Simply, a sitemap is a file that lists all the web pages of your website that you would like search engines to know about and consider for ranking. There are however two types of sitemaps; the sitemap for crawlers/bots and the visual sitemap for users. Each is intended for different usage and for different applications.
Why you need a sitemap
Sitemaps are not required for your website to be found by search engines 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, with more efficiency. This helps with Search Engine Optimization because it makes it easier for search engines to find all the content you want to be discovered and ranked 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.
sitemap.xml for Bots and Crawlers
Xml sitemap files are intended for reading by bots and crawlers to reveal to search engines, like Google and Bing, where to find all the pages on your website and how they are organized. These files can uncover pages that may not be linked to other pages on your website, like landing pages, to allow for them to be ranked, along with other pages that may have been found by Web crawlers, like the Googlebot. These sitemaps can also contain valuable metadata associated with each of your site’s pages.
Metadata allows the bot to understand more information about each page, like when the page was created, 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, video, products, and more.
These types of sitemaps are intended to be discovered or 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 and organize these files for you.
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, and is easily understood by people. Some of these sitemaps include all pages, but you can limit it to just your top-level pages. Excerpts 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.
Although not targeted at crawlers and bots, visual sitemaps do have the added bonus of added internal page linking to each of your most valuable pages, making it easier for spiders and crawlers to see associations with your content.
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.
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.