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Getting To Grips With Google Webmaster Tools

Whether you have only just started your own website, or are an experienced webmaster, or an SEO professional, Google Webmaster Tools can be your friend.  However, as the old saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. If you’re serious about pursuing an SEO strategy and developing your site so that you are able to reach page one for your chosen keywords, then webmaster tools will be key to that quest. Misuse them, however, and they can be as bad as the most horrific black hat search strategy you could ever dream up.

Rather than be a ‘warts and all’ guide to all of the ins and outs of Google Webmaster Tools, this looks at some of the more important aspects, why you should pay attention to them, and how they will impact on your search success in both the short and longer term.

For easy reference with the webmaster tools interface, so you can click across and check them for yourself as you read this, the points we explore will start at the top of the dashboard interface and work their way down.

Check Your Messages

We’d suggest doing this on a daily basis. You don’t need to check anything that you deem to be low priority, but don’t fall into the dangerous trap of “I never receive anything of value.”

The reason?

Chances are that the day you take that outlook is the day Google themselves have sent you a message warning of potential spam, or that unnatural links are popping up across the internet pointing right at your site.

This could be nothing to worry about, or it could mean that you’re about to be hit with a heavy penalty that could damage your site and business. Either way, it is something you need to know about.

Tailor Your Settings Accordingly

Altering your settings is one of the few opportunities you get to tell Google what you want, rather than taking action to fit in with what they’re looking for.

The settings function of webmaster tools gives you three options.

  • Geographic location – If you have a general top level domain, such as a .com or .org one, this can have a detrimental effect if your targeting a specific location, such as the UK. Selecting the location you want your site to target will mean it is marked as relevant for that area, and ensures that you are appearing in the results you want to, as well as those that mean the most to searching businesses or consumers.
  • Preferred domain – How do you want your website name to appear in search engines? The choice is simple, either have the www dot before the name of your site and top level domain, or have www.yourwebsitename.com. You might have to verify – and check! – that you own both, but choose the way you would like Google to index your site.
  • Crawl rate – It is usually best just to leave this setting to Google’s recommended rate. However, if you have issues with bandwidth this can cause your site to become significantly slower, so you may need to limit the crawl rate. We do recommend solving any website issues first before doing this, however, as if they are crawling your site with less frequency, you could be missing ranking improvements.

Sitelinks

A sitelink, if you weren’t already aware, is the links that appear beneath your domain name in search results.

Sitelinks are small or large, and as such appear in two ways.

  • Small sitelinks are probably the ones you are most familiar with. This is when a series of links appears in one line, almost like a breadcrumb trail, in blue after the page or site description
  • Large sitelinks are when you see the title page of the website, the domain, and then a selection of six pages, and their descriptions, beneath the homepage listing.

Unfortunately, you cannot control whether you have a small or large sitelink, or any at all, on your search ranking. It is dependent on the level of authority and credibility your site has in relation to the search term. For example, if you are a professional SEO, and you acquire a large sitelink for “professional SEO services,” you can be happy that your content and search strategies are working.

So where does webmaster tools come in? The purpose of webmaster tools for sitelinks is that you can demote a particular sitelink. For example, if Google is showing the following pages in your sitelink,

  • About Us
  • Products
  • Services
  • Testimonials

But you don’t want one of them to appear, you can ask them to lose it. However, think carefully about doing this. What if the content on that particular page is what won you the sitelink in the first place? Losing a sitelink can happen and, although it is not a traditional Google penalty, your site can still suffer as a result.

URL Parameters

You can use this tool if there are certain pages on your site you do or do not wish for Google to index and appear in search results. However, for a novice using webmaster tools for the first time, it is easier than you’d think to make a mistake and find that suddenly 70% of your website is off the radar.

If in doubt, don’t use it, and instead make use of easier to implement no index/no follow or robots.txt in order to remove the pages you don’t want the search engines to see. If it’s the case that you’re still developing certain pages, use your content management system to set them up as ‘hidden.’

Change of Address

When you started your business or launched your website, you might not have been able to get the domain you want. Whether you win an auction at a site like GoDaddy, or have managed to secure a backorder for a particular domain, use this tool to tell Google about it.

This way, all of your existing SEO efforts will remain relevant and ensure you maintain your existing search position.

If you fail to tell Google, well, you’ve probably worked out what happens.

Crawling Errors

If we weren’t working our way down Google’s dashboard, we would probably feature this somewhere nearer to the top of the list.

This page details any problems with your site that Google has identified that you need to deal with. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Google are just picking up on problems for the sake of it; this is something that should be near the top of your agenda on a daily basis.

Ultimately, you don’t know if any of these errors are potentially affecting the user experience of your site. Why risk losing a customer because of a broken link or page when you can probably fix it in minutes?

Crawl Stats

Use this feature to analyse how many pages Google are crawling each day, as well as how much is downloaded, and the time taken to do it.

You cannot do much in the way of direct action with this report, but you should use the following as indicators:

  • If you are seeing a lot of pages crawled, that is positive, meaning Google is taking an interest in your content
  • If lots of content is being downloaded, this is another positive sign. Be sure to check that these downloads are in areas where you have submitted fresh content recently – why would Google be spending time downloading an ‘About Us’ page that hasn’t changed in months?
  • Download time is the key, and will indicate how quick your pages are, which Google will use to directly influence your search ranking.

Which URL’s are Blocked?

We find it strange this page doesn’t follow on from the URL Parameters page, but we’re not about to start questioning Google’s might. Use this to see the pages that Google aren’t crawling and indexing.

If you find that you are blocking a page filled with valuable, fresh new content, get it unblocked so it can begin to be indexed immediately!

Fetch As Google

If you ever wanted to put yourself in Google’s shoes, then this is your chance. All it does is show you whether pages on your site are accessible. It doesn’t sound much, but if you have a large site in the hundreds in terms of page numbers, it can be a great way to identify any errors quickly.

Indexed Status

This is a great report to use in conjunction with the two previously mentioned and the URL Parameters tool. It shows you how many pages of your website are indexed against how many there actually is in total.

If these numbers are far apart, what could it show?

  • You have several pages of duplicate content
  • Some pages are inaccessible entirely or are too slow to download
  • You haven’t used the Blocked URL’s report correctly or taken action
  • You need to hire a professional webmaster to take a look at your site

Okay, so we said the last thing in jest, but it should underline just how serious a problem you could have.

Malware

Nothing flashy about what goes on here, but again it is something you need to check regularly.

Obviously, you’re hoping not to find any issues, but if you do, you can usually deal with them quickly.

Search Queries

This screen doesn’t do all that much in terms of value. Rather than paying any great attention to it in terms of your search ranking, or who is searching from where, just look out for peaks and troughs in search queries and investigate why they might have happened. If you have an issue, however, it is likely to be visible in several other webmaster tools.

External Links

You will already know about the power of link building and the impact that both good and bad links can have on a website. This tool is great for discovering the bad links that are likely to be undermining your search strategy, so you can then head off and potentially do something about it.

Here, you can see a list of all the sites linking to you, and the anchor text that they use.

How you deal with incoming links you don’t want is your choice. If you have a shedload of them and want the quickest solution, showing browsers coming from there a 404 page or redirecting them elsewhere might be the best course of action.

Webmaster tools does contain a disavow links tool, which you’ll find at the bottom of the list.

Internal Links

One huge mistake that many novice SEOs make is underestimating the power of internal links. Another is going too far and flooding their sites with internal links, an action that then sees them land a penalty or simply not be indexed at all.

Use internal links as much as you can but only where, and when, it is relevant to do so. If you’re going to flood all of your pages with links, you might as well go submitting your site to a link farm, as it’ll have the same impact.

This page will show you your internal linking pattern, and give you an idea of whether you’ve gone overboard or not.

Sitemaps

Google love a sitemap, and having a good one is a great way to pick up a quick win in terms of SEO. Ensure you submit at least one, the XML sitemap, to Google, and check this page regularly to look out for any errors that need resolving.

Removed URL’s

While it might seem that this should be with the other URL related tools, we love the fact that this is kept out of the way. This feature allows you to remove pages of your website from Google’s index.

Like URL Parameters, we’d recommend novices staying away from it, but even if your experienced, mistakes are so easy to make that it might be worth avoiding altogether.

HTML Improvements

Are you being penalized for duplicate content but have no idea where it all is? This might sound outlandish, but on a large website, it can happen easily.

This tool is your friend, however, as it will point you towards any duplicate content on your site, as well as tags that are too long, too short, and any problems with page titles.

Content Keywords

You probably already know the keywords you are using on your site, but this function will allow you to see your most common keywords, enabling you to come up with a plan for using other relevant words that will make your overall site content clearer in the eyes of Google.

Structured Data

Some industry analysts are predicting that structured data is set to become a huge part of SEO algorithms through 2013 and beyond.

This tool is a great way to begin getting to grips with it. They will tell you how many pages feature structured data, as well as the types of structured data within these.

Other Resources

This small section of webmaster tools features three features that you could find useful:

  • Rich Snippets is a testing tool for Google to check that it can understand any mark up, such as Schema, you have used on your site.
  • Google Places – now called Google+ Local, but shockingly Google haven’t updated it yet! – can be used to input your location if you haven’t yet started your local optimization activities.
  • Google Merchant Center is for e-commerce sites to upload their product data. This is now integrated with AdWords, so ensure you open an AdWords account, or connect them if you already have one, to rank well on the ‘Shopping’ pages of search results.

Author Stats

Your Google+ account is probably the best place to gauge your authoring successes, but this will show how much your articles are being read if your author account is attached to your website.

Custom Search

If you have a Google search bar on your site, this is where you can see the most popular search terms. This might sound needless, but it could give you some idea to whether your landing pages convey what your site is about well enough.

Instant Previews

This is similar to Fetch as Google, but can show you what your site will look like on a mobile device, which could be useful as web design becomes more mobile-orientated over the coming months.

Site Performance

We’ve only listed this because it is still in the webmaster tools, but Google don’t actually use it anymore.

Instead, use the Analytics ‘Site Speed’ tool or the PageSpeed Insights tool.

Disavow Links

We’d only suggest you use this tool if you’re an experienced SEO and know the real differences between a good and bad link. If you’re unsure, then stay away from it. You don’t want to disavow a link thinking it is coming from a bad site when in fact it is good!

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