Google Webmaster Tools – The Absolute Essentials
Google Webmaster Tools has a great wealth of information about your site, in fact, it’s probably the most valuable tool (after Analytics, hence the name above) that Google provides to webmasters and SEOs. The first step is of course, signing up for Webmaster tools, and then validating that you own the site you want to get data on. It’s important to claim both the “www” and “non-www” versions of the site so that you can set up a 301 redirect from one to the other- otherwise, Google will continue to see the two different URLs as two totally different sites.
The Dashboard is the first thing you’ll see when logging in, and as you’d expect it contains a high-level summary of some important metrics. These are:
Search queries- for the time frame specified, this is a list of the top 10 organic search queries that drove traffic to their site. The “Impressions” column shows the number of times the site appeared on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP), and the “Clicks” column shows how many times people clicked through to the site after seeing your URL on the SERP. You can click the “more” link directly underneath to see a much more robust set of data, including a graph showing change over time for impressions and clicks over the last month, as well as click through rates (CTR) and average position on the SERP for each keyword phrase. You can choose to view these reports either by “Top Queries” or “Top Pages”, depending on if you want to see data for inbound traffic, or data for content. PLEASE TAKE THESE NUMBERS WITH A VERY LARGE GRAIN OF SALT and not as gospel truth.
Also on the dashboard are summary reports of crawl errors, inbound links, and “what keywords Google thinks your site is about”. We’ll dive into these a little deeper, later in the post.
The next item after the dashboard in the navigation is “messages”. Make sure you check this from time to time as there can be valuable alerts here about domains changing ownership, WordPress updates, an unusually high number of URLs found in crawls, etc.- basically, anything that might be a showstopper for the site is listed here.
Site Configuration is up next, which covers Crawler Access, Sitelinks, Change of Address, Settings and URL Parameters.
Crawler Access is important for spotting errors or misconfigurations with the site’s robots.txt file. Basically, this page summarizes what your robots.txt file is controlling and allows you to whether your site can be efficiently crawled by the various User agents- spiders- that comb the web for information. The “Sitelinks” section allows you to set, once you’re big and authoritative enough, what appears on the SERP as sitelinks. “Change of address” basically just provides recommendations for moving the site to a new URL. “Settings” lets you set a preferred geographic target country, define a crawl rate, and set a preferred domain – either www.site.com or site.com. Incidentally, this also appears to function as a redirect, I have not claimed “www.franirwin.com” in Webmaster Tools; however, I have set “franirwin.com” as the preferred domain and typing in “www.franirwin.com” will properly redirect to “franirwin.com”. Sort of a canonical redirect hack! Stay away from the “URL parameters” menu unless you know what you’re doing, because if you accidentally tell Google to exclude a bunch of URLs that’s going to cause pages to get de-indexed, traffic to fall, and conversions to drop, which makes us sad Pandas. NOT THAT KIND OF PANDA!
“Your Site on the Web” is sort of a Google Analytics lite. “Search Queries” is the same interface you get when you expand the Query interface on the dashboard. The same goes for “Links to your site”- it shows in detail, who’s linking to you, what your most-linked content is, and how your data is linked (meaning, what anchor text is being used). “Keywords” shows the most common keywords Google finds when they crawl your site- if this list doesn’t match your marketing goals, something is probably…off. “Internal Links” is as straightforward as it sounds, it’s a list of what pages on your site link to what other pages on your site. Rounding it all out is “Subscriber stats”, which shows you how many people are subscribing to your RSS feed. You DO have an RSS feed, right? You don’t? Why the hell not?!?!
+1 Metrics is just what it sounds like, a specific section of the report just for Google +1 data. It shows click data about your pages that have been +1’ed versus those that haven’t and provides some graphs as to activity (+1 volume over time) and also provides some demographics data after you have a lot of +1’s. To be honest, I haven’t played with this aspect of Tools yet- if you have and have some insight to share, let me know and I will do a blog post update with your insights.
Diagnostics is a very important section of the report. First of all, Google will let you know if they detected any malware when crawling your site. Usually they don’t find anything, and that’s what you want! The “Crawl Errors” section is very important as well, as it gives you summary tables of all the pages on the site that are serving 404 errors. It also tells you what pages on the site are linking to those pages. The “Crawl Stats” section gives you summary information, over the last 90 days, about how many pages Google is crawling, how much data they download, and how long a page takes to download. Watch this as you change things on the site to make sure none of your changes are causing long load times, or stopping Googlebot from crawling your site. The “HTML Suggestions” portion is also extremely important, as it will tell you how many duplicate, long, or short meta descriptions exist on your site, as well as how many missing, duplicate, too long, too short or non-informative title tags are included. Pay extra attention to the Title tag section- that’s a very important piece of real estate and you don’t want missing or duplicate content in those fields.
Rounding things out is the “Labs” section, which provides additional insights on site performance with historical data, instant preview snapshots so you can tweak how the instant preview appears on the SERP, and any video sitemaps you’ve uploaded.
These are just the basics, but there is a ton of information to be had in Google Webmaster tools. Make friends with it today!