Valuable search-engine-optimization tools that provide unique data tend to be expensive. Tools with limited data sets or limited capabilities tend to be free. Google Webmaster Tools bucks that trend by offering — for free — a unique data set and features that can't be found in any other tool.
I've previously addressed reasons to register for Google Webmaster Tools, in "Top 5 Reasons to Use Google Webmaster Tools." The purpose of this article is to explain how to use this amazing free tool set to improve your site's search engine optimization.
Getting Set Up
Before Google opens the doors to its treasure chest, you have to prove you own the site by going through a verification process. If you don't already have a Google account to access Webmaster Tools, create one. Then simply click on "Add a Site" on the Webmaster Tools home page to start the process. Every domain, subdomain and TLD — top level domain, the part after the period, such as .com, .net, .org — needs to be added and verified individually. For example, practicalecommerce.com, www.practicalecommerce.com, and developer.practicalecommerce.com are all separate sites in Google Webmaster's eyes, regardless of whether they contain separate content.
Once the sites are added, the sites can be verified several different ways. Click the "Verify" button next to each site, choose a verification method, and follow the directions. Meta tag and file upload are the two most common methods, and both require access to post or modify files at the root of the site.
Note that just "adding a site" gives zero access to data. The verification step is critical to actually using Webmaster Tools.
Tips and Tricks
The first thing to remember is that everything you see is temporary and most data is shown on a rolling 30-day basis. You can change date ranges on some charts, but the range only allows about 35 days. Consequently, you cannot compare data month over month or year over year — or compare data from before and after an algorithm change, for example — unless you’re regularly saving the data in Google Webmaster Tools to your own hard drive. For my SEO clients, I do this monthly in tandem with my regular monthly reporting.
Most charts have a download button, but some charts have two. Buttons that say “Download this Table” will download all of the available data for that report in a CSV format. Buttons that say “Download Chart Data” will download only the data shown in the chart. Take a screengrab of charts that don’t allow downloads, so at least the visual trends will be available for comparison even if the data can’t be manipulated.
Google developed its Webmaster Tools to use the same navigational cues as a regular website. If something is blue, you can click it and get more detail. Mouse over charts to see individual data points. Click the question marks for definitions and help.
Google Webmaster Tools Dashboard
Once verified and logged in, Webmaster Tools' home page features a dashboard of messages, crawl, traffic, and sitemap data. Pay careful attention to the messages section. If Google has detected malware, suspicious activity, a lot of new redirects or other types of behavior consistent with a site that has been hacked or is violating Webmaster guidelines, Google may warn you in the messages section. If the warning is expected, such as an alert about high numbers of redirects when you just changed URLs on a section of the site, then don’t worry about the message. If it’s unexpected, however, definitely look into the root cause of the message.
Google also places “Crawl Errors” on the dashboard. Google reports five different kinds of URL errors and three types of site errors. Don’t get too hung up on a few errors — there are often good reasons for pages to give a 404 error and occasional 500 errors are commonplace. However, if error numbers spike unexpectedly, investigate the cause with your IT team.
The “Search Queries” report is one of the biggest reasons to register for Google Webmaster Tools. The dashboard offers a snapshot of the report, showing organic queries, rankings, impressions and clicks over the last 30 days. Clicking through the snapshot will reveal a more detailed report. This is a fantastic report and will likely be your first stop on a regular basis.
Lastly, the dashboard displays some basic stats about XML sitemaps, including the number of URLs submitted via the XML sitemaps, the number of errors found at those URLs and the number of indexed pages. This section will be blank if you have not submitted an XML sitemap.