It’s typical for small businesses (SMBs), bloggers, or individual-owned businesses to put as much of their revenue as possible back into their businesses to help them grow, so expensive tools may not be an option for some.
Google Webmaster Tools (WMT) is an excellent tool for a few reasons:
- It’s free and integrates into Google Analytics.
- It gives you a dashboard to monitor site health, queries, or potential issues.
- It’s a vein directly from Google, so you’ll be able to know fairly quickly if your websites may be in the process of receiving a penalty or manual action.
If you keep your eye on some of the useful sections of Google WMT in lieu of more expensive tools, you can make do on a limited budget. By understanding these components of Google WMT, you can keep a finger on your website’s pulse, quickly diagnose potential problems, and monitor your site for any rapid changes.
This is by no means an extensive guide to everything (for example, I’m not touching on disavowing links because I don’t feel that should be tampered with unless it’s by a seasoned consultant), nor is it meant to give definitive answers to fix potential issues.
I’m a big advocate for keeping a consultant on retainer so that if you do have specific questions, or see something out of the norm in Google WMT, you have someone with expertise to tap into for help.
Site Messages and Site Dashboard
I check this every few days, for both my personal websites and my clients’ sites. Multiple messages can come through here, including:
- Website errors (increase in “not found” errors)
- Accessibility concerns (Google can’t access your site)
- Traffic concerns (high volume of traffic to a specific URL)
- Potential issues that could lead to penalties (unnatural link warnings typically come through here)
The Dashboard section is incredibly useful to get a bird’s eye view of some of these items of concern for your website. If you have an analyst on your team, or someone who handles marketing, they should be monitoring this section for any abnormalities.
Search Appearance – Sitelinks
Sitelinks can appear in the SERPs underneath your description, and often display popular pages from your website.
There may be times when you don’t want specific sitelinks to show up (i.e., TOS pages, privacy policies, etc.) and WMT gives you the ability to “demote” certain sitelinks if you’d like to prevent them from showing up.
You also have the ability to remove the demotions later.
Monitoring – Google Index
The Google Index section is useful if you have a large site with many pages (such as an e-commerce site), or if you want to use tracking parameters, or make sure you’ve properly blocked pages via robots.txt.
This gives you a quick snapshot to monitor how many pages Google is indexing vs. how many pages are being blocked via robots.txt (on the advanced tab). The “total indexed” can be a better measure than using the site: operator in Google to get an estimated number. This is good to check because you can see any crazy fluctuations or sudden indexing/deindexing of pages.
If you’re attempting to block pages via robots.txt, it’s also another overall check to see if that’s working:
- Because the number of pages indexed isn’t always directly proportional to improving site performance, it’s important to make sure there aren’t any huge fluctuations or increases of pages here. This is especially true in the e-commerce space, because unkept parameters can often lead to multiple paths to the same product.
- It’s a great way to make sure that anything blocked via robots.txt isn’t creeping into the index. For example, if you’re 100% positive that you blocked directory X from the index, yet you aren’t seeing any URLs that are “blocked by robots” on the advanced tab, it may be worth checking to make sure the parameters were added correctly.
If you want to check the status of a particular URL to make sure it’s properly blocked, you can use the “Fetch as Google” option in the Crawl section.
Errors can often hinder site performance (especially if you’re not aware that they’re happening, and they’re happening in abundance due to recent website overhauls).
This section lets you see any errors, the response code it’s returning, and the date it was crawled/detected.
I wouldn’t spend too much time overanalyzing this, since it’s unlikely to make sense or help you make any kind of actionable decisions unless you’re working directly with somebody. The key here is again to look for any wild fluctuations that may fall in line with recent website/code updates.
If your website has a sitemap (or multiple sitemaps, depending on your structure and content) this is the area where it’s typically submitted so it can be monitored for errors. A well structured site won’t necessarily need to rely on a sitemap for discovery, but if you have one, it’s worth submitting it here.
If you have any pages that are throwing 404s, 500s, or redirects, they’ll be listed here. On the right side of the page, you can also see how many submitted URLs are actually being indexed.
Getting Around [Not Provided]
We all know the big issue with [not provided], and while there are other metrics that can be tracked, it really is a loss that we aren’t able to have access to that data anymore.
This section contains information related to search queries, backlinks to your site, internal links, and any kind of manual actions you may have to work to resolve.
The “search queries” section under “search traffic” is a way to keep track of your CTRs (click through rates), impressions, and average rankings.
Without getting into the nitty gritty of definitions since that information is readily available, this section is valuable for understanding what your website is ranking for, and whether you’re achieving clicks with those phrases. Just be aware that the “average rankings” can fluctuate due to many factors.
This can also be integrated into Google Analytics.
This is probably one of my favorite functions in WMT for tracking, even though it only goes back 30 days. The change section allows you to see the 30-day change of impressions, clicks, CTRs, and average position. There are many factors that’ll affect the change percentages here, including the amount of effort you’re putting into your strategy or how often you’re publishing content / generating links, etc.
This is another useful section that can help you understand which pages on your site are getting the most impressions, clicks, and with what average position. If you (again) don’t have access to tools that may cost a good amount of money to analyze backlinks to each individual page, this—triangulated with Google Analytics—can help give you a decent understanding of how your pages are performing, with the least amount of information.
Page Level Queries
If you’re curious what the search queries are at a page level, there’s a little drop down next to each URL that’ll let you look at the phrase, the impression count, and the clicks.
The “links to your site” portion is a good substitution for other tools, however I feel information is lacking there, and the refresh is slow. Regardless, this gives you insight into links Google has crawled and identified as linking to your website. You’re able to see who links the most, along with the volume, the individual content pieces and volume of links, and the anchor text.
This is the area where action shouldn’t be taken unless you’re experienced or working with a consultant who can either assist or guide you in the right direction.
I know, you’re probably asking what the purpose of adding this section in is if I’m just telling you to discuss it with someone. It’s more to prevent any kind of panic if you see a message come through.
Don’t take action here unless you’re seasoned. If you’re interested in learning more about the manual action section straight from the horse’s mouth, this support article from Google may help. (This would be a great topic for a part 2 of this series, since diving into what various messages here mean would make this exponentially longer.) If you see a message here, try to work with a consultant to identify the issues, and determine next steps to take.
Hacking and security breaches happen, and this section was added to alert webmasters of issues that need their attention. If there’s a warning here, if would be worth having your dev team take a look to see where the exploitations might have occurred.
This was just scratching the surface of everything there is to monitor or tweak in Google WMT at a beginner level. If you have any questions or would like to be pointed to other resources for items I may not have mentioned here, feel free to leave a comment!
(And if you’d like to see Selena tackle the Part 2 she mentioned regarding manual actions, let her know in the comments as well! —ISOOSI Admin)