To a newcomer, the Washington DC Metro light-rail system may seem intimidating. Fortunately, the system map for the Metro is very easy to follow. Rail lines are color-coded and the directions of the trains are named not by a compass point but by the last station on each colored line. Every car on the Metro system has the map on the wall near each entrance, so even if you don’t have your pocket guide, you can easily figure out how to get where you’re going.
When search engines come to visit your website, you can help them navigate your site by giving them their own special map, called a sitemap.
What Is a Sitemap?
A sitemap is a specially formatted file that gives search engines information about every page of your website. It’s written in a format called XML, short for eXtensible Markup Language. For each page of your website, you can tell the search engine how frequently the page changes, how important the page is compared to other pages on the site, and when the file was last modified. The search engine uses this information to figure out which pages should be reviewed for changes and re-indexed. You may wonder why a sitemap is so important to have.
Why do I Need a Sitemap?
A sitemap gives you a chance to have some input into how the search engine spiders crawl your site. Without a sitemap the spider may just make a shallow pass through your website and may not get to lower-level pages. Because a sitemap also includes change frequency, you are more likely to have the search engine index stay current with your content revisions. Without the frequency information, the search engines may not come back to your site often enough to catch new content.
My Site is Already Indexed. Why Do I Need a Sitemap?
Just because your site comes up in a search engine search doesn’t mean all the pages of your site have been indexed. It could be that some of your pages have been indexed because of a link on a referring website. But it’s also very possible that some of your pages don’t exist in the search engine’s database, which means these pages effectively don’t exist for search engine users. An accurate and up-to-date sitemap gives you the best chance of having all the right pages indexed by the search engine.
OK, so these sitemaps seem pretty important, but how do you go about creating one?
How To Create a Sitemap
There are many free websites out there that will generate a sitemap for free. Go to your favorite search engine and look for “free sitemap generator.” Go to the site and follow the instructions. One such site is xml-sitemaps.com. This site will catalog up to 500 pages of your website for free.
Once you’ve gotten the initial sitemap generated, go in and verify that all your pages were found. If any pages are missing you can manually add them to the file. Be sure to also update the frequencies and priority information as necessary. When all this is done, upload the file to your web server and name it sitemap.xml. Now it’s time to submit your map to the search engines.
How Do I Submit a Sitemap?
To submit a sitemap you will first need to create a webmaster account. The three major search engines — Google, Yahoo and Bing — all offer free webmaster accounts. All you need to do is sign up and register your website. You can then submit your sitemap from your webmaster control panel.
Congratulations! You’ve now given the search spiders a guidebook for indexing your site.