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My Favorite SEO Argument: Sitemap vs. No Sitemap?

November 6th, 2008 | | Basic SEO Tips, Nuts & Bolts of Optimization

When I first started managing SEO campaigns for clients, the XML Sitemap was a primary directive – no ifs, ands or buts. In my naivety, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would argue against creating a Sitemap and essentially pointing the search engines to my perfectly optimized content! Since then, I’ve had my eyes, and mind, opened to new ideas and viewpoints that have challenged my construct on a Sitemap’s necessity. Today, I’d like to quickly cover what an XML Sitemap is, the strongest PRO arguments, the strongest CON arguments and a peek into my personal experience.

What is an XML Sitemap?

To quote Sitemaps.org, “…a Sitemap is an XML file that lists URLs for a site along with additional metadata about each URL so that search engines can more intelligently crawl the site.” Sitemaps include instructions for the search engines telling them the relative importance of the page (homepage being the highest), the estimated frequency of updates (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.) and most importantly the exact URL structure for your website’s pages.

Sitemaps can be created with simple online programs like XML-Sitemaps.com, or other desktop applications like the gSiteCrawler exist for this purpose as well. More sophisticated webmasters can create automated programs to create Sitemap files, and for bloggers, plugins exist to automate the creation of your Sitemaps. What do you do with the Sitemap once it’s created? Typically, site owners then submit their Sitemaps to Google Webmaster Tools, Yahoo! SiteExplorer and the Live Search Webmaster Center to alert the search engines to the XML file and ultimately the site’s content.

Reasons to Include an XML Sitemap

  1. Submitting your Sitemap to the search engines can speed up the process of getting your site crawled and your pages indexed. To take that a step further, it can also open up the potential that more of your pages get indexed in the long run.
  2. This is a related point to #1, but Sitemaps can help the search engines to find and crawl pages “that aren’t easily discovered” – perhaps because of restrictive, advanced coding like AJAX or Flash.

Being able to pass extra information to the search engines *should* result in them crawling your site in a more optimal way.

Reasons NOT to Include an XML Sitemap

  1. Many of the SEOs that I follow and respect seem to hammer away on this point: Sitemaps hide architectural issues. Whether you hear it from SEOMoz or Matt McGee, this is an important concern to take note of. Those who oppose Sitemaps argue that you should fix the root of your crawlability issues (improve internal linking, other SEO factors instead).
  2. Sitemaps don’t necessarily get your content indexed, don’t target keywords and don’t add to your link building efforts! Instead of wasting resources on creating the perfect Sitemap, you could instead be optimizing your pages for your keywords and obtaining links.

Using a sitemap to solve crawlability issues is never a good idea. It’s like putting a band-aid on your chest after open-heart surgery. You need a lot more help than that.

Notes from My Personal Experience

Though I blindly accepted the over-arching idea of a Sitemap in my early SEO days, I now follow that path with more confidence. I’m inclined to believe that using a Sitemap isn’t a bad thing, and in most cases is a helpful SEO action item. The caveat to that is that you MUST adhere to the rock-solid core SEO tasks, and the very reasons people argue against using Sitemaps. DON’T use your Sitemap to hide a poor hierarchical site structure. DON’T use your Sitemap to leap-frog the search engines over your awful internal linking structure. DON’T submit your Sitemap and assume your path to SEO glory is done and over with…

I can talk and talk and talk about why I think you should or shouldn’t use a Sitemap, but stats speak louder than words. I’ve been working on a smallish-site that launched in late summer, than completely revamped again in September. Below you will see the organic traffic stats for the days BEFORE submitting the XML Sitemap, and the days AFTER:

I’ve had similar results with other sites as well. So, officially, I’ll go on record as saying I’m a proponent of using XML Sitemaps. What is your opinion on the great Sitemap debate? Do you have any stats or other data to support or disqualify the use of Sitemaps? Leave me a comment!

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  • http://www.rainbowandwish.com Larry

    Like with all development, the key is not the tools you use but how you use them. Sitemaps are a great tool if you code properly. If you do not follow good coding techniques then no tools will help you.

    I hear the same argument about vb.net vs. c#.net. I’m proficient in both but I prefer vb as it’s easier to work with and actually I find it LESS verbose than c#, contrary to the literature out there. The arguments against vb amount to the fact that it’s easier to code poorly. So, don’t code poorly!

    I always find my rankings go up after resubmitting my sitemap. I know my sitemap is not the only reason I get consistently high hits however. It’s just a matter of doing everything correctly.

  • http://www.seoboy.com John

    @ Larry,

    Thanks for commenting! I like your way of thinking – anything worth doing is worth doing correctly.

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  • http://www.computerz101.com/ Michael

    Very odd situation happened with 2 websites when i created 2 sitemaps for both websites. I have been an SEO person to never create a sitemap or use them period. Then I an itch and it said to create two xml sitemaps for 2 different websites. After uploading them to there website directory that was in correlation with the sitemap I then went into Google WebMaster Tools and added the sitemaps for both websites. Less than 2 days later very highly ranked keywords literally dropped from page 1 with over 30 keywords being on page 1 of google to page 2, 3, 4, 29, etc i assume you get the picture. This was for both websites all the other websites I left alone and they are perfectly fine with never having used or implemented a sitemap so it leads to be believe from first hand experience that it’s a bad idea to use an xml sitemap. Now I am sure that hundreds of people can argue back and forth about this and that is ok. I just think personally that I wont be utilizing an XML Sitemap again…this one change and only change has costed me hundreds of dollars losted over the past 3 days of my ranking dropping.

    Now I can say that it did index more pages faster even though google would have gotten around to it within 3-7 days instead of 1 or 2, but to preserve my high ranking I am more than willing to wait.

    I added the xml sitemap on January 2, 2012 and on January 4, 2012 page 1 many rankings/keywords disappeared by the 5th only dropped further back I have since deleted the sitemaps from the web dirs and removed them from google web master tools. 

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