Search engines like Google use bots to crawl the web and find new sites and pages. Bots don’t use the web exactly like humans do, so they may have trouble putting together a complete picture of your site depending on how it’s structured.
For example, if there’s a page on your website that’s not reachable from your homepage in a certain number of clicks, or isn’t linked to from other pages at all, then it may not be indexed by Google.
That’s where XML sitemaps come in.
An XML sitemap is a special file in Extensible Markup Language (XML) format that lists all the pages on your blog. Google’s bots look for a file named sitemap.xml in your root directory when crawling your site. When they find it, they use the list of pages in the file to index all the pages on your website, ensuring that nothing important gets missed.
The Google XML sitemaps plugin will also notify (“ping”) Google and other major search engines whenever your sitemap is updating, prompting them to crawl your site again and index your new pages.
While using a sitemap plugin doesn’t guarantee improved search engines rankings, it will help your site to be indexed properly by Google and other search engines.
Sitemaps are also especially helpful if:
- Your site has hundreds of pages. Google may have trouble indexing them all, depending on how your site is structured.
- Your site has an unusual structure and not all pages are linked together.
- Your site is new and/or doesn’t have many links pointing to it from around the web.
How to Set Up the Google XML Sitemaps Plugin
After installing the plugin, you can navigate to the new menu item Settings > XML-Sitemap.
In most cases, the default settings will be enough to create an effective sitemap. One of the great things about this plugin is that you can literally install and activate it, and it just works!
However, there are some options you may want to review.
Under “Basic Options,” the plugin will be set to notify Google and Bing of updates to your sitemap, automatically compress your sitemap, and include a sitemap in HTML format as well as your XML sitemap.
Under “Advanced Options,” the option to increase the memory limit or execution time limit should only be tried if you get an “out of memory” error while trying to generate your sitemap.
An XSLT stylesheet can be used to customize the appearance of your sitemap. Normally, an XML sitemap isn’t meant to be read by humans, only bots. But if you’d like to be able to view your sitemap, you can style it with an XSLT stylesheet, similarly to how CSS styles an HTML page.
If your WordPress blog is installed in a subdirectory (such as www.example.com/blog), and you want to include pages that are in the main directory (such as www.example.com/page), you’ll need to use the option to override the base URL and place the sitemap in the root domain. For instructions on how to do that, you can see the tutorial on Move your sitemap to your domain root on the developer’s website.
You can also choose to generate an HTML sitemap as well.
Optionally, you can check off the option to allow usage statistics to be sent anonymously to the developer, so that they can optimize the plugin for the most-used version of WordPress and improve translations for the most common languages.
Customizing Your Sitemap
While Google XML Sitemaps can be used effectively out of the box, you can also customize the plugin to include or exclude specific content from your sitemap, or prioritize it in different ways.
Under the “Additional pages” section, you can add specific pages to your sitemap that aren’t already in your blog. For example, if your blog is in a subdirectory and you want to add a page from the root directory, you can add it here.
You can also choose to exclude certain pages or even whole blog categories from your sitemap under the “Excluded items” section.
Does It Matter How Your Blog’s Pages Are Prioritized?
Several options in the Google XML Sitemaps plugin allow you to rank your content by priority.
This only tells Google and other search engines how important one page on your blog is compared to the others. For example, you’d probably want to rate your homepage as higher in priority than your contact page.
It doesn’t affect how Google ranks your site in relation to other sites on the web.
Tweaking your priority settings may be a good idea if Google seems to be ranking certain content over other similar content on your blog that you would prefer to rank. For example, if you have two pages that are similar in content and keywords, but the wrong page keeps ranking for searches, then you may want to rank the more important page as higher in priority.
Under “Post Priority,” you can choose how whether or not to rank posts in priority, and if so whether you’d like to rank them individually by number of comments or in aggregate by the comment average of all your posts.