The Beginner’s Guide to Google Webmaster Tools
Google Webmaster Tools is one of the most useful services on the web for any webmaster, and it’s completely free to use and access. The problem is, many inexperienced users are unfamiliar with the service, and are intimidated by the options and tools available. Fortunately, the basics of Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) are more approachable than you might think, and throughout this “Beginner’s Guide,” we’ll introduce you to the highlights of the service.
What Is Webmaster Tools?
Before we get started detailing the most useful features available, you’ll need to have an understanding of what GWT is used for, and why it’s important. GWT is a free selection of tools and features designed to help webmasters and entrepreneurs better understand the ins and outs of their website. Many of these tools are designed to help webmasters understand how and why their site ranks in Google, but there are several other tools available.
Signing up for Webmaster Tools is a snap—all you’ll need is a functioning Google account. Hopefully, you’ve already got a Google Analytics login. You can use this account for Webmaster Tools as well.
Verifying Your Site
Once you’ve got your login setup, you can add your site (or your first site, if you’re managing multiple domains). To verify a site, you’ll need to enter the URL of your chosen domain. From here, there are a few different ways you can verify your ownership over that domain—the easiest way is to upload the custom HTML file that Google generates for you. Once your domain is verified, you’ll be able to start pulling information and making positive changes.
Viewing the Dashboard
Your Dashboard is going to provide a great snapshot of where things stand with your selected domain. The default selections for your introductory dashboard are:
- New notifications, which will appear if there are any new or attention-worthy developments on your site
- Crawl errors, which can occur from time to time and interfere with your site’s visibility and presence on SERPs
- A graph of inbound search queries, including how many impressions and clicks those queries generated, and
- A list of your current sitemaps, which you can manage
You can view all of these pieces of information in more detail on other areas of GWT. For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be introducing you only to the basics of each section.
The Site Messages section, which you can find on the left-hand index of GWT, is essentially an inbox that Google will use to communicate with you. Generally, these messages are few and far between, but you’ll want to check back periodically to see if there have been any significant developments that warrant your attention. For example, Google may send you a message if it detects that your site has been the victim of a hack attempt.
The Search Appearance section is your gateway to understanding and customizing how your site appears in the context of external searches. If you’re currently using structured data on your site (which you should be), you’ll be able to test and see how Google views this structured data, and how that translates to live search results. If you aren’t happy with how your site or site links appear, you’ll be able to control those qualities by adjusting the structured data on your site. In order to do this, you’ll need a bit of HTML knowledge.
The Data Highlighter is a tool anyone can use to help Google understand the most important information on your site. Using this tool, you can explore, tag, and categorize certain pieces of information as they appear on your site and customize how that data appears in searches. For example, you can highlight a series of upcoming events to have them stand out under specific search queries.
While Google usually fights back against search engine optimizers, the HTML Improvements section is designed almost exclusively to help webmasters rank better for search queries. Here, you’ll be able to view any recommendations Google has about the HTML of your site. For example, it may list any missing or duplicate title tags, and any meta descriptions that are too long or too short. This is an extremely useful tool for search engine optimizers trying to maximize the visibility of their site.
The Site Links section is designed to help you customize the sub-links that appear under your homepage link for some queries. Google generally selects these sub-links for you, but if you have a different preference, you can change them up here.
The Search Traffic section of GWT is one of the most useful for SEO:
- Under Search Queries, you’ll be able to view a list of specific user search queries that led to your site. You’ll find information such as impressions, clicks, CTR, and average position for each query over a given period of time.
- Under Links to Your Site, you’ll be able to take a look at all your backlinks and determine whether there are any problems or improvements to be made in your backlink building strategy.
- Under Internal Links, you can explore your onsite navigation and find areas for potential improvement.
- Under Manual Actions, you can review any potential penalties that Google might have given you. Fortunately, these types of penalties are quite rare, but keep an eye out for them, just in case. Many can be appealed.
- Under International Targeting, you can explore how your site appears in international searches.
- Under Mobile Usability, you can review and analyze any potential errors your site contains when displaying on a mobile device.
The Google Index section helps you understand how your site appears in Google’s massive search index:
- Under Index Status, you’ll see the total number of URLs under your domain that are being indexed. If you see any major spikes or drops, it could be an indication of a problem.
- Under Content Keywords, you’ll be able to view a list of what Google interprets are the most important keywords used throughout your site.
- Under Remove URLs, you can specifically request some of your URLs to be hidden from Google search bots—this can be extremely useful if you have duplicate pages or other irrelevant content that should not be indexed.
The Crawl section is the perfect place to see how Google is crawling your site, and proactively detect if there are any problems:
- Under Crawl Errors, you’ll see notifications for any pages of your site that cause problems for Google’s crawlers.
- Under Crawl Stats, you’ll see specific information about how these bots crawl your site.
- Under Fetch as Google and robots.txt Tester, you can view your own pages exactly how Google views them—which is useful for troubleshooting specific crawl issues.
- Under Sitemaps, you can view and manage the sitemaps you’ve submitted for your site.
- Under URL Parameters, you can correct any problems with your URLs that have caused indexing issues. You generally don’t need to use this unless you’ve encountered a problem.
Security Issues is another section where Google will update you if it detects something is wrong. If, for any reason, the security of your site has been compromised, this is where you’ll hear about it first.
Google has a variety of other resources available in GWT, including a Structured Data Testing Tool that can help you test your structured data, a Google Places integration which is extremely valuable for local businesses, and PageSpeed Insights, which can help you make all your pages load faster on all browsers and devices. Most of these are advanced features that may not be helpful for all users, but definitely feel free to explore them once you’ve mastered the basics.
It will take some time before you’re formally acquainted with GWT. Google has gone to great lengths to make such a useful, massive tool available for webmasters around the world—you might as well take advantage of it. As you become more seasoned, you’ll learn more tips and tricks on how to make GWT work for you, but for now, focus on becoming familiar with the basic layout.
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