A Good (Site) Map Makes for Good (Site) Travel

For Lawyers, Doctors, and Dentists

It’s been said at least once that there are two kinds of people: those who ask for directions, and those who don’t. Although they might not be upfront about it, search engines will always ask for directions. And, just like people, they’re still likely to go their own way regardless.

So, in order to prevent anybody from getting lost, a good map is necessary. When it comes to your website, a working sitemap is critically essential.

children looking at treasure map

Map It & They Can Find It

An XML sitemap (Extensible Markup Language) is exactly what it says it is: a map of your site. Or, more literally, it is a list of the pages that make up your site. It is intended to be as simple as possible, and to maximize usability across a multitude of different sites, documents, and languages.

What’s also great about the sitemap being in XML is that it provides a set of rules in two formats: human-readable and machine-readable. Both of which are crucial to not only the general organization of your site, but also to the indexation of your site by major search engines.

For SEO, it cannot be stressed enough the importance of having your site indexed as quickly and as easily as possible. So let’s build one for you and put it to work!

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The How To:

sample wireframe sitemap for a websiteFirst, take a good look at the basic structure of your site and its pages. If necessary, create, or refer to, a wireframe of the site. Familiarity is important. Being able to visualize how one might navigate through your pages can be very beneficial to some, in addition to just being really handy to see all the possible paths a user or search engines’ bot could take while perusing your site.

Map Your Site

Beginning, naturally, at the homepage, you’ll want to figure out how you’d like users to move through your site in order to maximize their experience and lead them to where you want them to go, what you want them to see, and with which features you’d like them to interact. Therefore, you’ll need to create a site structure that is simple and intuitive. The more that people will have to dig and search, the better the chances are that they’ll leave before finding what they wanted.

Create levels of importance and map them out accordingly. If someone can get to the information they want from your site quicker and with fewer clicks, the better.

Code Your URLs

Next you’ll want to make sure that the URLs for the hierarchical page structure you’ve created are coded properly. Before you panic at the mention of ‘coding,’ entry-level knowledge of HTML is plenty and more than sufficient to get you started. In fact, most content management systems (CMS) will have a relatively friendly interface that will allow you to modify your URLs in bulk.

However, if you’re willing, it’s never too late to learn, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with diving in and getting your hands dirty!

Each page/URL should have the following basics applied:

  • Location
  • Last Modification
  • Change Frequency
  • Page Priority
URL coding for sitemap

Keep an eye out for any typos or mistakes. Whether you’re applying your code manually via text editor or using a built-in feature of the CMS, always make sure to double check your work. There are several free, reliable tools available that you can use to check the validation of your newly created XML sitemap and to resolve any errors that you encounter.

At this point, you should be ready to add your sitemap to your site’s root folder, and also to the robots.txt file. It should be noted that this will actually add/create a page specifically for the sitemap itself. This is exactly what you want. If everything has been done correctly, your human-readable sitemap will display the page structure and demarcations that you set up prior in the wireframe. You’ll be able to take a look at this page by adding, “/sitemap” to your site’s URL. If you’d like to see the machine-readable code version, add “/sitemap.xml” to the URL.

While it is not absolutely necessary, adding the sitemap to your robots.txt file is considered by many to be a step of best practice. Simply put, it is another opportunity for search engine bots to find your sitemap, crawl it, and eventually index the pages of your website.

sample sitemap URL alias

Search Engine Submission

Now that all of your on-site work is done, it’s time to throw the doors open by submitting your sitemap and letting the search engines come clamoring in! (They won’t actually be breaking any land-speed records to crawl your site. But the cleaner your work is, the sooner those bots will come looking to explore your fresh, new content.) Google and Bing are the two major search engines to which you’ll want to submit your site. Each of these, especially Google, will need additional setup regardless in Google Search Console (GSC) in order for you to start acquiring data. For the purposes of this article, however, we’ll only cover the steps involving sitemap submission.

Starting from the GSC dashboard, first make sure that you are looking at the intended property. Best practice suggests having both HTTP and HTTPS of both “www.” and “non-www.” versions of each of your domains – equaling four in total. Click ‘Sitemaps’ and then enter the sitemap URL. If all goes well, you’ll see something like this:

Submitted sitemaps section in Google Search Console

Repeat this step for the other three properties you’ve set up. Some may argue that submitting sitemap URLs to the HTTP versions is either redundant, a waste of time, or both. However, the fact remains that those property versions are means for gathering potentially important data. And even bad or unnecessary data can have its uses.

Submitting to Bing Webmaster Tools (BingWMT) is a slightly more straightforward process. When adding a site, you’ll also be prompted immediately to submit the sitemap along with the domain itself. Bing crawls differently than Google, and will take into account HTTP versus HTTPS for you. This is to your advantage, of course. In that, if Bing can find and report it, then Google can definitely find it as well.

Bing Webmaster - Add a site

Other Search Engine Submissions…

Just like your options for the different tools that you could use to build your sitemap, there are also many different search engines where you can submit your site. Most of them will have similar submission processes, but they should all be fairly simple and similar to what you’ve had to do with Google and Bing.

The End of the Road

Once you have your sitemap built and submitted, go ahead and have GSC inspect the URL and then request that it, and its links, be indexed. This is a great ‘last step’ that you should get into the habit of doing every time you’re about to log out. Google will crawl your site only when it’s good and ready, of course. Nonetheless, it never hurts to remind them. And, even when the bots go off on their own way, if your sitemap is clean, correct, and up-to-date, you’ll at least have a pretty good idea of where they’ll end up.

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