Growing with the Web

XML sitemaps

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This post explains what XML sitemaps are, why they’re useful and how to make one.

A collection of linked nodes

What is an XML sitemap?

An XML sitemap is a file that helps better inform search engines about how to crawl and index a web site. Google, Yahoo! and Bing all recommend the use of an XML sitemap to improve crawling.

This article looks at the current version of the sitemap protocol, 0.90.

Why are they useful?

Search engines will naturally crawl a web site and index its pages, but it’s difficult for search engines to guess everything about a particular page. Providing a formal XML sitemap helps define these details that machines can’t easily determine.

The primary value add is in the ability to specify a priority against a URL. This will not change the search rankings of the pages against external sites, it does however use this information to rank the importance of pages internally. For example on my blog I use the lowest priority for index pages past the first one, my shorter posts are in the middle while home and top articles are the highest. This ensures that the best quality, most relevant articles will be presented higher in search results than the lesser ranked pages.

A URL’s approximate change frequency and last modified date can also be specified. These are just hints though and may not increase or reduce the frequency in which a page is crawled.

The sitemap protocol also supports splitting a sitemap up into multiple sitemaps, with a single ‘master’ sitemap pointing to each of the sub-sitemaps.

Then what about HTML sitemaps?

Just because you have an XML sitemap does not mean that you shouldn’t have a HTML sitemap too since they’re targetted at different audiences; XML sitemaps are for web crawlers and HTML sitemaps are for users. HTML sitemaps provide an overview of the entire site, help users understand how the content is organised and provide an alternative way to navigate it. This can help fulfill WCAG 2.0 Level AA:

2.4.5 Multiple Ways: More than one way is available to locate a Web page within a set of Web pages except where the Web Page is the result of, or a step in, a process. (Level AA)

XML tag definitions

XML sitemap

Attribute Description
<urlset> Required - Wrapping element that references the current protocol.
<url> Required - Parent tag for each URL entry.
<loc> Required - URL of the page. It must contain the protocol (such as http) and end with a trailing slash, if your web server requires it. This value must be less than 2,048 characters.
<lastmod> Optional - Date of last modification of the file. This date should be in W3C Datetime format, such as YYYY-MM-DD.
<changefreq> Optional - How frequently the page is likely to change. Valid values are: <ul><li>always</li><li>hourly</li><li>daily</li><li>weekly</li><li>monthly</li><li>yearly</li><li>never</li></ul>
<priority> Optional - The priority of this URL relative to other URLs on your site. Valid values range from 0.0 to 1.0 (default 0.5).

XML sitemap index

Attribute Description
<sitemapindex> Required - Wrapping element containing about all of the sitemaps in the file.
<sitemap> Required - Parent tag for a sitemap entry.
<loc> Required - URL of the sitemap. This can be a sitemap, an Atom file, RSS file or simple text file.
<lastmod> Optional - Identifies the time that the corresponding Sitemap file was modified. This date should be in W3C Datetime format, such as YYYY-MM-DD.

Example

A good example is Google’s own (enormous) sitemap. As a simple example, here is an excerpt from my sitemap:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<urlset xmlns="http://www.sitemaps.org/schemas/sitemap/0.9">
  <!-- Home -->
  <url>
    <loc>http://www.growingwiththeweb.com/index.html</loc>  
    <priority>1.0</priority>
    <changefreq>daily</changefreq>    
  </url>
  <!-- A regular post -->
  <url>
    <loc>http://www.growingwiththeweb.com/2014/03/given-random5-implement-random7.html</loc>  
    <priority>0.5</priority>    
  </url>
  <!-- A 'top' post -->
  <url>
    <loc>http://www.growingwiththeweb.com/2014/02/a-gentle-introduction-to-git.html</loc>
    <priority>1.0</priority>
  </url>
  <!-- An older post index page -->
  <url>
    <loc>http://www.growingwiththeweb.com/page2/index.html</loc> 
    <priority>0.1</priority>
  </url>
</urlset>

And this is the example sitemap index from the official sitemap protocol page.

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<sitemapindex xmlns="http://www.sitemaps.org/schemas/sitemap/0.9">
  <sitemap>
    <loc>http://www.example.com/sitemap1.xml.gz</loc>
    <lastmod>2004-10-01T18:23:17+00:00</lastmod>
  </sitemap>
  <sitemap>
    <loc>http://www.example.com/sitemap2.xml.gz</loc>
    <lastmod>2005-01-01</lastmod>
  </sitemap>
</sitemapindex>

Submitting the sitemap

Once your sitemap is complete it can be submitted it to Google with the Google Webmaster Tools and Bing/Yahoo! through the Bing Webmaster Tools. After parsing is complete, you will be informed of any problems with the sitemap.

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