Last Updated: 17th October 2019
A crucial weapon in the webmaster’s arsenal, XML sitemaps are very helpful for getting your content indexed in Google. Find out more about them in our article below!
What Are XML Sitemaps?
XML sitemaps are machine-readable lists of the pages on a website. These help search engines to discover the pages of a given website.
Why should I have one?
A list of the pages on your domain in XML format will signal to Google that these pages exist, and makes it more likely that they will be crawled (looked at) and subsequently indexed by search engines. Without a sitemap, particularly for large sites, it is possible that search engines may not find all of the pages on a website – and no matter how good they are, if search engines don’t know about certain pages, then they can’t bring in any sales or leads through them!
Creating an XML Sitemap
Creating an XML sitemap is fairly simple in theory. All you need is a list of URLs (usually either from a crawling tool, or an export of pages from the website’s content management system). However, there are a number of settings that may need to be set in generating the sitemap:
Settings And Fields for XML Sitemaps
When generating a sitemap, most tools will give the user the option of changing one or all of the following (for HTML pages, image and video sitemaps may need to be set up differently)
- Change frequency
- Last modified date
- Hreflang annotations (optional)
This field indicates how often the document changes (daily, weekly, monthly, etc). However, setting this accurately across a domain’s worth of individual pages is generally going to be difficult. There are also question marks hanging over how much this field is used by search engines – generally speaking, this field can be left alone.
The <Lastmod> field in an XML sitemap indicated when the document was last modified, and takes the form of a date stamp. It is usually advisable to set this to when the server last saved the page, as search engines may use it as a freshness indicator and it helps them see which parts of the site have changed and when. Google’s John Mueller has said that Google may check the timestamp against their internal data, which arguably makes more sense than using the change frequency field.
The ‘Priority’ field can usually be ignored. Google have publicly stated that it is a ‘bag of noise’ (presumably with webmasters trying to artificially get certain pages crawled more quickly in the past) and as such does not carry a great deal of value.
For international sites, Hreflang tags can be used to annotate different-language or different-region URLs. This is very important when different countries are served (so that users in various regions and using different languages are served the correct content) that these can be applied in XML sitemaps, which is considerably easier than adding them on the pages themselves and minimises the risk of errors. Also, segmented sitemaps can make error diagnosis of such problems a lot easier.
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XML Sitemap Generation methods
For those on a budget or working with smaller sites, there are plenty of free, online XML sitemap generators (usually limited to a certain number of URLs) available that can generate sitemaps. Generally, these generators will crawl the site and then build an XML file from what they find. However, customisability may be limited and for larger-scale domains using free tools may not be an option.
Most crawling tools, such as Screaming Frog and Deepcrawl, will allow the user to generate an XML sitemap either from a full crawl of the site or from an uploaded list. For working at scale this can work well, as most SEO crawlers will allow the editing of XML files to suit the user’s needs.
Certain SAAS (Software as a service) providers, such as Slickplan, also provide dedicated services for building XML sitemaps. Many use a simple and intuitive drag-and-drop interface that can make the process a lot less technically challenging!