Ben Crosby

If you’re in digital marketing, you’ve likely heard the term “image sitemap” come up at least a few times in conversation. You know they’re important and that they help improve your page visibility to search engines, but you might not know what they are or do. 

Image sitemaps are an invaluable tool for search engine optimization (SEO) professionals looking to enhance their website’s visibility in image search results. In this guide, we’ll walk you through what they are, why you need one and how you can create your own to boost your site performance.

What Is an Image Sitemap?

While the technical SEO and developer jargon can seem overwhelming at first, image sitemaps aren’t too difficult to understand. 

Let’s start off with the basics, first: A sitemap is a type of file that provides search engines with information about the different pages, videos and, in our case, images contained on your website. You can think of it like a flowchart or web of each file and resource extending out from the homepage.

There are two primary types of sitemaps:

  • HTML Sitemap: This file contains a directory of links for each web page to present a user-friendly table of contents that helps visitors navigate your site.
  • XML Sitemap: This contains information and metadata about your website URLs and other page files written in code for search engine crawlers to understand.

An HTML sitemap file is typically created for other people to read, understand and use, while the XML file is created solely for search crawlers. Generally speaking, these traditional sitemaps cover all site content, from linked pages to videos and photos.

Sometimes it’s beneficial to create a separate sitemap exclusively for the pictures on your website. In these instances, an XML image sitemap can help capture and organize each image URL contained on your website. Similarly, you can create multiple sitemaps for the various types of rich content on your site, including videos and GIFs.

How Does Google Use Image Sitemaps?

To understand how image sitemaps are used by search engines, let’s take a look at Google as an example. Once Google crawlers have your image XML sitemap, they get to work discovering and indexing the images on your website.

Google image sitemaps are particularly useful for pictures that could be challenging for Google to find through traditional crawling, including those loaded with JavaScript. This is because they offer an alternative path to locate and index the images.

Do You Need an Image Sitemap?

Now that we understand what an XML image sitemap is, you’re likely wondering if you even need to create one — especially if you already have an existing sitemap that includes images. 

The truth is that not every website will need an image sitemap. For example, if your site doesn’t use many images, or they aren’t central to your site’s content, creating an XML file might be more hassle than it’s worth. Google’s Webmaster Tools will also allow you to add image tags to your existing sitemap to ensure they are indexed without the need to create a separate file.

While most websites doing SEO properly will have images coded in a way that’s easily discoverable and friendly to Google crawlers, this isn’t always the case. For instance, you might consider making a designated image sitemap if:

  • You just launched a new web page with important images.
  • You’d like to index new visual content quickly.
  • Your website uses a large number of photos, such as product images.
  • The content on your website changes regularly or with frequency.

It’s also not uncommon for images to be lazy-loaded only as you scroll down the page. While this saves bandwidth and improves page load times, it can hide images from search engines. In these cases, image sitemaps can help offload these images, loading them in such a way that they’re indexed and included in search results.

Ultimately, the decision to use an image XML sitemap will depend on your business, site and content. 

Creating an Image Sitemap

Whether your business relies on photos or you just want to ensure Google crawlers reach those hidden, un-indexed images, there are a few different ways you can create a Google image sitemap:

Manually Creating an Image Sitemap

Some companies may choose to go the manual route, creating a new XML file, listing the images they’d like to include, identifying where they’re found, and including the image URL and a short description. However, this can quickly become tedious and time-consuming. 

Having to painstakingly add each image tag and metadata is only really an option for small websites without a lot of images. Similarly, using Webmaster Tools to add tags to an existing Google XML sitemap can take up valuable time.

Automating Image Sitemap Generation

For those looking to streamline the process a bit, there are tools that can help automate image sitemap creation — even free ones like Angel Digital Marketing. Using an XML image sitemap generator, you simply plug in a web page URL, and the tool does the rest for you. Simply copy and paste the results into a tax file and save it as an XML file.

These solutions are obviously convenient, but just be sure they’re capturing the images, titles, captions and other metadata. You’ll also need to keep the image sitemap up-to-date as new images are added to your site. 

Best Practices For XML Image Sitemaps

When it comes to XML image sitemaps, whether for Google or any other search engine, the same best practices for general sitemaps still apply. However, you should also consider good SEO image practices, including:

Perform Regular Maintenance

Just like general sitemaps can quickly become outdated after multiple updates to a website, so too can image sitemaps. It’s important to regularly update and optimize your image sitemaps, providing Google Search Console with the information it needs to crawl and index your images. 

If you’re using an image sitemap generator, be sure to update the tool itself whenever new versions are available. You can also check in on your image sitemap every so often to ensure that nothing went missing or was incorrectly changed since the last update.

Compress Images

When publishing images to a web page, it’s typically best to compress them. Compressing image files will not only help the page load faster, but it will also improve the user experience as site visitors won’t have to wait around for things to load. Moreover, faster loading times will help earn higher rankings on the search engine results page (SERP). 

Use Alt Tags

Adding alt tags to your images is another crucial step. These small text blurbs are attached to pictures, describing what’s happening in the image. For this reason, alt tags are important for accessibility, but they also help Google crawlers contextualize the images for indexing. This ultimately improves your website’s visibility and, over time, its ranking on search engines.

Submitting an Image Sitemap to Google Search Console

Once you’ve created your image XML sitemap, you’ll have to submit it to Google Search Console.

  1. First, navigate to the image sitemap for your live site.
  2. Next, open your Google Search Console and click on the image sitemap.
  3. Here, you can remove old and outdated image sitemaps if you’ve already submitted some in the past.
  4. Under “Add a new sitemap,” input your new image sitemap URL and click “Submit.”
  5. Allow some time for Google to crawl and index your web page images.

While it may take a while (potentially several days) before your image sitemap is crawled, it can help improve the visibility of your visual content in the long run.