Sitemaps have traditionally helped search engines such as Google understand the structure of your website. They have therefore been hailed as an essential aspect of any good website ever since Google first allowed you to submit a sitemap in June 2005.
Today, however, search engine bots are more advanced and websites are better structured. Google, Bing and other search engines can therefore typically determine the structure of your website by simply crawling its individual webpages and analysing how they interlink with one another.
You could therefore argue that a sitemap is no longer required and the task of ensuring it is up to date can be forgotten. After all Google employees have confirmed that removing your sitemap file would not hurt your rankings on two separate occasions.
However, before you remove your sitemap you must first understand what a sitemap is and the benefits it offers. Continue reading where I’ll answer these key questions:
- What is a Sitemap?
- What Are the Benefits of a Sitemap?
- Do You Still Need a Sitemap?
What is a Sitemap?
A sitemap is a file where you list the webpages, media and other content that is on your website. I like to think of it as a map which shows search engines how to find their way from one page to another.
This ensures that they understand the structure of your website and how each area of your website interlinks. Your sitemap is also the first place for search engines to discover new content that hasn’t been linked to from other pages or elsewhere on the web.
Your developer will typically create an XML sitemap, but search engines can also crawl those that use RSS, mRSS, Atom 1.0 and plain text. In most circimstances you will need a single sitemap. Although, if your website exceeds 50,000 URLs you will need to begin creating multiple sitemaps.
What Are the Benefits of a Sitemap?
Discovering New Content
Whenever you add a product to your website, create a landing page, or publish a blog post, you will want search engines to index it as quickly as possible. But if the new webpage is not linked to from an existing page or elsewhere on the web, it could take a few days for search engines to discover it.
Google, Bing and other search engines will regularly refer to your sitemap first to discover new webpages. Therefore, by ensuring your sitemap is regularly updated it will typically speed up the discovery of this new content and it being indexed. This is particularly important for timely content, such as news articles.
Clarifying Your Site Structure
Whilst search engines use internal linking, URL structures and other factors to determine the hierarchy of your various webpages, a sitemap provides clarity. This avoids search engines such as Google from misunderstanding the structure of your website.
This is particularly important on complex websites, such as those of eCommerce brands or news publishers. However, a well-structured sitemap will help search engines understand the structure of simpler websites too.
More Advanced Reporting
Google Search Console provides a wealth of insights into how your website appears in Search. Whilst much of this data is available without a sitemap, there are a few additional reports that rely on a sitemap being submitted.
This includes the Coverage Report, which reveals any submitted pages which lead to a 404, have crawl issues, or have been blocked by robots.txt. You can also see at a glance when Google last read your entire website, rather than having to check the crawl dates for individual webpages.
Do You Still Need a Sitemap?
Whilst a sitemap will not hinder your ability to rank in search engines, it will ensure that Google and Bing can easily find and index new content. It will also clarify the structure of your website and unlock additional reports from within Google Search Console.
I therefore recommend that you maintain your sitemap. This is made easy by various extensions and once you’ve submitted your sitemap URL to Google Search Console you needn’t worry about it. Simply review the coverage report regularly to check for 404 pages or crawling issues.
If there is another reason for not having a sitemap, don’t worry. Search engines will still discover new content and, in most circumstances, will be able to understand the structure of your website. Just remember to take particular care of your internal link structure, which Moz provides brilliant advice on.