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How Important Are XML & Image Sitemaps To Google?

Confused about whether you need XML or image sitemaps and how important they are to Google? Gain a better understanding in this Ask An SEO column.

How Important Are XML and Image Sitemaps To Google?

As Google’s search results have increasingly become more visual, the importance of image optimization has grown — particularly in ecommerce, travel, and other verticals where users expect multiple views of the product or service they’re considering.

The most recent figures from the Moz SERP Feature History show that over the last 30 days, as of the date of publication, images have appeared in results for 40.7% of Google Search queries.

Today’s Ask An SEO question comes from Argiee in the Philippines. Argiee asks:

“How important is submitting an image sitemap to Google?”

First, let’s consider, “How important are XML sitemaps?”

Do You Need an XML Sitemap?

Search engines first launched the XML sitemap protocol back in 2005, and Image XML sitemaps soon followed.

At the time, XML sitemaps were a great way for brand new sites — or large sites with tons of pages, linking, or crawl issues — to help the engines discover and crawl them more efficiently.

They even gave us all kinds of extra data we could put in there such as last modified date, change frequency, priority, etc.

However, most SEO professionals put the priority of every page to ‘one’ and the change frequency to daily. SEO pros were really bad at modifying the last updated date; so bad, in fact, that Google has since started ignoring most of these fields.

Almost immediately, XML sitemaps shot to the top of every SEO checklist and audit template, and tools were created to assist. I even created one myself and got a link from the official Google sitemap page back then! (The tool no longer exists. I miss my Google link.)

So, despite being an easy thing to include in audits and checklists, how important are XML sitemaps today?

The answer, as with so many other facets of SEO, is: It depends.

Contrary to popular belief, XML sitemaps are not an SEO ranking factor.

In a perfect world, no one would need an XML sitemap for pages or images.

XML sitemaps were created as a sort of band-aid to fix a myriad of other SEO issues common among large sites.

If you’re doing SEO correctly, though:

  • Your site is easily crawlable and coded in a way that Google can discover all of your internal links.
  • And you have sufficient external links to your site to cause the crawler to come back often.

In that case, you really don’t need an XML sitemap.

Do We Need to Submit an Image Sitemap to Google?

The same is true with images. If your images are coded in a crawler-friendly way and the pages they’re on are easily discoverable and crawlable, too, you really don’t need an image sitemap.

But, but, but

We know that’s not the case for most sites.

Many images are lazy-loaded in ways that search engines cannot see. With Cumulative Layout Shift (CLS) and other speed metrics gaining in importance, one of the easiest fixes is to offload the images.

In that instance, image sitemaps can be invaluable for getting your images indexed and included in search results.

Keep in mind that even if your images are hosted through a DAM or CDN, you can still use an image sitemap.

Another example of the importance of sitemaps is hreflang. For various technical reasons, it can be really difficult for some sites to implement hreflang at the code or HTTP header level.

Luckily, search engines give us an option to implement hreflang at the XML sitemap level. This has been a lifesaver for various companies, and it does make XML sitemaps pretty important for them.

Just don’t forget to keep them updated.

XML Sitemap Caveats & Potential Issues

The problem with XML sitemaps is that they’re just another tool. And as with any tool, its utility depends on how we use it.

Take a knife, for example. We can use it to butter bread or cut the crusts off our grilled cheese.

Or, we can stab ourselves with it.

Unfortunately, too many SEO pros end up stabbing themselves with their XML sitemaps.

Most of the client sites I audit have conflicting information in their XML sitemap versus their actual site.

One common example is having different hreflang tags in the code and sitemap. Another occurs when the links in the sitemap are different canonical versions than the links in the main navigation.

This can be confusing to search crawlers.

Sitemaps Are a Pet Peeve

Given all of the above, XML sitemaps are still one of my biggest SEO pet peeves. It seems like every time I see an audit, they always start out with XML sitemaps.

The last one I saw done by a third party for a new client started with “missing XML sitemap” as the first slide. The site consisted of exactly 12 pages, all of them indexed in Google and Bing and ranking well.

If they added a sitemap, would they rank higher? No, because as we know an XML sitemap is not a ranking signal.

Would they gain any more traffic? No, all their pages are already indexed. So why prioritize it in the audit?

There’s literally no benefit to that client for creating an XML sitemap since there were no indexing or other issues to solve with it.

As SEO professionals, sometimes we need to think beyond the checklist and ask ourselves if there’s real benefit in what we’re doing or recommending. XML sitemaps are a great example of that.

For sites that have issues and large sites with crawl concerns, XML sitemaps can be a useful bandaid.

For most sites though, I’d recommend fixing the crawl issues, if possible, and not relying on just an XML sitemap.

Just know that it’s there if you need it.

More Resources:

Editor’s note: “Ask an SEO” is a weekly column by technical SEO experts. Bring us your most difficult SEO question and fill out our form. You might see your answer in the next #AskanSEO post!

Category Ask an SEO
VIP CONTRIBUTOR Ryan Jones VP, SEO at Razorfish

Ryan is the SEO lead at Razorfish where he works from early in the morning until late in the evening. ...

How Important Are XML & Image Sitemaps To Google?

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