What is a Google Sitemap?
A Google Sitemap is a very simple XML document that lists all the pages in your website, but the Google Sitemaps program is actually much more important than that. In fact, the Sitemaps program provides a little peek inside Google’s mind – and it can tell you a lot about what Google thinks of your website!
Why Should You Use Google Sitemaps?
Until Google Sitemaps was released in the summer of 2005, optimizing a site for Google was a guessing game at best. A website’s page might be deleted from the index, and the Webmaster had no idea why. Alternatively, a site’s content could be scanned, but because of the peculiarities of the algorithm, the only pages that would rank well might be the “About Us” page, or the company’s press releases.
As webmasters we were at the whim of Googlebot, the seemingly arbitrary algorithmic kingmaker that could make or break a website overnight through shifts in search engine positioning. There was no way to communicate with Google about a website – either to understand what was wrong with it, or to tell Google when something had been updated.
That all changed about a year ago when Google released Sitemaps, but the program really became useful in February of 2006 when Google updated it with a couple new tools.
So, what exactly is the Google Sitemaps program, and how can you use it to improve the position of your website? Well, there are essentially two reasons to use Google Sitemaps:
1. Sitemaps provide you with a way to tell Google valuable information about your website
2. You can use Sitemaps to learn what Google thinks about your website
What You Can Tell Google About Your Site
Believe it or not, Google is concerned about making sure webmasters have a way of communicating information that is important about their sites. Although Googlebot does a pretty decent job of finding and cataloging web pages, it has very little ability to rate the relative importance of one page versus another. After all, many important pages on the Internet are not properly “optimized”, and many of the people who couldn’t care less about spending their time on linking campaigns create some of the best content.
Therefore, Google gives you the ability to tell them on a scale of 0.0 to 1.0 how important a given page is relative to all the others. Using this system, you might tell Google that your home page is a 1.0, each of your product sections is a 0.8, and each of your individual product pages is a 0.5. Pages like your company’s address and contact information might only rate a 0.2.
You can also tell Google how often your pages are updated and the date that each page was last modified. For example your home page might be updated every day, while a particular product page might only be updated on an annual basis.
What Google Can Tell You About Your Site
Having the ability to tell Google all this information is important, but you don’t even need to create a sitemap file in order to enjoy some of the perks of having a Google Sitemaps account.
That’s because even without a Sitemap file, you can still learn about any errors that Googlebot has found on your website. As you probably know, your site doesn’t have to be “broken” for a robot to have trouble crawling it’s pages. Google Sitemaps will tell you about pages it was unable to crawl and links it was unable to follow. Therefore, you can see where these problems are and fix them before your pages get deleted from the index.
You can also get information on the types of searches people are using to find your website. Of course, most website analytics tools will give this information to you anyway, but if the tool you use doesn’t have this feature, then it’s always nice to get it for free from Google.
But the best part of the Sitemaps program is the Page analysis section that was added in February of 2006. This page gives you two lists of words. The first list contains the words that Googlebot associates with your website based on content on your site. The second list contains words that Googlebot has found linking to your site!
Unfortunately, Google limits the number of words in each list to 20. As a consequence, the inbound links column is partly wasted by words such as “http”, “www”, and “com” – terms that apply equally to all websites (hey Google, how about suppressing those terms from the report?). That said, this list does provide you with a way to judge the effectiveness of your offsite optimization efforts.
When you compare these two lists, you can get an understanding of what Google thinks your website is about. If the words on your Site Content column are not really what you want Googlebot to think about your site, then you know you need to tweak your website’s copy to make it more focused on your core competency.
If, on the other hand your inbound links don’t contain any keywords that you want to rank well for, then perhaps you should focus your efforts in that direction.
Above all else, you really want these two lists to agree. You want your inbound linked words to match up to the site content words. This means that Google has a clear understanding of the focus of your website.
Additional Benefits of the Sitemaps Program
Google has even started notifying Sitemaps-participating Webmasters if they are breaking any of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. This can be very valuable information if your site suddenly becomes de-listed on Google and you don’t know why.
Only Sitemaps participants can get this information, and it is only provided at Google’s discretion. In fact, Google will NOT notify you if you are creating worthless websites that offer no original content, or if you are creating thousands of doorway pages that are redirecting to other web sites. Google doesn’t want to give the sp@ammers any clues as to how to improve their techniques.
How Do You Get Started with Google Site Maps?
The first thing you must do is obtain a Google Account. If you already have a Gmail, Adsense, or Adwords account, then you are all set. If not, you can register an account by visiting the Google Accounts page (https://www.google.com/accounts/NewAccount).
Building your sitemap file is pretty easy to do if you are familiar with XML, and if you aren’t you can always use a third-party tool such as the ones that are listed on Google’s website (http://code.google.com/sm_thirdparty.html). Google also has a “Sitemap Generator” that you can download and install on your server, but unless you are fairly adept at managing Python scripts, you should probably stick to the third-party tools.
At any rate, once you have your Google Account and your Sitemap file built, the rest is very easy. All you have to do is:
1. Log into your account (http://google.com/webmasters/sitemaps/siteoverview)
2. Type your website’s URL into the “Add Site” box and click on “OK”
3. Click on the Manage Sites link for the website you are adding, and add your sitemap file to your account.
Google Sitemaps – An Excellent SEO Tool
Google Sitemaps help Googlebot quickly find new content on your website. They allow you to tell Google what’s important, what’s new, and what changes often. The tools provided to webmasters through the program can play a vital role in helping you understand how the search engines (especially Google) view your website.
Using this information you can dramatically improve the position of your website and quickly clear up any issues Google finds. You can also use the tools provided by Google to gauge the effectiveness of your off-site optimization efforts so you can better focus your time and energy on activities that bring you the most success.