Though you don’t see it as often as you used to online, the site map is a powerful tool for modern SEO. With a site map, search engines have quick, immediate access to all major pages on your site. Users can use it to navigate and explore your site in ways your default navigation and in-content links may not allow. There’s no question that you should include a site map in any website design. The question is what kind?
The Types of Site Maps
There are two primary types of site map; HTML and XML. The HTML site map is coded into your pages as part of the navigation, or as a stand-alone table of contents for your site. It’s easily accessible to both human users and search engines. You can design it in as bare bones or as pretty a design as you want. It is, essentially, a page of your website designed to give easy access to every other major part of your website. You could stop at major category pages, or list all subcategories. You can even create nested navigation and include links to individual blog posts by category, if you choose.
The problem with the HTML site map comes from those advantages. It’s just another webpage. If something on your site causes that page to not be indexed, you gain no search benefit from having it. Occasionally, occluded code or some other issue will limit a search crawler’s ability to parse your site map. There is no real standard for the HTML site map, so search engines need to be creative when crawling it. Sometimes, they can’t handle it.
The XML site map is a much simpler version of the site map. It’s invisible to human users and is designed following simple standards for search engines. At the most basic, an XML site map is nothing more than a list of links in a particular sorted order. There are defined standards for XML site maps.
The problem with the XML site map, of course, is that it’s invisible to human users. It will guarantee each linked page is indexed by a search crawler, but it provides no benefit for your human users. They will need an HTML site map to make the most of your navigation.
The Question of Language
Though it does not apply to every website, many websites include bilingual language options. This means you often have two pages that are identical save for their language. This is important for both users and search engines. Users don’t want to encounter pages in a language they can’t read. Search engines gain no benefit from serving a page its users can’t read in the search results.
What do you do when you have a site with multiple languages? Should you make a site map for each language, or only for the primary language of the site? Google, of course, has the answer. Your XML site map — you only need one — will be a bit more complicated than the basic HTML site map. It will include each page, along with alternate links to alternate language pages, each tagged with that language or region.
What Site Map Do I Need?
Is it a good practice to have more than one site map? Should you have a detailed HTML site map in multiple languages, and an XML site map for the search engines? The answer depends on your site. For example:
Site A is a small business with a very small website. It contains little more than the basic About, Contact and product order pages. For a site this small, a detailed HTML site map is unnecessary. Nearly every page can be found in the primary navigation already. This site should still have an XML site map, which doesn’t clutter up the experience for users and ensures every page is indexed by the search engines. This site may even be able to get away without a site map of any kind, though they’re helpful enough and easy enough to create that there’s no reason to avoid it.
Site B is a larger business with a large website that has dozens of products on sale, an active blog and a separate news feed. It has a number of side pages, including corporate leadership profiles, contact and support pages. This site is somewhat old and has grown labyrinthine, making it difficult to navigate to some older content using the navigation bars alone. This site should have both an HTML and an XML site map. The XML site map ensures every page is indexed by the search engines. The HTML site map is a tool for users to find their way to specific pieces of content.
Site C is a mid-sized blog that specializes in English and Spanish content, catering to monolingual audiences. As such, each piece of content, particularly blog posts and resources, are duplicated in two languages. This site should have an XML site map to ensure the search engines index all content properly, by including alternate flags and language tags. It should also include two HTML site maps; one in English and one in Spanish. Each of these site maps will direct users of that particular language to the content on that language side of the site, without crossing links to content the users can’t read.
Site D is a large multinational corporation with over a dozen languages and countries represented. In this case, the best practice is to segregate the sites entirely into country-specific domains or subdomains. These separate sites will appear interrelated but distinct to the search engines. Each sub-site will need an XML site map indicating the region, language or languages it covers. Each site will also need as many HTML site maps as are necessary to cover the languages in the region. Additionally, this site will want an extra bit of navigation so that users who stumble upon the incorrect region can easily locate the correct one.
If your site does not match any of these descriptions, you will need to analyze it to determine what you need. In all cases, an XML site map is easy to generate and powerful as a search engine tool. XML site maps are not strictly necessary for sites with simple or small websites, or those with HTML site maps that are plain and easy for a search engine to read. That said, an XML site map is easy to create and the redundancy does not harm your site.
HTML site maps are great for any site that has more than 50 or so pages to index, particularly if some of those pages are buried three or four clicks away from the home page. Some users worry that a single page with little content beyond links to other pages can harm your search ranking, but this is not true. As long as your link page is identified as a site map, and it provides value to your users, Google will sanction its presence.
So, is it good practice to maintain more than one site map? The answer is yes; an XML site map and as many language-based HTML site maps as are necessary to cover every page on your site. The extra navigation can’t hurt, and it makes the average user experience that much better.