Whenever I take part in a Site Review session at some conference, one of my fellow panelists will inevitably tell a webmaster something like, “You don’t have an XML sitemap. Create one and submit it to the search engines as soon as you can.” I’ve yet to have the opportunity to play devil’s advocate on that during a session, but I’m going to do it here on SBS. Because I believe that XML sitemaps are the most overrated SEO tactic ever.
XML Sitemaps: This Week’s Hot Topic
Coincidentally, XML sitemaps are the hot topic this week on the SEOweb:
- Ann Smarty wrote an excellent FAQ about sitemaps on Search Engine Journal. I’m glad she noted some discussions that suggest sitemaps may not be so great.
- On Search Engine Roundtable, Barry Schwartz wrote up a great article asking if sitemaps are important for SEO. He points to a Google Groups discussion where a Google employee touts the benefits of sitemaps. Barry’s post went hot on Sphinn.
- Lisa Barone jumped into the discussion, answering Barry’s question by saying sitemaps are “absolutely” important for SEO.
Those are all good and interesting discussions, and it’s worth the time to read them. But I don’t agree with the “sitemaps are a great idea” crowd. So, why am I calling sitemaps the most overrated SEO tactic ever?
XML Sitemaps Don’t Solve Problems
I’ve done SEO on sites as small as 4-5 pages. I’ve done SEO on sites with 15,000,000+ pages. I’ve never once recommended the site owner create an XML sitemap and submit it to the search engines. Sitemaps don’t really solve any problems where indexing and crawlability are concerned. Let’s use a typical 100-page site as an example:
If you have a 100-page site, and the spiders can only access 25 of your pages, fix your crawlability problems. 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.
If you have a 100-page site, and the search engine has decided that only 25 of your pages are strong enough to be indexed, forcing the other 75 pages on them via a sitemap isn’t going to help your cause in any way. It’s not going to improve your overall site strength or make your site profile look any better. The solution to getting those 75 pages indexed isn’t to spoon-feed them to the search engine; the solution is to make those pages better by improving the content, acquiring better/more links to them, and so forth.
If you have a 100-page site, and the spiders are able to crawl all 100 pages, and all 100 pages are indexed, and life is good … maybe you’re thinking a sitemap is a good complement, or something to do “just to be safe.” Why? If life is that good, you don’t need an XML sitemap. Let the spiders keep doing what they’re doing; let them crawl through your pages, let them figure out which pages deserve more frequent crawling, and which don’t. Don’t get in their way, and don’t steer them off track with a sitemap.
My attitude towards sitemaps is pretty much in line with what Barry wrote in his SER article above. He said, “I have always been a believer that well on-page optimized sites do not require or even benefit much from Google Sitemaps.” That’s exactly it.
But that’s not all. I’ve seen a case where not only did the sitemap not solve any problems, but it was also the cause of the problem.
XML Sitemaps Can Cause Problems
I’ve been helping a friend recently with a highly-trafficked and popular blog. This is a blog with great authority in its niche. It’s been around for several years, has tens of thousands of inbound links, and has all kinds of trust.
But it also had a problem: Referral traffic, specifically from Google, had dropped off the charts. Google had stopped indexing new posts. The most recent article in the index was a couple months old. We couldn’t figure out why. But the facts were clear: Google was suddenly sending a fraction of its normal referral traffic and not indexing new posts. To be frank, I’m not smart enough to know what was wrong. I still don’t know why all this happened.
My suggestion? Take down the XML sitemap. I figured we had nothing to lose. We deleted the sitemap from Webmaster Central. We pulled it off the site. We removed all links to it. It was gone. Nuked.
Results? Eight days later, here’s what I emailed to my friend:
- New posts were being indexed quickly by Google, within an hour of posting.
- Old posts that had fallen out of the index were back in.
- Total pages indexed in Google were at the highest level since we started working together.
- Referral traffic from Google was up 136% from the week before.
Granted, my experience is purely anecdotal. What happened in this case may not happen in the next case. Maybe it was pure coincidence! (I doubt it.) We’re all biased by our own experiences, and my experience is that sitemaps are completely overrated when it comes to SEO. They don’t solve problems, and can cause problems. Your mileage may vary.
I mentioned that sitemaps are a hot topic this week. In addition to the links above, here are two that also question the need/value of XML sitemaps:
- SEOmoz: Whiteboard Video: Give It Up – in the middle of this video, Eric Enge explains why he doesn’t like/use sitemaps
- PPC Blog: Why I’m Not a Fan of Submitting Sitemaps
Your turn: Do you use XML sitemaps? Why or why not? Have they ever solved a problem for you? Have they ever caused a problem?