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What Are HTML And XML Sitemaps?

An SEO FAQ is, what is a sitemap? Actually, there are a couple types of sitemaps with relevance to SEO:

  • HTML sitemap
  • XML sitemap

What is an HTML sitemap? It’s a sitemap visible to readers on your website. Its purpose is to serve as an additional navigational tool.

What is a sitemap, XML variety? An XML sitemap is not visible to readers, but instead is read by search engine crawlers. XML sitemaps help Google and other search engines find all the pages you want them to find on your website.   

What Is a Sitemap - HTML Sitemaps 

HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language and is commonly used by website developers. An HTML sitemap is a website page that displays links to pages of your website. The anchor text for those links is typically the h1 title (main title) of the page, as this technique maximizes consistency for the site visitor attempting to locate information.

HTML sitemaps are completely flexible in terms of design and contents. You can display links to only the pages you want visitors to focus on, or links to every page of your site. If you have a large site, you’ll make the sitemap much more user-friendly by grouping the page links as closely as possible to the groupings used in your main navigation — services, products, about us, etc.

In terms of direct SEO value, HTML sitemaps are of little consequence. If your site has a poor internal link structure or spotty navigation, an HTML sitemap could help Google crawlers find all of your strategically important pages. In most cases, however, HTML sitemaps are mainly used to improve a site’s usability, as a backup to the site’s regular navigation and internal links. Sites with a lot of pages, a lot of page groups benefit the most from an HTML sitemap, but having one is a good practice for every site. A link to the HTML sitemap is usually placed in the footer navigation, so that it appears on every page of the site.

What Is a Sitemap - XML Sitemaps

XML stands for Extensible Markup Language. Whereas HTML language is used to display data to humans, XML language is used to carry data — in this case, from your website’s server to Google and other search engines. An XML sitemap is a tool used by web developers to communicate to search engines the pages of your website you want them to crawl — to help the search engines find those pages more quickly and not miss any.

XML sitemaps are often sent to Google and other search engines each time new content is added to the website. XML sitemaps do not guarantee that search engines will find your content, but they can be helpful, especially if your site has content in Flash or other non-HTML formats that search engine crawlers cannot read. 

Google recommends XML sitemaps for sites that are very large, sites with content lacking internal links pointing to it, new websites and rich media (e.g., video, Flash) content. 

Various online tools are available for creating sitemaps automatically, so you need not be a computer whiz to add one to your website, as long as your site is reasonably small and reasonably simple. For very large sites, especially e-commerce sites, creating XML sitemaps and keeping them in sync with other tools used to help guide Google crawlers becomes much more complex.

From an SEO standpoint, XML sitemaps can help identify pages that are not being indexed by Google that you want indexed. For example, if your e-commerce site has 10,000 product pages but Google is indexing only 8,000, you can submit test sitemaps to get an idea which specific pages are not being indexed. XML sitemaps also can be used to establish your site and specific site pages as the original authors of content, important for overcoming duplicate content issues that can cause pages to be ignored by Google. 

Now that we’ve addressed what is a sitemap, let’s briefly look at what a sitemap isn’t.

  • A sitemap is not a replacement for having good, user-friendly navigation. Not all users know what a sitemap is or how to find it on your website. If your navigation needs fine-tuning (or an overhaul), don’t delay in getting the work done simply because you have a killer HTML sitemap.
  • A sitemap is not a replacement for having a good, user-friendly internal linking system on your website. Internal links appear in your site’s navigation and often in the body of your page content. For SEO purposes, it’s important to link most often and most visibly to the strategically important site pages you really want to rank highly for on Google. Neither an HTML nor XML sitemap will help much in that regard.
  • A sitemap is no guarantee that Google will find your content. Sitemaps are likely to help, however.
  • A sitemap does not guarantee that Google will index pages of your site even after crawling. Again, sitemaps are helpful tools, not SEO secret potions.

All things considered, both HTML and XML sitemaps are both worth having. It can never be wrong to give users another navigational tool such as an HTML sitemap, and it can never be wrong to give Google help — there is no downside because Google and other search engines never penalize sites for submitting a sitemap. No downside and possible upside is a good SEO equation.