If a friend asked for directions to your house and you only gave the city where you live, would they make it? Probably not. Likewise, if you were to build a house without blueprints, you likely wouldn’t get very far.
Designing a website is no different. Unless you want a site that confuses your users and sends them fleeing in panic, you first need a plan. Just as our friend needs directions to your house, users need to be able to navigate your site with ease in order to find what they’re looking for. Likewise, in order for Google to direct a search to your particular services, they need to know the contents of your site.
You can help guide your users through your site with the help of a sitemap, a valuable tool that should be an important part of your SEO strategy and your guide toward a better user experience.
What is a Sitemap?
As its name implies, a sitemap serves as a map of your site, displaying a list of all the pages that exist on a website and their relative level of importance. Sitemaps are provided to search engines in order to index the site’s contents and determine the hierarchy of pages.
Google uses web crawlers to scan websites in order to help inform search results for particular topics. While a sitemap won’t directly boost your search engine ranking, it will make it more likely your site shows up when those topics are searched for. The more information you provide about your site, the better Google can tailor their results to your services.
Sitemaps can be created using two formats. While both formats can be implemented, XML has become increasingly popular due to its ease of customization and the format’s adoption by Google 2005. HTML sitemaps are intended to help humans find their way around your site and are expressed visually. In contrast, XML sitemaps express web pages as simple web links in order to help web crawlers analyze and index the site for size and content.
How Else Are Sitemaps Important?
A sitemap also helps site owners develop a clear vision for how the site will be organized.
While a sitemap isn’t required for a website to operate, it’s an easy step to ensure your site serves its users effectively.
Just a few added benefits of a sitemap include:
- Establishing your site’s purpose
- Organizing content
- Reducing redundant content
Organizing Your Site’s Purpose
Why does your business or organization need a website? It may sound like a simple question, but many businesses don’t think about what they actually want to accomplish with their site. If your answer is something like, “because every other business has a website,” then it’s time to dig a bit deeper.
Are you trying to increase sales? Gain leads? Become an influencer in your field? The answer to the why should be your guiding star toward how you design your site and how you priority the various pages.
A well thought out sitemap allows you to have some control over user interaction with your site. Your site’s purpose should inform which pages and elements you want emphasized, as well as the path you wish users to follow, especially with sites that seek to lead visitors through a sales funnel.
During this stage in development, try and think like your users. Determine the easiest path to get them to where you want them to go. Think of your site as a story and the sitemap the story’s outline, with your goal to get the user to the end of the story.
As websites grow larger and more complex, clutter naturally develops like an untended garden. And just like that garden, a site can gradually become overgrown and unseemly if you never take the time to clean it up. This can result in users losing confidence in your site and finding another site to fill their needs.
The sitemap creation process gives site owners the chance to audit the site in order to analyze every page for redundant, outdated, or missing information. Maybe you still have a page for that initiative you never got off the ground, or an old address listing, or the dreaded 404 page party foul.
Regardless, the site mapping process forces site owners to finally clean the cobwebs from the site’s attic and make sure all information is accurate, up-to-date, and relevant. Not only will this provide clarity for your site and business, it will also increase trust among your users, who want to see that you pay attention to detail.
How to Create a Sitemap
There are a number of tools available on the web that can help site owners easily create an exportable XML or HTML sitemap. These tools offer a varying range of additional features, such as Google Analytics integration, that can be unlocked with the paid versions.
Most of the tools offer a free option (usually offering up to 500 pages before you have to pay). Some of the best sitemap tools we’ve found include.
- XML-Sitemaps – Allows up to 500 pages free, with no registration required. As its name implies, this tool works with only XML sitemaps.
- Screaming Frog – Offers up to 500 pages free, and finds broken links, errors, and redirects, all with the free version.
- Whimsical – Allows you to create up to 4 free sitemap boards, which can be uploaded as XML files. Unlimited sitemap boards are available for $10/month.
- Yoast SEO – Offers an excellent free solution if your site runs on WordPress.
Be sure to feature your site structure in an easy-to-find spot, such as the footer or a site navigation page. The easier a user can find the site structure, the better the experience, and the easier Google can crawl your site.
Feed the Web Crawler and Boost Your SEO
When you submit your sitemap to a search engine such as Google, you enable it to crawl and index the pages on your site, making it more likely that they show up in a search. This helps you guide the search engine bots to the most important pages of your site. It also better ensures that newly updated pages get indexed in search engines, which is especially helpful for complex sites that are frequently updated, such as ecommerce sites.
Fortunately, it’s easy to post your sitemap to a search engine. For example, to submit your XML sitemap to Google, simply follow these steps:
- Verify your site ownership with Google
- Sign in to Google Search Console
- Select the website you wish to submit
- Click the Sitemap button
- Click Add/Test Sitemap
- Type “sitemap.xml” and click Submit Sitemap
Mapping Your Future
Creating a site map is a valuable way to boost your search engine results, improve user experience, and lend additional trust to your website. By allowing search engines to crawl your site, you can ensure that you’re indexed correctly in search engines. This translates to increased trust among web browsers, who are more likely to see your site during a search. They’ll also likely enjoy a smoother experience, since you’ve designed your site strategically to fit their navigation needs.
Sitemaps also provide a critical level of organization so you can focus on how you want your users to interact with the site and get ahead of any potential navigation problems. With a smoother user experience and increased trust, your visitors will be more likely to use your services. You just need to lead them to water.