Note: This document has been recently updated in terms of content to reflect the new categories and layout that Google has made to their webmaster tools since this article was last published in 2010. It is constantly being updated as Google updates their Webmaster Tools interface. -iRISEmedia staff
If you’re an SEO beginner, Google Webmaster Tools (also known as GWT, if my fingers get lazy) is a great place to start a site tuneup. If you’re buried in SEO minutiae and need to pull together some intelligent, actionable to-do items for your site, you could do a lot worse than signing in at Google.com/webmasters/tools. Here’s my quick guide to an SEO checkup, GWT-style:
1. Go Looking For Trouble
First, fix what’s broke. Use the Crawl Errors report as a great way to get a head start.
Click Crawl::Crawl Errors. This report will show all of the broken links Googlebot found in its last crawl of your site. It may also show ‘soft’ 404 errors – broken links that don’t deliver a proper 404 code – and pages where your server said “nope, I’m not responding. Phhbbbtttt.”
Fix the broken links wherever possible. If you can’t fix ‘em, build pages at the broken link destinations or use 301 redirects to reroute visitors.
2. Find Duplicates Duplicates
Haha. Get it? Duplicates twice… it’s funny… sniff. I crack myself up.
Duplicate content is a long-standing SEO bugaboo. Use the HTML Suggestions report to help diagnose duplication problems.
Click Search Appearance::HTML improvements. Then click duplicate meta descriptions or duplicate title tags. The report you see shows you pages that have identical description or title tags:
This report can give you great insight into duplicate content. Where there’s duplicate metadata, there may be duplicate pages. For example, I clicked one of the pages listed and found this:
The ?param=hello is creating a duplicate of my home page.
Even if you don’t find a single duplicate page, it’s important that you have unique, descriptive title tags and compelling description meta tags for each page. So combing through the HTML suggestions report is always helpful.
3. Find Crawl Depth Problems
In a perfect world, you want Google to crawl 100% of your site’s visible pages. Use the crawl stats report to see how close you’re getting to this ideal.
Now, click Crawl::Crawl stats. Google gives you a succinct report showing you how many pages Googlebot’s crawling per day, the number of kilobytes downloaded, and the average time spent downloading each page:
Ideally, you want to minimize time spent and kilobytes downloaded per day, and maximize pages crawled per day. But what really matters is trending.
If pages crawled per day decreases, but time spent downloading a page increases, check your site for performance problems. Poorly-compressed images, bloated code and server problems are a few issues that could be hurting Google’s ability to crawl your site.
4. Check Your Relevance
Now for some really neat-o stuff. Click Google Index::Content Keywords and you can see what Google thinks are the most common keywords on your site. You can use this information to better optimize your content around central themes and topics:
Then, click on each keyword to see any variants found on your site, and to see which pages Google deems most relevant to those terms:
You can use this information to map out keyword strategy, and figure out if the pages you want ranking for specific terms are on the right track.
5. Look At Rankings
Knowing what people type, and which searches get you clicks, is invaluable search intelligence. Use the Search queries report to gain great insight. Click Search Traffic::Search queries, and you’ll see a report like this:
Whoa. That’s a lot of data. Don’t panic! Break it down to what you really need:
- Impressions shows the number of times you appeared in a search result for that query.
- Clicks is the number of times folks clicked on your result for that query.
- CTR is clickthru rate: The number of clicks per impression.
- Average position is where you ranked.
Don’t treat this report as a benchmark for search performance. Rankings are a terrible benchmark, especially now that Google appears to be Bingifying their results pages. But you can look for easy improvements. For example, I think I should get more than 2% clickthru on ‘Google Analytics’. I click on that query and get a drill-down report:
The pages I see listed probably need better meta description tags, and maybe more compelling titles. By rewriting these to present a better call to action, I can potentially improve clickthru.
6. Gain Insight Into Link Strategy
Find out what links Google thinks are important: Click Search Traffic::Links to Your Site. Then:
- Look at ‘How your data is linked’ to review anchor text and see if you need to diversify;
- Look at ‘Who links the most’ to see inlinking domains; and
- Check ‘Your most linked content’ to find the ‘stickiest’ cotent on your site.
7. Check Your Site’s Structure
Take a look at Search Traffic::Internal links. Review which pages are getting the most links from within your site.
8. Check Messages
Make sure you click Site Messages and see if Google’s alerted you to any big changes. Examples include a sudden increase in the number of URLs found by Googlebot or possible site outages. Google doesn’t go out of its way to tell you if there’s a problem. So, if you see a message from them, you need to pay attention.
9. Check ‘Fetch As Googlebot’
Got a page that’s stubbornly refusing to show up in the Google index? Click Crawl::Fetch as Google. Type in the URL of the pesky page and run the tool. In a few minutes, you’ll get a report showing exactly what Google found, including the headers:
Use that report to see if there’s a specific problem, or if you just need to refresh content, build links or be patient.
Setup Is Easy
If you don’t yet have Google Webmaster Tools running on your site, setup is easy. Sign in to your Google account, then go to Google.com/webmasters/tools and follow the instructions. You’ll either need to upload a single file to your site, or add a simple META tag. If you’re using WordPress, you can use one of several easy plug-ins to handle the job for you.
There’s A Lot More
You can also use Google Webmaster Tools to:
- Test your rich snippets;
- Tweak sitelinks;
- Submit video sitemaps;
- Submit and diagnose your XML sitemap.
I can go on forever. But you’ll only see benefits if you do something. So start simple, do the checkup, and be sure to explore the many other diagnostic tools available in GWT.
Note: Bing has its own set of webmaster tools. They’re pretty nifty, too. Stay tuned for a checkup guide using Bing’s webmaster toolset.