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I don't know if it "officially" speeds up your ranking, but from experience, I have found that it definitly speeds up the listing of new pages in an existing site.
It is also a good tool for letting you see link errors etc etc.
One other interesting use .... one of our sites was actually de-listed from Google during the summer. We have gone from PR 7 to PR 0 and, while we have sent many emails and made many changes, we have still had no reply from Google as to why we were de-listed.
Looking through Google sitemaps interestingly shows us that our site IS getting crawled a lot and it DOES still have an excellent PR. We obviously just have to twiddle our thumbs until we re-appear in the listings.
Once you have done this, you then have to submit it to register it with Google. Google then provide you with instructions.
These instructions will include instrcutions to create a file called something like Google444h4456ll.htm and place it on your server.
From within your sitemap pages you can then hit Verify. Google then checks your sitemap and uses the above mentioned .htm file to make sure the sitemap file is your and is on your servers.
A fairly general explanation, but I hope it helps.
Google mentions that you can use text files. I realize text files wouldn't provide info like how often a page changes. What I'm wondering is if it is advisable to use the text pages until I figure out XML.
Also, I'm curious if other search engines utilize sitemap files. If they do is it only XML files? Or will they index the text file as well?
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
Then for each page:
<lastmod>date of last modification</lastmod>
And finally, finish the file with
Don't be scared thinking you have to learn XML.
We rank 13 for a keyword and a competitor ranks 2 for the same keyword. I compared our pages and we should be ahead of this competitor if it wasn't for the fact that our page (not the site) has no inbound links while his page (not his site) has a few and accordingly a bit of a page rank (again, I am not talking about his our our general page rank but just the raking of the pages in question).
Or is the rank of a subpage irrelevant?
However, that's a bit off topic -- does submitting to Google Sitemap help with indexing. I've seen reports that for some people it has.