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The other day, I stumbled across this quote: “The expectations of life depend upon diligence; the mechanic that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools. – Confucius.” It got me thinking—I see a lot of business owners spending too much time and money searching for better SEO tools when what they should be doing is learning how to use the tools they already have!
I’d estimate that 65 percent of people reading this already have two incredibly powerful SEO tools in place and don’t even realize it.
A great example is Google Webmaster Tools. Right now, there’s a proliferation of SEO tools being brought to the market. Even Blue Corona has created one (and, I’m not going to lie, it IS absolutely awesome!), BUT most of you don’t need another tool—yet. What you need is a framework within which to assess your web marketing (including your SEO) and a better understanding of how to use the tools you already have.
Google Webmaster Tools—or GWT for short—is an incredibly powerful tool for improving your website’s SEO, but like any other tool, the output depends entirely on the user. Give a handyman a table saw and he/she can probably build you your dream house. Give the same saw to me and all you’ll end up with is an Internet marketing expert missing a few fingers!
In this blog post, I’m going to walk you through the basics of Google Webmaster Tools, a tool that many of you already have in place and just don’t know it!
The Basics of Google Webmaster Tools
Before I go much further, if you don’t have Google Webmaster Tools setup for your website(s) or you’re not sure how to access it, stop reading this now and hire an SEO expert to audit your website. Why? I can’t speak for our competitors, but part of our SEO audit process includes installing and customizing tools like Google Analytics and Webmaster Tools. When the need exists, we’ll also show you and your staff how to use them.
Make Sure Your XML Sitemap Is Correct
The process of setting up Google Webmaster Tools typically involves the creation of an XML sitemap. If your website were a house, your XML sitemap would be an inventory list detailing where everything is. When Google’s software (aka. Googlebot, search spiders, etc.) comes to visit your site, an XML sitemap tells it all the pages that are on your site.
This is important because Google doesn’t rank websites. Google ranks webpages.
Each page of your website represents an opportunity to rank for a set of related keywords, but only if Google can find your pages.
If your website uses a content management system (CMS) like WordPress, Joomla, or Drupal, there are plugins and/or modules that will create an XML sitemap for you and automatically updated it as you add/edit/remove pages on your site. If your website is coded in plain HTML, you’ll need to visit a website like this, create your own XML sitemap, and then upload it to the root of your web server.
Before you dive into the data in Google Webmaster Tools, you want to make sure that your XML sitemap:
- Is in the proper format preferred by Google (sitemap Protocol 0.9 as defined by sitemaps.org)
- Has been properly recognized/verified by Google Webmaster Tools
Familiarize Yourself with the GWT Dashboard
When you login to Google Webmaster Tools, you’re taken to the Dasboard area which looks like this:
The Google Webmaster Tools dashboard highlights four aspects of your website that are critical from an SEO perspective:
- Crawl Errors
- Search Queries
Not found on the dashboard, but also very important for SEO, is information about the websites linking to yours. We’ll save explaining that feature for another time. For now, just get a feel for the information contained on the four elements listed above and the dashboard in general.
You’ll want to pay special attention to the top line—messages. This is where Google will communicate with you if they detect problems with your website. That’s right—the messages section of Google Webmaster Tools opens up a direct line of communication between you and Google!
When you don’t have GWT in place and/or you don’t check your messages, it’s as though Google is calling your office and no one is picking up.
What type of messages does Google send? Let’s say Googlebot tries to crawl your website and can’t access it, you’ll receive a message(and an email—if you set things up that way) that says, “Googlebot can’t access your website.” Another type of message—related directly to SEO—is sent if Google detects that your website is in violation of their quality guidelines. While some messages can arguably be ignored, generally speaking, it’s important that read whatever messages you receive and take immediate action if and when there is an issue.
Now that you have the basics down, here are three ways you can use GWT’s other features to improve your website’s SEO:
1. Identify and Fix Crawl Errors
In order to rank well organically, your website needs to be coded and structured in a way that makes it easy for search engines to find and crawl (read). Crawl errors are problems with your website’s code that have the potential to confuse Googlebot.
Providing comprehensive and accurate search results is an enormous task. Google scans trillions of webpages—categorizing them in their index and ranking them against one another using relevance and authority. It’s a resource intensive job, so as a website owner, you want to make their job as easy as possible.
Crawl errors can act like virtual speed bumps and even road blocks for Google—making it difficult or impossible for it to find your website pages.
Crawl Error Example
One of the most common types of crawl errors is a 404 error. One way 404 errors get created is when you link to a new page on your website using the wrong URL (address). Let’s say you own a residential plumbing company and you launch a drain cleaning division. As part of the launch of the new division, you create a new drain cleaning page and link to it from your existing plumbing services page. The URL of your new page is: www.yourplumbingco.com/services/drain-cleaning-services, but you mistakenly link to: www.yourplumbingco.com/drain-cleaning-services.
The result is a broken link which creates a 404 error. Because you’re smart and you’ve got GWT in place, you get an alert via email from Google telling you that there’s been an increase in crawl errors detected on your website. You login to GWT and visit the crawl errors section where you see the problem—broken links generating 404 errors.
Google is fond of saying that business owners should optimize their websites for users—not search engines. Crawl errors provide a poor user experience. They frustrate visitors and have the potential to prevent Googlebot from finding and indexing your website pages. If your pages can’t be found, they won’t make it into Google’s index or be ranked in the organic search results.
Monitor and fix your crawl errors.
2. Get Actionable Insights from Search Queries
All too often, business owners make the mistake of using rankings for individual keywords a measure of SEO success. Rankings for individual keywords is a BAD way to measure SEO performance. Why? A number of reasons. For example, did you know that all search results are personalized? That’s right—the organic rankings you see when you search, “plumbers in your city” are NOT what your prospects are seeing.
A much better measure of success would be an upward trend in impressions from relevant keywords (year-over-year). Impressions from target keywords takes into account the quality of the keywords chosen and Google’s increasing personalization of the SERPs (search engine results pages). You’ll also want to examine the clicks you’re receiving—after all, what good are rankings and impressions if you don’t “win” the click? You can get this data from—you guessed it—Google Webmaster Tools.
To find this information in GWT, you need to visit the search queries section, create a filter for a target phrase, and see whether your impressions and clicks for keywords containing that phrase are trending up or down. If your business is seasonal, you’ll want to export the data to a spreadsheet and compare your results year-over-year.
Broadly speaking, if things are going up, your SEO campaign is working. If things are flat or down, you need to investigate.
3. Use Sitemaps to Identify Indexing Issues
As mentioned above, an XML sitemap can help Google find and index more of your website pages. However, just because you’ve included a webpage in your XML sitemap and alerted Google to that page’s existence, doesn’t mean that Google will crawl that page or add it to their index. By going into the sitemaps report in Google Webmaster Tools and examining the difference between the number of pages you’ve submitted vs. those actually added to Google’s index, you can identify opportunities to get more of your pages indexed and ranked.
Take a look at this:
The data in the chart above is from the sitemaps section of Google Webmaster Tools. The chart of the left is for one website and the chart on the right is from another website (and a separate GWT account).
On the left side of the screenshot above, you see a website with 196 webpages in their XML Sitemap. Google has indexed all but one of these.
On the right side of the screenshot, you see a website with 356 webpages listed/submitted in their XML sitemap, but only 334 have been added to Google’s index.
You’re probably wondering why Google doesn’t index all your submitted pages? The best way to close the gap between the number of webpages submitted vs. indexed is to increase the authority of the webpages not being indexed. One way to do this is by building more links (internal and external) to your pages (particularly those not being indexed). If you create a page on your website; link to it from only one other page, and fail to attract links from any other relevant/authoritative websites, Google probably won’t bother to crawl or index that page. After all, how important can a page with a single link really be?
This leads us to an advanced SEO / Google Webmaster Tools tip:
If you have a website with a lot of pages, it can be difficult to pin down which pages have been indexed and which haven’t. For example, in the screenshot above, we know that 22 pages have been submitted, but not indexed. What we don’t know is exactly which 20 pages. One way to narrow down indexing issues is to create multiple XML sitemaps and link them together using an XML sitemap index file.
Conclusion & Takeaways
I’ve been running a small business and helping other small business owners grow for the better part of the past 10 years. In that time, one of the most common mistakes I’ve seen is business owners that spend their time searching for a better tool instead of learning how to get the full value out of the tools they already have. There’s far more you can do to improve your website’s SEO using Google Webmaster Tools than you could possibly imagine. Before you buy another SEO software, try doing more with the free one you already have.
About The Author: Ben Landers is the President and CEO of Blue Corona, a data-driven, inbound internet marketing company. Submit an inquiry to book Ben to speak at your next conference or event.
View more blogs by Ben Landers