The digital wilderness that is the Internet is daunting to the best of us. There’s a whole world of SEO, algorithms and viral cat videos to decipher, all with just 24 hours in a day.
As a business owner, trying to grasp the intricacies of how it all works can be likened to attempting to fold a fitted sheet. It’s a task that can be both frustrating and bewildering. More often than not, you find yourself yearning to curl up into a ball – much like that bedsheet you had such high hopes for – so you can stash yourself in the back of the linen closet while pleading for mercy.
First and foremost, take a deep breath. No one’s gonna see that bedsheet, so it’s fine.
But alas, navigating the intricacies of the Internet is a fundamental part of running a business in today’s world. You don’t need to be an expert (you can’t be good at everything!), but having at least a knowledge of how things work, where they belong and why it all matters is essential.
Part of this journey involves understanding the basics of sitemaps. Things like what they are, what they do, why your website needs one, and more.
In this blog, you’ll discover how to generate sitemaps that search engines adore and how to create user-friendly HTML sitemaps that make your website a breeze to navigate. We’ll also explore the best practices, tips and real-world examples. Our goal is to equip you with the knowledge and tools you need to take control of your website’s destiny.
What is a Website Sitemap?
We thought we’d start with the basics. ‘Cause not everyone knows what a sitemap is. And that’s A-okay! That’s what we’re here for!
“A sitemap is a file that shows the structure of a website, including its pages and content and the relationships between them,” explains Semrush. See? We told you it wasn’t as complicated as it sounded!
Why is a Website Sitemap Important?
We’re going to get you to use your imagination for a minute.
Imagine your website as a big library with lots and lots of books. Each book in this library represents a web page on your site. Now, think about trying to find a specific book – let’s say the latest psychological thriller that everyone on TikTok is talking about – in this library without a catalog or a map.
It would be pretty tough, right? Chances are slim you’d actually find the book and you’d just end up admitting defeat after a bit and head to the bookstore down the street, instead.
Well, a website sitemap is like that catalog or map for your website. It’s a list of all the pages on your site, all nicely organized.
Now, put yourself in your customers’ shoes.
Just as a library catalog helps you find books, a sitemap helps the folks visiting your website find what they’re looking for, quickly and easily. But there’s more. And it also helps search engines like Google, which send out “crawlers,” which aren’t as creepy as they sound.
These crawlers rely on sitemaps to comprehend your website’s structure and index its pages, which is one aspect of SEO, or Search Engine Optimization. SEO encompasses various strategies to enhance a website’s visibility and ranking in search engine results.
Now, imagine Google as a very organized, stern librarian. You know the type, the one with the glasses perched on the edge of her nose who looks at you sharply when you talk loudly. She wants to keep track of all the books in her library, which is like the Internet. To do this, she sends out tiny, virtual “spiders” to explore every book (or webpage) in the library.
Now, these spiders are like little detectives, and they need to create a list of all the books in the library so the librarian can find them easily. But the library is so vast that they could get lost or miss some books.
Look at a sitemap as the same thing. If you don’t have ‘em, the search engine might miss some of your important content.
Here’s why: a sitemap is like a big, clear map that shows the spiders exactly where each book (webpage) is located in the library (your website). It helps the spiders organize all the books and make sure they don’t miss any.
Without this map, the spiders might not find some of your books (webpages), and those books won’t be in the library’s catalog (Google’s search results).
And you’ll have one ticked off librarian.
Essentially, it all comes down to providing a good user experience for your website’s visitors. When visitors can find what they need quickly, they’re more likely to have a positive experience on your website. On the other hand, if they get frustrated because they can’t locate information, they might leave and never return. And let’s be real: that’s not a good thing for your business.
Let’s let the numbers speak for themselves: Following a poor user experience, up to 89 per cent of people have switched to a competitor’s website. And, on average, it’ll take users less than 15 seconds to decide whether or not they want to stay on your website, and if they decide to leave, they’re more than likely to switch to a competitor.
Now that you understand why sitemaps are important, let’s explore the different types of sitemaps and what each of them are all about.
The Different Types of Sitemaps, Explained
Sitemaps come in two types: HTML and XML. But don’t let all those letters scare you off! Just take a deep breath and keep reading.
HTML: Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) sitemaps are for the human visitors to your site. They act as friendly tour guides so visitors can explore your site easily and efficiently.
XML: Extensible Markup Language (XML) sitemaps are for search engines, serving as a navigation tool for web crawlers. It’s like a backstage pass, allowing search engine bots to access exclusive areas of your website that might not be immediately visible to human visitors. This behind-the-scenes map helps these digital agents move swiftly through your website’s complex infrastructure.
Good to know: From the two types of sitemaps above, there are subsections within them. We’re not going to explore those today, but it’s good to be aware they exist.
Now here’s the thing. You need them both. No picking favourites!
Think of HTML and XML sitemaps as the essential duo that propels your digital journey forward, much like the steering wheel and engine in a sporty red Audi. No matter how sleek it looks, parked ever so nicely in your driveway, it’s not going to go too far without both, right?
Think of your online presence in the same way. Just like a car needs both a reliable steering wheel and a powerful engine, your website relies on HTML and XML sitemaps to drive its performance and make a meaningful impact in the digital realm.
The steering wheel (HTML sitemap) ensures your human visitors can navigate with ease, while the engine (XML sitemap) drives your website’s visibility and performance on the vast highway of the Internet. It’s not a matter of choosing one over the other.
It’s about embracing both to fuel your online success.
Let’s take an in-depth look at each.
The XML Sitemap
The XML sitemap serves as a secret map designed exclusively for search engines, and it plays an important role in how your website performs in the digital landscape. Imagine it as the crucial tool that guides search engines through the intricate maze of your website.
Just as a map helps you navigate an unfamiliar city, an XML sitemap assists search engines in navigating your website’s vast terrain.
This digital cartography is particularly important because it has a direct impact on your website’s visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs). When someone searches for information or products online, search engines like Google deploy complex algorithms to identify the most relevant and authoritative websites to display at the top of the results. In other words, they want to make sure the user sees the most relevant stuff first.
Think of the XML sitemap as your website’s way of emphatically announcing its presence to search engines. It’s like standing on a busy street corner and shouting, “Hey, look at me!” The sitemap makes sure your digital content doesn’t remain hidden to those searching for your product or service.
In more technical terms, an XML sitemap provides search engines with a structured, organized blueprint of your website’s pages, their relationships, and their priority. By doing so, it hands over the perfect set of keys that unlocks the full potential of your website’s content. This comprehensive map ensures that search engine crawlers can easily and systematically explore every nook and cranny of your site.
The HTML Sitemap
The HTML sitemap is a little bit like a digital brochure for your website, designed to guide your human visitors, showcasing all the user-friendly features and enticing destinations your site has to offer. It tells them where to find your ‘About Us’ page, explore your ‘Services,’ and even discover your latest ‘Blog’ posts.
An HTML sitemap is also where they turn if they haven’t found what they are looking for in your dropdown menus or on-site search, explains Search Engine Journal.
Imagine you own a business that specializes in pool maintenance. Now that fall is in full swing (ugh, cue the impending winter chill), people are closing up their pools for the winter. You know that ensuring a smooth, hassle-free experience for your clients is key. This is where a sitemap comes into play.
A sitemap, in the context of your pool maintenance business, is like a comprehensive checklist. It’s a simple, organized plan of all the components in and around a pool that need attention when you’re closing it up for the season.
In its simplest form, a sitemap provides clear navigation to those using your website. Think of it this way: just as you’d need a clear plan to shut down a pool, a sitemap provides a clear map of all the different areas on your website. This makes it easier for visitors (your potential clients) to navigate your site, finding the information they need with minimal confusion.
When done correctly, a sitemap ensures no details are missed. When closing a pool, you wouldn’t want to forget crucial steps, like covering it properly, disconnecting equipment, or winterizing chemicals. Similarly, a website sitemap ensures that all the important pages and sections of your site are neatly organized and accounted for. This minimizes the risk of missing essential details, such as a ‘Contact Us’ page, services offered, or client testimonials.
So why does your pool maintenance business need it?
Just as a comprehensive checklist makes your pool closing service efficient and reliable, a website sitemap ensures that your online presence is user-friendly and accessible. It’s all about making sure potential clients can find you and all the information they need.
For example: If a homeowner is looking for a pool closing service and lands on your website, a well-structured sitemap ensures they can easily find your ‘Services’ page, where they learn about your pool closing packages. They can then navigate to your ‘Pricing’ page to compare rates and finally reach out through your ‘Contact Us’ page to book your service.
Without a sitemap, they might feel lost, like searching for a specific piece of pool equipment in a cluttered shed, and might just turn to a competitor whose website offers a clearer path.
It may help to picture your website as a bustling grocery store, brimming with aisles of products (web pages). Now, if your customers are anything like me, they despise trying to find what they’re looking for and just want to get home so they can binge-watch Love is Blind in stretchy pants.
In simpler terms, your website visitors want what they’re looking for pronto. They don’t have time for a wild online goose chase. This is where the sitemap comes into play, serving as your customers’ digital guide, pointing them directly to the must-have items – like chocolate.
If they can’t find what they’re looking for, they’re going to exit your website without a second thought and head right on over to your competitor’s site. And then they’re gonna get all the business you’re after.
The good news? Sitemaps aren’t tricky to create. And with that minimal effort, you can see major benefits.
Creating an Effective Sitemap
If you’re sitting there wondering, “Okay, okay, I get it. I need a sitemap. Now I need to know how to create a good sitemap for my website.”
The good news is this: creating a sitemap is not all that hard! There are lots of handy guides you can find online that provide you with step-by-step instructions, so make sure you check out a few before getting started.
Here are a few sitemap building guides:
Quicksprout’s 5 Easy Steps to Creating a Sitemap for a Website
WebsiteBuilderExpert’s How to Create a Sitemap from Scratch in 2023
Before you dive headfirst into checking items off the lists, however, here are a few key things you need to know:
When you’re crafting your sitemap, think about your website visitors. You want to make sure it’s super easy for them to find what they’re looking for. Organize it logically, with the most important stuff upfront, making it like placing the most popular snacks at the front of a store for quick access. Cover all the important pages, including images and videos, so that everyone can easily find what they need.
And don’t forget to keep your sitemap up to date when you add or change things on your site. If you don’t do this, your sitemap could become outdated and lead users in the wrong direction.
Top Tip: Take advantage of sitemap generator tools. There are free and paid versions to choose from, and they automatically create sitemaps for your site, saving you time and effort. To top it off, most content management systems will create a sitemap for you automatically. Score!
How to Find a Sitemap of a Website
Let’s say you’re on a mission to track down your website’s XML sitemap. We promise, it’s not rocket science. In fact, it’s an effortless process.
Simply enter your website’s URL in your browser, and then experiment with several variations. Let me illustrate this for you:
This is the most commonly used location, though not the sole one. If your initial attempt doesn’t yield the desired results, consider this alternative check: /sitemap_index.xml (which is the index of all the sitemaps in case a website has more than one).
If you’re still striking out, don’t despair! There are other ways you can find your sitemap. Just keep trying until you find what you’re looking for.
Here are a few more you can try:
If you happen to have Google Search Console (a free web service provided by Google that allows you to monitor and manage the presence of your website in Google’s search results), it can also be easier to find what you’re looking for without too much of a headache.
How to Add an XML Sitemap to a Website
So now you know what an XML sitemap is. You know what it does. And you know why it’s important.
As we just touched on above, creating a sitemap using a Content Management System (CMS) platform is a pretty straightforward process, because many CMS platforms, such as WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal, offer built-in sitemap generation features or plugins.
To create a sitemap, you typically need to install a sitemap plugin or use the CMS’s default functionality.
Once installed, the plugin or feature will automatically generate and update your sitemap as you add or modify content.
Even if you’re not exactly a digital guru, don’t stress. These tools are as user-friendly as a well-worn pair of shoes. They take the hassle out of the process, making sure your website stays well-organized.
Best of all, you won’t need a manual or a degree in rocket science to manage your sitemap. It’s the go-to option for business owners, tech-savvy or not!
Using a Sitemap Template
If you’re thinking of going the DIY route, kudos to you! A sitemap template can help you get started. Think of them as a pre-made puzzle where you fit in the pieces. They simplify the process, making it as easy as filling in the blanks.
Canva’s sitemap tool is an excellent choice, especially if you’re new to sitemap design. It enables you to create visual sitemaps that mirror your website’s structure and user flow. You can search through Canva’s library for visual elements and templates to outline your web pages and link page URLs for quick navigation. Plus, it offers features to enhance user interaction and overall experience for each page. It’s a user-friendly solution for those taking their first steps into website sitemap creation.
Examples of Website Sitemaps
Seeing is believing, right? To help you grasp the concept of website sitemaps even better, let’s dive into a few examples. These will give you a visual understanding of what sitemaps can look like and how they serve different purposes.
HTML Sitemap Examples
As we know now, HTML sitemaps are more user-friendly than their XML counterparts. If it helps, think of them this way: they’re designed for people, not computers.
Picture a page on your website that lists all your website’s main links, organized in a user-friendly format. It’s like the directory at the front of a shopping mall. It helps visitors quickly find what they’re looking for, much like me searching for the Sephora store in the mall, so I can drop $238 on a grand total of two things.
Home Depot’s sitemap
XML Sitemap Examples
Designed for search engines like Google, XML sitemaps provide precise directions to all the corners of your website.
Here is 1dea’s XML sitemap:
And here is another example, from Yoast:
So, in summary, HTML sitemaps are like user-friendly mall directories, while XML sitemaps serve as precise instructions for search engines. They each have their unique purposes in helping both people and computers navigate your website effectively.
A Bright Future for Your Website and Business
In the sprawling digital landscape of the Internet, mastering its intricate ways can sometimes feel like an unending puzzle. Whether you’re a business owner or just someone curious about the web’s inner workings, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. But, like folding a fitted sheet, understanding the basics doesn’t have to be a hair-pulling ordeal.
Take what you’ve learned, and your website will get on the path to becoming well-structured, user-friendly and search engine-optimized. It’s time to blow your competitors out of the water, drive your online presence forward and make a meaningful impact in the digital realm.