Google is constantly sending its crawler bots, little web programs designed to read website information and report back to Google's indexing service, to sites across the web to update its massive index. These bots will periodically revisit sites to scan for changes or new information, and if they see changes they'll add the new information to the index. Using a sitemap can help the bots do this more thoroughly.
These bots are going to determine how close of a match your site is for a variety of search terms, which determines your rankings on search result pages. With this in mind, obviously it's important to make sure these search engine crawlers get a clear picture of your site. It's not simply an issue of wanting them to see all of your pages and posts — though that's important, too — but also that the crawlers understand the hierarchy and relationship of all the pages to each other.
For example, if you have a 'services' page and a whole bunch of individual services that act as subpages to that page, the sitemap will help make that clear to crawlers. The better they understand your site, the better they can determine what your site should rank for.
What Is A Sitemap?
Sitemaps are special files or pages that are written for easy interpretation by search engines of the types of content on your website. They're often XML files, and contain ordered lists of the various pages, posts, tags, categories, etc. in your site so that a machine reading them can get a quick overview of everything publicly visible on the site.
Creating A Sitemap
Years ago sitemaps had to be manually generated by sites that took a snapshot of sorts of your website. Users could upload these sitemap files to places like Google Webmaster Tools to direct search engine attention to them. These days most SEO plugins like Yoast and All in One SEO will auto-generate XML sitemaps for easy use. Yoast, for example, creates a sitemap URL structure like "your-domain.com/sitemap_index.xml". All you have to do once this is created is add this URL to Webmaster Tools (Google and Bing's) and the search engines will periodically crawl your sitemap.
Since the plugin-generated sitemaps are updated automatically as you create new pages and blog posts, you generally don't have to do anything further as the sitemap is concerned. Whenever Google or Bing send crawlers to inspect the sitemap, it will always show the most recent readout of your material.
Sitemaps are important in general as you continue to build new content out, but particularly so on the launch of a new website. If the site domain is new, i.e. there's never been a site tied to it before, you'll be starting from scratch on being indexed. Google will have nothing about the site in its database, so the faster the crawlers can assimilate your site's content the better.
Remember: you can't rank for any search terms if you're not indexed.
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