There are numerous search engine optimization tips and tricks that help in optimizing a site but one of them, the importance of which is often overlooked is sitemaps. Sitemaps, as the name implies, are simply a map of your web site
On a single web page you display the structure of your site, its sections, the hyperlinks between them, etc. Sitemaps make navigating your site simpler and having an updated sitemap on your site is beneficial both for your users and for search engines like google. Sitemaps are an important way of communication with search engines. In your robots.txt you tell search engines which parts of your web site to exclude from indexing, in your sitemap you tell the search engines exactly where you'd like them to go.
Sitemaps are not a novel idea. They have always been a part of best web design practices but with the usage of sitemaps by search engines, now they have become a lot more important. However, it's important to make a clarification that if you are looking at sitemaps primarily from a SEO point of view, you cannot use the traditional sitemap only (although currently Yahoo! and MSN still adhere to the standard html format). For instance, Google Sitemaps uses a special XML format that's totally different from the ordinary html sitemap for human visitors.
One might ask why two sitemaps are necessary. The answer's clear - one is for humans, the other is for bots (for now mainly Googlebot but it's reasonable to anticipate that other crawlers will join the club soon). In that relation it's important to clarify that having two sitemaps is not regarded as duplicate content. In 'Introduction to Sitemaps', Google explicitly states that using a sitemap will never lead to penalties for your web site.
Why Should You Use a Sitemap
Using sitemaps has many benefits, not merely simpler navigation and better visibility by the search engines. Sitemaps provide the opportunity to notify the search engines right away about any changes on your web site. Naturally, you can't expect that the search engines will dash off to index your altered pages but the modifications will be indexed more quickly, when compared with if you didn't have a sitemap.
Also, when you've got a sitemap and submit it to the search engines, you rely less on external hyperlinks that will bring search engines to your site. Sitemaps may even help with messy internal hyperlinks - for instance if you accidentally have broken internal links or orphaned web pages that cannot be reached in other ways (though there's no question that it's much better to fix your errors than rely on a sitemap).
If your site is new, or if you have a significant number of fresh (or recently updated pages), then utilizing a sitemap could be vital to your success. Although you can still proceed without a sitemap, it is likely that before long sitemaps will become the normal method of submitting a site to search engines. Though it is certain that spiders will continue to index the internet and sitemaps will not make the standard crawling procedures redundant, it is reasonable to say that the significance of sitemaps will continue to increase.
Sitemaps also help in classifying your site content, though the search engines are in no way required to classify a webpage as belonging to a specific category or as matching a specific keyword only because you have told them so.
Bear in mind that the sitemap programs of major search engines are still in beta, using a sitemap might not yield huge advantages right away but as the search engines improve their sitemap indexing algorithms, it's expected that more and more web sites will be indexed rapidly via sitemaps.
Generating and Submitting the Sitemap
The steps you must perform so as to have a sitemap for your web site are pretty straight forward. To begin with, you must create it, then you upload it to your web site, and finally you inform Google about it.
Dependent on your technical skills, there's two ways to produce a sitemap - to download and install a sitemap generator or to make use of an web based sitemap generation tool. The first is more challenging but you have more control over the output. After you have the program, follow the set up and configuration instructions.
The second way to generate a sitemap is easier. There are many free online tools that can do the job. Once you have created the sitemap, you must upload it to your site and inform Google about its existence. Informing Google includes adding the site to your Google Sitemaps account, if you don't have an account with Google, it's high time to open one. One more aspect that's useful to understand ahead of time is that in order to add the sitemap to your account, you need to verify that you're the legitimate owner of the website.
Currently Yahoo! and MSN do not support sitemaps, or at least not in the XML structure, utilized by Google. Yahoo! allows webmasters to submit “a text file with a list of URLs” (which can actually be a stripped-down version of a sitemap), while MSN does not offer this but there are rumors that it is indexing sitemaps when they are available on-site. Most likely this situation will change in the near future and both Yahoo! and MSN will catch up with Google because user-submitted site maps are a powerful search engine optimization tool and cannot be ignored.
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