Simply, a sitemap is a file that lists all the web pages of your website. There are however two types of sitemaps; the sitemap for crawlers and the visual sitemap. Each is intended for different users and usage.
A visual sitemap is a page that you can include in your site that allows visitors to see the layout of your pages and posts in one location. Some of these sitemaps include all pages, but you can limit it to just your top level pages. Excerpt from each page can also be included in the visual sitemap, giving your visitors an idea of the content contained on each of the pages.
An added bonus to a visual sitemap is that it allows for all the pages you add to the sitemap to have internal links to each of your pages, making it easier for spiders and crawlers to see associations with your content.
Bot intended sitemap.xml
Bot intended sitemaps are xml files created to tell search engines, like Google and Bing, where to find all the pages on your website and how they are organized. Web crawlers, like the Googlebot, are able to read these files and more thoroughly crawl your site. These sitemaps can contain valuable metadata associated with your site’s pages.
Metadata allows the bot to know information like when the page was last updated, how often each page is updated and the importance of the page relative to other pages on your site. Metadata can also be used to give information about specific types of content on your pages, including mobile view, images, and video.
These types of sitemaps are intended to be submitted to the search engines through webmaster tools or analytics account.
These type of sitemaps are limited to 10MB and 50,000 URLs. If you have a website that is larger than this, you can break your sitemap up into smaller files and include a sitemap index file with your submission of the sitemap to search engines.
Utilizing the sitemap.org sitemap protocol, XML sitemap files is the easiest way to create and submit your sitemap. Within WordPress, plugins like Yoast SEO, will automatically create these files for you.
RSS, mRSS, and Atom 1.0
If you run a blog with an Atom or RSS (Real Simple Syndication) feed, you can submit your feeds URL in place of a site map. You can also submit the mRSS (media RSS) feed for video content on your site.
If you aren’t sure how to create XML files or RSS feeds, Google does allow you to submit a txt file to them that has each URL on your site in the file with 1 URL per line, and nothing else in the file.
Why you need a sitemap
Sitemaps are not required but are HIGHLY encouraged for all websites. A sitemap allows the crawlers of your site to get to all areas of your website no matter the size. This helps with Search Engine Optimization because it makes it easier for search engines to find all the content on your website. Sitemaps are especially important for new websites, very large (lots of pages) sites, or sites with large archives.
For new websites, there are very few external links coming into your site, so crawlers may have a hard time finding all of the pages on your site.
For large sites, crawlers may overlook some pages that have recently been updated if they do not have the metadata to tell them the page has been updated.
For archival sites, where content does not naturally link to one another it can be very difficult for crawlers to find all your pages without the sitemap as their guide.
Now that you have created your sitemap. Make sure you submit the sitemap to all of the search engines that you want to have access to crawl your site.
Have questions? Be sure to ask in the comments and check out our other articles for more information.