In case you don’t read my other blog, this month I’m participating in NaBloPoMo, and instead of posting entirely on my personal blog, I’m splitting my posts between BloggersGuide.net and SarahJoAustin.com. Today, I want to talk about sitemaps.
“Sitemap” is one of those web developer buzz words that won’t mean anything to you–or that will simply frustrate you–until you can create one for your own site. Essentially, a sitemap is web file that contains links to every page on your site, and they’re important because they allow spiders to get to every page of your site–pages that they might not get to crawl ordinarily. (Remember search engine spiders can only crawl to a web page if it’s been linked to from another page. And if you don’t have many links to your site, your site might not get crawled much, if at all.)
If you have a small, static site, creating a sitemap in XHTML is pretty easy, but if you have a complex site or blog, creating a sitemap can be a nightmare because every time you update your site, you have to update your sitemap. What’s even more frustrating is that search engines, especially Google, like sitemaps to be written in XML, which is incredibly unforgiving. You make one mistake, and the whole file goes to crap. (Kinda like a knitting project.) What’s a blogger to do?
If you’re using Blogger or using WordPress.com, you’re SOL, but if you’re using WordPress.org, the handy dandy Google XML Sitemaps plugin is exactly what you need. This plugin generates a sitemap.xml file and notifies search engines when your file has been updated. I won’t go over the settings in detail, but essentially you should set the plugin to build your sitemap automatically, to notify all search engines, to include all pages and content, to build the file in the background, and to automatically detect your file. Once set, the plugin will create your sitemap and leave it in your main directory.
Once you have your sitemap.xml file, you’re not quite finished. Because the plugin’s title references Google, you need to tell Google about your sitemap. By doing this, you’ll essentially tell Google, “Hey! Here’s a map of my website so your spider will know how to find all my pages. Check it out!” To submit your sitemap to Google, you must have a Google account and be signed up for Webmaster Tools. Essentially, Webmaster Tools allow you to see what the Googlebot sees when crawling your site. You’ll see broken links, incoming links, and outgoing links, plus you’ll have access to a handful of tools that tell Google your preferences in how your site is filed.
To add your sitemap to Webmaster Tools, you’ll need to add your site’s URL in your dashboard. This creates an “account” for your site, and you can add as many sites to your dashboard as you like. (Yes, I wish Webmaster Tools, Analytics, Feedburner, AdSense, and AdWords all worked from the same dashboard, too. Santa, this is my Christmas wish.) Once you’ve added your site, you can verify it by adding a meta tag to your site’s <head></head> tags or by uploading a file to your site. Verification isn’t required, but it is recommended.
Next, click Sitemaps in the Webmaster Tools navigation, and click Add Sitemap. Select Add General Web Sitemap from the dropdown menu, and then type ‘sitemap.xml’ in the textbox under #3. Click the Add General Web Sitemap button, and you’re ready to go. It can take a few hours for Google to crawl your sitemap, but in any case, it doesn’t take too long.
And there you have it. As long as you keep your Google XML Sitemaps plugin updated, every time you make a change to your site’s files, Google (and anyone else you submit your sitemap to) will be notified of those site changes. Easy peasy!