Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
I would like to turn your attention to the Doodle Track Car, an award-winning toy that allows kids to draw a line (or print out their own racetrack) for a little racecar to obediently follow. Without the line, the car is lost. With the line, the toy will go anywhere you draw it to go.
Search engine spiders have a similar makeup to the Doodle Track Car. Without direction, spiders don’t know what to index or where to start. Page titles and meta tags can provide some guidelines, but if you want to send the spiders to exact pages, then an XML (Extensible Markup Language) sitemap is the strongest path to your website content.
Creating XML sitemaps for your site can be a bit tricky, and like the site itself, they need to be updated as the content and pages on your site change. Only three of our evaluation participants currently use the sitemaps, and the aggregate score for the XML sitemaps is 1.9 (an “F” grade), so let’s delve a little deeper into how this bit of code can improve your Search Engine Optimization (SEO).
Again, we were able to find the sitemap (searching for URL/sitemap.xml) giving a “5” ranking or not find it giving it a “1.” One site had a sitemap, but there was an error in the file that didn’t allow it to display (The Secret Mountain), for which we gave it a 2/D grade. One other site was complete, but hadn’t been updated in about a year (Oldcastle Books), which we gave a 3/C ranking. Of the rest, only two had full and complete sitemaps (Dragon Moon Press and Xist Publishing).
Mapping Your Way to SEO
Some websites have a link (usually in the navigation at the bottom of the page) called “sitemap” that provides a user with a page of links organized by category and subcategory (this is an old-style attribute of a website that most modern websites no longer display). XML sitemaps are a bit different. Basically, an XML sitemap tells the search engine spiders the URLs from your site that should be indexed—very much like a Doodle Car racing along a line that you’ve drawn.
Now just like a Doodle Car running out of batteries, you might run out of juice, too, if you set up an XML sitemap manually. Fortunately, there are numerous free/paid software applications that will set up your sitemap for you. Be sure to do your research on the benefits and limits of these applications. Once complete, you submit your sitemap to the major search engines (Google, Bing, etc.) and spiders will now be able to follow your map to the URLs that makeup your site.
XML sitemaps are especially beneficial to websites with the following criteria:
• Lots of Pages – If your website has a lot of URLs, sitemaps could help make sure that all your pages get indexed. The maximum number of URLs for one XML sitemap is 500,000, but small businesses (such as independent book publishers) should be well below that.
• Lack of External Links – If your site is relatively new and/or does not have many external links to other websites, it may not rank well on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). An XML sitemap makes your site’s pages/URLs more discoverable by the search engines.
• Frequent Content Updates – If your website content is updated frequently (new books, authors, reviews or social media updates), XML sitemaps can be a great tool. If you register your XML sitemap with a search engine, it will be notified each time you make an update to your pages, and those URLs will be indexed accordingly. Remember, Google loves fresh and frequently updated content.
A Clean Sitemap Is a Happy Sitemap
When you submit your XML sitemap to Google’s Webmaster Tools/Search Console or another search engine, you are well on your way to better search engine spider recognition. Another feature of these sites is that they will let you know all the errors you have in your URLs:
• Blocked URLs – If you are using robots.txt to hide some URLs that you are not interested in having indexed, that is okay. Still, you should review the robots.txt errors to be sure that you have not added duplicate or non-canonical pages or accidentally removed important pages from possible indexing.
• Big Errors – You want search engines to trust your site and the XML sitemap. 404s and other errors lead to what is known as “dirty sitemaps,” which can change how search engines feel about crawling your site URLs. Find and correct any errors that lead to broken pages or multiple page redirects.
• Big Changes – If you have made any updates to your URL addresses (such as switching from HTTP to HTTPS), these will need to be reflected in the XML sitemap. Without these updates, search engines will be indexing and presenting incorrect information in your SERPs.
XML Sitemaps, Search Engines and You
I cannot stress the importance of an XML sitemap, whether you have 500 distinct URLs or 500,000. The object of each of these posts has been to bring you closer and closer to better search engine rankings by optimizing each of the SEO Factors presented—from page titles [link to Page Titles] to XML sitemaps. The more effort you put into cultivating your site’s attraction to search engines, the better your potential for improving how quickly and frequently your customers can find you. XML sitemaps are just one of the factors in boosting your ranking in the SERPs.
In our next post, we reach our final SEO Factor for review: HTTPS, and the importance of security for search engine algorithms. Please stay with us for this last step on our SEO journey.
Does your site have an updated XML sitemap? If so, let me know in the comments below.
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