pay attention to any errors as these mean Google can’t index something it would usually index. If you have an error, check the error status to see how to fix it. You should also browse through excluded pages to see what wasn’t indexed. If you think Google incorrectly excluded something, read the reason for that page’s exclusion and follow Google documentation to fix the issue. When you’re done, request a recrawl by using the “URL inspection” tool on GSC. Simply click “URL inspection” on the menu and then input the URL of your page.
6. Upload to Bing Webmaster and other search engines
Google isn’t the only player in town, but you might be forgiven for forgetting that sometimes. Remember to submit your sitemap to Bing, too, not only because Bing makes up 5.63% of search engine traffic in the U.S., but also because Bing shares indexing with Yahoo, which has an additional 2.99% market share. It might not be as much as Google, but for 10 minutes of your time, you’ll get better access to just shy of 10% of millions of searches.
To add your sitemap to Bing and Yahoo, head to Bing Webmaster Tools.
If you’ve not used Webmaster Tools before, your first step will be to sign up and verify your website. Luckily, if you’ve already set up your GSC account, you can verify your website through your Google account.
Add your sitemap URL, and you’re all done. Your sitemap is now known to both Bing and Yahoo search engines. As with Google, come back in a couple of weeks and make sure there are no indexing errors.
If your sitemap was automatically generated for you, you’ll never need to think about this again as your sitemap is “dynamic” and will continually update itself. However, if you had to generate your sitemap yourself through Screaming Frog or xml-sitemaps.com, you have a static sitemap, and you’ll want to update your sitemap whenever you make significant changes to your site. Simply follow these steps again, and you’ll be ready to go.