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Why You Need an XML Sitemap

A sitemap is more than just a tool to get you where you want to go on a website: it’s one of the many factors that insanely smart search engine robots use when determining a site’s ranking in search results. There are two kinds of sitemaps— one optional, and one essential. One kind of sitemaps helps users get around on the site, but the other kind, the “behind the scenes” sitemap is about more than simple navigation. If your website doesn’t have this second kind of sitemap, it could get left behind in Google’s rankings.

Sitemap.html — For Users

The first kind of sitemap discussed above— the simple, visible one that the average Internet user is familiar with— is a table of contents that lists the various topics and pages on a website. This kind of sitemap is designed so that visitors to the site can find everything in one place, and is sometimes called sitemap.html. The sitemap can usually be accessed at the bottom of the homepage near links to contact, company info, and job posting pages. The Lunar Logic sitemap for users is accessible in the bottom right corner of the page. It is a simple way for users to easily find information they are looking for.

The importance of this kind of sitemap is debatable. Some Internet users love them and use them often, but most visitors ignore them.

Sitemap.xml — For Search Robots

Nobody debates the importance of the second kind of sitemap— the invisible site index called sitemap.xml. Human visitors to your site will never see the sitemap.xml, but it's the welcome mat for the search engines that will help those visitors get to your site in the first place.

At first glance, the sitemap.xml is just a list of all the pages on the site. Simple, right? A list is easy. But a properly constructed sitemap.xml is more than just a list; it also reports the date each page was last modified, how often search engines should expect each page to change, and how important each page is on your site. This basic information has incredible power to help or hurt your site, and if your sitemap is providing false information to search engines, it can be more repellent to those search engines than nothing at all. Here’s how you can manage your sitemap, to avoid the search engine equivalent of being picked last for dodgeball:

1. Make Sure Sitemap Information is Accurate

First, the information contained within your sitemap must be accurate. If you don't intelligently organize page priority, and just set every page to the same default priority, search engine spiders will notice. When page priority is defaulted on your site, search engines will ignore the information in your sitemap entirely, which will ultimately hurt your search engine display rankings.

Additionally, you need to set an accurate page change frequency, which is an indication to search engines of how often they need to check back with your site. If the change frequency is set too high, search engines will notice that the page isn't changing as frequently as your sitmap.xml says it will... and they'll stop trusting it. This means that they won't index the latest information you've added to your site. On the other hand, you don’t want the change frequency to be too low either because search engines won't check back often enough. You’ll then experience the same problem that setting the frequency too high causes, and your latest updates won’t be indexed. The more accurate your sitemap information, the sooner your site will be available to search engine users.

2. Make Sure Information is Up-to-Date

Search engine robots are incredibly advanced and catch on quickly when your sitemap is not up-to-date. If your sitemap.xml lists pages that have been moved or deleted, search engines will be pointing users to useless 404 pages. Just as search engines stop trusting sitemap.xml’s that state the page change frequency is higher than it is, they’ll stop trusting sitemap.xml’s that list old pages. Additionally, if the last modified date isn't accurate, the search engines won't be alerted to exciting new updates. This means that they’ll skip over the new update and won’t provide that information to potential visitors or customers searching for information related to your company.

3. Use a Content Management System

Keeping your sitemap.xml accurate and up to date isn't easy – perhaps not even plausible – for a human webmaster. It's hard enough to track how often everyone contributing content to your site is posting new information, much less take the time to update the sitemap and upload the new information. That's where a good content management system, like Drupal or WordPress, comes in. Your content management system (CMS) should have the power not only to build the initial sitemap.xml for you, but to constantly monitor its content for changes and update the sitemap to reflect the most accurate and up-to-date information.

Without some technology in place, it would take considerable manual effort to keep your sitemap.xml from being worse than not having it at all. But when your content management system has the power to do it for you, the sitemap.xml will be a silent partner that makes strong connections and a working relationship with the search engines. With your CMS and search engines in sync, your website will be displayed higher in the search engine’s page rankings, and interested visitors will be directed to your site.

At Lunar Logic, we design and develop websites that are functional, attractive, and easy for our clients to use. This includes a content management system that will also manage your sitemap. For more information about implementing a content management system for your site, contact us today.

Image Credit: http://tinyurl.com/hzz73qk
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