Google’s Webmaster Tools program provides such a wealth of information that failing to take the few minutes necessary to set up your website with the program is downright foolish!
To get started with the program (or to get a bird’s-eye view of some of the changes that may have occurred since you last logged in), take a look at the following “How to” guide to using this great resource:
1: Sign up for an account
Obviously, the first step to using Google’s Webmaster Tools program to check your website’s health is to sign up for an account in the first place. You’ll need a Google account to do so, but once this is set up, navigate over to https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/.
There, you’ll find a welcome screen containing details on what exactly the program entails. If you like, you can view the Google Webmaster Tools introductory video from this screen.
2: Verify your website
Once you’ve submitted your website, you’ll be shown instructions on how to verify that you are, in fact, the true owner of the site. The program’s recommended verification process involves uploading a custom HTML file to your website’s root domain. Once you’ve added this file to your site (which can be done with any FTP program or your web hosting account’s built-in file management program), simply return to Webmaster Tools and click the “Verify” button.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to go to the trouble of uploading a verification file, Google gives you three different options:
Clicking on any of these radio buttons will display further instructions on how to use each alternative verification methods. Carry out your selection, click the “Verify” button and you’ll be taken to your Webmaster Tools dashboard.
3: Explore Google’s Webmaster Tools features
On your first visit to the Webmaster Tools dashboard, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information made available by the program. And while some of the included reporting tools contain data related to advanced SEO techniques, don’t panic. Check out the detailed guides below for further recommendations on which features you’ll want to pay attention to.
The “Messages” feature is one of the most important areas in Google’s Webmaster Tools, by far. In this section, you’ll see any direct communications from Google regarding the health of your website, so it’s a good idea to check back periodically to make sure you haven’t missed anything. Keep a special eye out for any notifications of inappropriate activity detected on your website, as these messages may give you advance warning of practices that should be changed to avoid incurring a penalty.
For the most part, you won’t need to change many of the details found in the “Configuration” section or interact with this information in any meaningful way. However, for your reference, a few of the items you’ll find in this section include:
- Whether Google displays your URLs using the www or non-www version
- How frequently the Googlebot crawls your website
- Which of Google’s automatically generated sitelinks should be demoted (if necessary)
- A notification tool to let Google know if you’ve changed your site’s URL
- The users who have access to your Webmaster Tools profile
Again, nothing groundbreaking here. However, you will want to at least familiarize yourself with the options found here, should you need to make administrative changes down the road.
The “Health” section of Google’s Webmaster Tools program is where things start to get interesting. This area provides tons of information on how well the Googlebot is able to interact with your website, so there are a few particular features you’ll want to pay attention to:
- Crawl Errors: Crawl errors occur when the Googlebot can’t reach certain pages on your site. This feature provides a list of all instances in which these errors occurred, enabling you to make the necessary site changes to restore access.
- Index Status: This Webmaster Tools shows you exactly how many pages the Googlebot has indexed on your site, as well as how this number has changed over time.
- Malware: Hopefully, you’ll never encounter issues with hacked or malware-ridden sites. However, if Google detects any malware on your site, you’ll see a notification here.
While the specific results shown here might not influence your day-to-day SEO strategies, it’s still a good idea to check these individual tools every so often to ensure that your site is still functioning normally.
For many webmasters, the bulk of their Webmaster Tools activities will occur in the “Traffic” section, where Google reports the most detailed information about how your search presence results in web traffic. As a result, all of the individual features here deserve special mention:
- Search Queries: The “Search Queries” tool tracks the specific search phrases for which your site has been seen in the SERPs, as well as a rough estimate of the number of clicks you’ve received for each phrase, your click-through rate and the average position in which your site was ranked. The same information is displayed for the top pages on your site, making this information a goldmine for SEOs who are tracking results for specific keyword phrases.
- Links to Your Site: While Webmaster Tools doesn’t provide complete data on your site’s backlink profile, you can still find plenty of great information here regarding the sites that are linking in to yours and the pages on your site that have received the most links.
- +1 Reports: Although the exact mechanism by which the number of “+1” votes your site garners on its search results placements isn’t exactly known, the information found in this section still serves as a great barometer for how well your social media marketing campaigns and brand awareness initiatives are paying off.
Pay special attention to this section, as the data found here could play a major role in how you structure your SEO campaigns going forward.
The “Optimization” section of Google’s Webmaster Tools deals with more of the on-site activities that are needed to achieve positive SEO results. As a result, a few of the specific features you’ll want to pay attention to in this area include:
- Sitemaps: If you haven’t yet uploaded your website’s sitemap, take the time to do so using this feature.
- Remove URLs: Use this tool to generate a custom robots.txt file that specifies exactly how the search engine’s automated spiders should read and parse your website’s content.
- HTML Improvements: A quick glance at the information found here will let you know whether or not changes should be made to your website’s meta tags.
- Structured Data: If you make use of microdata on your website (and you really, really should), check this page to track the specific types detected on your website.
Though this section of the Webmaster Tools program doesn’t give you as much actionable information as the “Traffic” toolset, you’ll still want to check these features regularly to ensure that your on-site activities are being carried out correctly and detected by Google.
Finally, the “Labs” section includes a number of fun “beta” tools that will help you to get even more out of your website. In particular, take a look at:
- Author Stats: With the growing importance of the “rel=author” tag, you’ll want to use this Webmaster Tools feature to identify and track all of your verified content.
- Site Performance: Site speed is another major SEO factor, and this tool will tell you how your website is performing compared to others, as well as what you can do to improve your results. If you’re having trouble gaining traction with your SEO activities, addressing site speed concerns might be one of the fastest ways to bring about positive results.
Obviously, this list of Webmaster Tools features isn’t comprehensive, though it should provide a good starting place for beginning webmasters and SEOs.
Take the time to explore the service more thoroughly on your own and experiment with some of the more advanced features found within the program. With time and practice, you’ll be able to use the detailed information found here to make substantial improvements in your site’s overall SEO.