Should HTML Sitemaps be a Part of Your SEO Strategy?
At one time, HTML sitemaps were seen as an important on-domain SEO component. They helped search engines like Google spider content and attribute PageRank across your domain. Google used to be very specific about HTML sitemap SEO benefits. You can see this in this video of former head of Google’s Web Spam team, Matt Cutts, from 2011.
Over time, the importance of HTML sitemaps in terms of SEO began to fade. When asked in 2016 if HMTL sitemaps still offered SEO value, senior web trends analyst John Mueller answered “sometimes”. You can see his full response to this question here.
Nowadays, you tend to see less focus on the importance of HTML sitemaps for SEO. Indeed some experts say they offer no value whatsoever.
In this post I’m going to discuss HTML sitemaps and SEO. I want to explore and explain what HTML sitemaps are and what they offer bloggers and blog visitors.
I’ll also be talking to online business owners to get their feeling about if and how HTML sitemaps help SEO.
What Are Sitemaps?
Sitemaps are mechanisms through which website visitors and search engines find your content.
Initially, sitemaps took the form of HTML pages on a website with links to other pages within the same site. A map of the site if you will.
Moving in to the mid-2000s, sitemaps evolved into XML form, solely for use as tools to help search engines find pages across a domain. If you’ve ever looked at an XML sitemap you’ll understand why they’re not terribly useful for visitors.
XML sitemaps look nonsensical to most human readers. They’re created in a format search engines can use to understand the key details about every page contained within them.
Such details include:
- Page URLs
- Image URLs
- Published date
- Modification date
These details help search engines locate all pertinent information pertaining to pages within the sitemap to help index them correctly.
By contrast, HTML sitemaps offer something that’s far more useful to human visitors. Essentially they are a page of links to some or all pages on a given domain.
HTML sitemaps provide a meaningful list of links from which site visitors can navigate to any page on your blog.
Historically most sites, and certainly most blogs, included an HTML sitemap page of links to all content published. Certainly back in 2011 there was a clear SEO benefit as explained in the Matt Cutts video I linked to earlier in this post.
HTML Sitemaps & SEO
Back in 2005, Google recommended the use of HTML sitemaps to make it easy for users to navigate your site. The emphasis was really on usability though rather than HTML sitemap SEO benefits they might then give.
I’ve asked several online business owners, marketers and SEO experts for their views on the potential SEO benefits HTML sitemaps give. Here’s what they said.
Oli Baise – Owner of Oli Baise Digital
HTML sitemaps are not used by Google to better understand the structure of a website and therefore do not directly impact your on-page SEO.
They can however still prove useful to your website’s users who know exactly what pages they are looking for. It can allow users to get to any page within two clicks (one click to get to the sitemap and another to get to a desired page).
I would therefore recommend sitemaps for large eCommerce sites because they often contain a lot of pages and users are typically looking to get to a specific, predetermined page on your site – namely the page of the product that they want to buy.
If you see a lot of traffic going through your sitemap on your website’s analytics, this may be a warning sign that your site is not the most navigable. The most popular pages navigated to from your sitemap should be made more visible on your site.
Greg Birch – Senior SEO Specialist for Store Space Self Storage
Technically, you don’t need an HTML sitemap. If you know what you’re doing, you can create a robust internal linking structure that all but ensures that Google finds every page of your site.
Any SEO worth their salt will tell you that dynamic internal linking is important no matter whether you use a sitemap or not.
But really, there’s no downside to using sitemaps and you can make them so simple to implement that they will cost you no time at all.
Stephanie Solheim – CEO of Toledo Web Designers & Digital Marketing
HTML sitemaps do not seem to have a positive or negative effect on my websites in 2020. I have websites out there where you can find an HTML sitemap with the standard footer link, but the benefits are hard to measure. I hesitate to remove what is already there, because it is not harming the site, and it may point out key pages to Google’s crawlers.
HTML sitemaps can become too complex for larger websites as well, and smaller websites should be in themselves very crawlable by the internal linking strategy and site architecture.
I find the most benefit to utilize Google Search Console, an XML sitemap, and robust internal linking which creates topical content clusters. I keep my websites with a relatively flat architecture, keeping all sub-pages no more than 3 clicks from the home page whenever possible. This helps Google optimize crawl budget for your site, ensuring that no pages are orphaned or failing to index properly.
David Alexander – Owner of Mazepress
HTML sitemaps are no substitute for good UX and navigation within the structure of your site. Think drop-down menus and using the footer as a secondary menu.
For SEO purposes no page should be more than 3 clicks from the homepage. You can solve that with an HTML sitemap, but it’s more of a bodge job than a real solution.
The best option would be to improve your menu structure and internal links to make sure all pages are 3 clicks or fewer from the homepage.
Nikola Roza – Owner of NikolaRoza.com
HTML sitemaps are definitely still useful for SEO for the following 3 reasons.
First, they boost your site’s crawlability and crawl budget. Because HTML sitemaps are a big list of links leading to all your posts and pages, they make all your content accessible to Google in just 2 clicks.
Secondly, HTML sitemaps help to distribute PageRank. Having all content 2 clicks away from the homepage ensures that link authority is equally divided among all your posts, giving them all a fair chance of ranking highly in the SERPS.
Thirdly, having your entire site accessible from one URL is a great usability feature. This is especially true if it’s a large website and the sitemap is logically divided into categories which list out all posts beneath them.
Alex Williams – SEO Lead at The Website Flip
I feel like HTML sitemaps are overkill for SEO purposes if you already have the standard XML sitemap. And if you have to use a HTML sitemap to get Google to crawl your site, then you’ve got bigger problems to deal with.
But I do think HTML sitemaps can offer a different benefit, and that benefit is a UX one. Though I don’t think your normal searcher landing on your website is going to use a HTML sitemap, there are those people who find it useful for seeing at a glance all of the content on a site. It’s a great way for them to identify right where they need to go on your site to find what they are looking for.
I also find them useful when doing competition analysis, but we probably shouldn’t tell people that!
Samantha Russell – Chief Evangelist at Twenty Over Ten
After working with hundreds of financial advisors and small businesses at Twenty Over Ten and coaching them on SEO best practices, I have some insight to share on the topic.
HTML sitemaps provide no benefit to your organic SEO rankings. HTML sitemaps were designed more for humans / your site visitors whereas XML sitemaps were designed for search engines like
Having an XML sitemap helps search engines be able to better crawl and index the pages of your website and their contents.
Dave Schneider – CEO of Shortlist
While it is true that Google bots prioritize XML sitemaps for fast crawling, the largest search engine also takes into consideration user experience as a ranking factor. By showing Google that you have an HTML sitemap, you actually show that your site is user-friendly.
Besides making your site more user-friendly and boosting its ranking, HTML sitemaps have other SEO benefits that indirectly impact your online visibility. For instance, a sitemap makes it easier for search engines to categorize your content by letting them know what it is all about.
Having an HTML sitemap also enables you to easily add new content and allows you to find internal linking opportunities. Finally, you can use your sitemap to figure out how you can improve your site’s overall navigation, which is especially useful for older websites with plenty of archived content that is not well organized.
Mazen Aloul – CEO of WebQuest
We always advise our clients to add an HTML sitemap that’s linked to the footer, especially for eCommerce websites.
Using heatmaps, we saw that a small percentage of users navigate to the HTML sitemap pages to find the services, categories and sub-categories they are looking for.
Some eCommerce websites can have seasonal categories (Mothers Day or Valentine’s gift pages for example), and although they would remove these pages from their menus when its not their season, you don’t want search engine to see that those are orphaned pages (pages not linked from anywhere on the website). HTML sitemap pages are the perfect solution to this problem.
Zoltán Bettenbuk – CTO of Prerender
Although many marketers believe that an XML sitemap will suffice, an HTML sitemap can improve the user experience and provide SEO value. This is especially true for large websites with hundreds or thousands of pages of content.
HTML sitemaps help users navigate to the desired content. Similarly, they help search engines understand the hierarchy and structure of a site.
You want to make it as easy as possible for users and search engines to access the information they’re looking for by grouping related content together, and facilitating a natural flow through the website. An HTML sitemap does just that. It’s the blueprint of a website’s architecture.
Sam Shepler – CEO of Testimonial Hero
HTML sitemaps are still very useful in helping navigate complicated websites with a lot of information. While website designs focus on overall simplicity and navigation, it’s always helpful to have an index that will allow you to have a good wide-sweeping look at all of the information available on the website that you are browsing.
This is especially helpful for those wordy websites that may have a lot of topics coming together and crossing over each other. The advantage of an HTML sitemap is that it displays links in full context, as opposed to having to know certain keywords to get to where you need to be.
Sometimes the simplest thing is what works, and in some cases that might be the HTML sitemaps available on the bottom of any website. They are easy to hide on the website as well, so there’s no real reason not to have them if you are handling a rather information-heavy website.
The SEO Benefits of an HTML Sitemap
Many SEOs recommend creating an XML sitemap to submit URLs to Google and dispute the SEO benefits of HTML sitemaps. However, there may still be a place for HTML sitemaps on your blog.
The number of clicks it takes to get from the homepage to any page on your blog does seem to matter to Google. In this video from 2018, John Mueller states:
What does matter for us a little bit is how easy it is to actually find the content. So especially if your homepage is generally the strongest page on your website, and from the homepage it takes multiple clicks to actually get to [a page], then that makes it a lot harder for us to understand that these [pages] are actually pretty important.
On the other hand, if it’s one click from the home page to one of these [pages] then that tells us that these stores are probably pretty relevant, and that probably we should be giving them a little bit of weight in the search results as well.John Mueller
This tells us that the more clicks it takes to get to a page from your homepage, the less PageRank Google passes to it.
Having a menu structure that links to all your content within a couple of clicks is optimal. But in reality, this is likely going to be very difficult as time passes and your content grows.
This is especially true for tools like WordPress where many people build their menus with links to category pages. These category pages might contain links to the 10 most recent posts and then offer pagination to see older content.
In this scenario an HTML sitemap might not just be useful for visitors. It might be that there is a PageRank benefit too.
HTML sitemaps are physical pages on your blog that link to all the content you publish. The idea is they make all content easy for search engines to locate within 3 clicks of the homepage.
It’s possible that HTML sitemaps might still be useful for SEO. Perhaps they also offer a more useful user experience by making all your content easier to find.
For my money, if an HTML sitemap is not going to hurt your rankings and even help pass PageRank from the homepage more evenly, it’s probably worth having one. That’s not to say you shouldn’t strive to make your navigation structure as flat as possible and employ a damned good internal linking strategy.
Some will of course disagree!
What are your thoughts about HTML sitemap SEO benefits? Drop a comment below to share your views.