Sitemaps Series: Learning the Basics of Google Sitemaps

By Janet Driscoll Miller | Mar 12, 2010
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Image representing Google as depicted in Crunc...Image via CrunchBase

Every website needs one, but do you know much about how to create one and use it to your SEO advantage? Over the next several posts, I’ll be going more in depth about Google Sitemaps, why they’re important, and step-by-step on how to create and manage them.

What Are Google Sitemaps?

Google Sitemaps are XML-based sitemap files. These are different that the sitemaps you may use on your website, but essentially a similar concept. A Google Sitemap provides Google and other search engines with a guide to the pages on a website, how often they are updated, and the page’s priority on the site.

In Google’s words:

Sitemaps are a way to tell Google about pages on your site we might not otherwise discover. In its simplest terms, a XML Sitemap—usually called Sitemap, with a capital S—is a list of the pages on your website. Creating and submitting a Sitemap helps make sure that Google knows about all the pages on your site, including URLs that may not be discoverable by Google’s normal crawling process.

Why Are Google Sitemaps Important?

So why should you create a Google sitemap? First, creating and registering a Google Sitemap is considered a best practice for SEO. Essentially, a sitemap provides just another means for the search engine robots, including Googlebot, to find and index your website content.

Do I Have to Use a Google Sitemap to Achieve Rankings in Google?

No. Google Sitemaps, however, do help ensure that the search engine robots have another avenue to find your content and index it. Also, Google Sitemaps give webmasters the ability to tell the search engine bots how important particular content is and how often it is updated.

But your website can be ranked in the search engines, even without a Google Sitemap.

Types of Google Sitemaps

There are several types of Google Sitemaps you may need to use on your site, depending on the type and amount of content. The four types of Google Sitemaps that are likely important to you are:

General Sitemap File

The general Sitemap file is an XML file containing listings of individual website pages and information about each of these pages. There is a limit of 50,000 entries or 10MB for general Sitemap files.

Sitemap Index File

A Sitemap Index file is a special type of XML sitemap file that serves as a type of “table of contents” (or index) for the various sitemaps you may be using on your website. Typically, you would incorporate a Sitemap Index file on your website if you have a lot of content and need to create multiple general Sitemap files. Like the General Sitemap file, Sitemap Index files are limited to 50,000 entries or 10MB.

Video Sitemap File

A Video Sitemap file identifies videos on your website to aid Google to index the videos for Google Video results.

News Sitemap File

A News Sitemap file identifies news stories for Google News. This Sitemap type is less applicable unless your website produces news and articles.

Case Study: Major Content Site

So how do I KNOW that Google Sitemaps help SEO? Not long ago, a very large content site came to me with a problem. They had some legacy content that was apparently no longer being indexed but was still being found in Google’s web search results. The company had recently made a change to the meta description on this page, but the page’s description in its Google search result listing did not update. Why not?

Well, as it turns out, there were no inbound links pointing to this page on the website — except from the Google Sitemap! But, after a while, because the company was dynamically updating the Sitemap with new content at the top and pushing old content further down the Sitemap page, eventually the page in question was past the 50,000 entry limit on the Sitemap. So while at one time the Sitemap was the only link for Google to reach this page of content, eventually, even the Sitemap entry was beyond the indexing limit, preventing the site from ever being visited by the search bots.

Coming Up In My Next Post: How to create a general Google Sitemap. This will be important for all websites, regardless of content type. We’ll also feature some handy tools for creating your Google Sitemaps.

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