Almost every site owner understands the importance of Google Analytics. It’s an invaluable tool for getting information about the people who are visiting your site, and it arms you with the data necessary to improve website performance. Despite this, many are unfamiliar with another service from Google that is just as important—Google Webmaster Tools. In my experience, many site owners have heard of Webmaster Tools but haven’t actually used it and don’t quite understand how it’s different from Google Analytics. Some have even taken the important first step of setting up an account, but they don’t ever look at it.
Registering your site with Webmaster Tools is essential to maintaining your website’s health and performance, so it’s important to understand how to use the features it provides. If you’re new to Webmaster Tools, I hope this guide will make things a little less intimidating and encourage you to take advantage of the additional information Google provides through this service. We all know that when Google gives you data about your site, you should use it!
What Is Google Webmaster Tools?
I get asked this question quite a bit, and my standard answer is that it’s another tool from Google that complements the data provided in Google Analytics. While Google Analytics provides data about your site visitors, Webmaster Tools provides information about how Google interacts with your website, as well as some of the more technical aspects of website functionality. In essence, it helps you get a more complete picture of how the search engine views your site. In Google’s own words, Webmaster Tools is “a free service offered by Google that helps you monitor and maintain your site’s presence in Google search results.” They also add “You don’t have to sign up for Webmaster Tools for your site to be included in Google’s search results, but doing so can help you understand how Google views your site and optimize its performance in search results.”
Sounds pretty important, right? So…
How Do I Sign Up?
Fortunately, signing up for Google Webmaster Tools is relatively painless. To start, visit the Webmaster Tools homepage and sign in with your Google account (you’ll need to create one of these if you don’t have one already). Then, click the Add a Site button, and enter the URL for your site. Next, you’ll begin the verification process. This is for security purposes, and it’s how Google knows you’re actually a site owner before they share any details with you. Google offers several methods of verification, and you can pick the one that works best for you. If you’re not a developer, chances are you’ll need to use the Google Analytics method. Just make sure that you’re already signed up for Google Analytics and that you have administrator-level permissions. If you can’t verify via Google Analytics, you can always contact your web company for assistance with one of the other methods.
After you’ve verified your site, you’re all set up. Data should start appearing in one to two days.
For site owners who already use Google Analytics, I recommend enabling Webmaster Tools data in your Analytics account. Google has made strides to integrate these tools together, and linking them up provides you with some extra data in Analytics (primarily the Search Engine Optimization reports under Acquisition) so you don’t have to click back and forth quite as much.
To sync your Analytics and Webmaster Tools accounts, log in to Google Webmaster Tools and from your home screen, click the Manage Site button next to the site you want to link. Then, select Google Analytics property. Webmaster Tools will then populate a list of properties from your Analytics account. Simply select the corresponding Google Analytics property, click save, and BOOM… you’re done.
How to Use Google Webmaster Tools
Google Webmaster Tools provides site owners with tons of valuable data. Not surprisingly, it also has a lot of features. That said, below are a few that I think are most important for site owners to be aware of.
One of the biggest benefits of using Webmaster Tools is that it allows Google to communicate directly with you (and vice versa). Any time Google suspects site activity that isn’t on the up-and-up, they’ll send you messages under the Site Messages tab. These could be anything from warnings about unnatural links (say it isn’t so) to a heads up about possible hacking (heaven forbid). If you read our blog regularly, you already know that Webmaster Tools is absolutely essential to recovering a hacked site (see #4 and #7 here). That alone makes it worth using, in my opinion.
To make sure you’re aware of any messages from Google, you should enable email forwarding in your account. To do this, sign in to Webmaster Tools, then click the gear icon on the homepage and select Webmaster Tools Preferences. From there, check the box next to Enable Email Notifications and select your email address. This will send important notifications right to your inbox so you’re less likely to miss them.
Another important feature to be aware of as far as communication with Google is concerned is the Manual Actions tab, found under the Search Traffic tab. This is where you’ll find notifications about any manual penalties imposed on your site by Google’s webspam team. Manual penalties are different algorithmic penalties, so from an SEO perspective, it’s important to be aware of both.
If you see the following when you check your Site Messages and Manual Actions, pat yourself on the back and hope things stay that way.
An XML sitemap is essentially a roadmap of your website, and sending one to Google helps them find and index your content faster. The sitemap tab is found under the Crawl menu. When you click the tab, you’ll see information for any existing sitemaps, including the number of URLs submitted and the number of URLs indexed. The closer these numbers are, the better. To submit a new sitemap, click the red Add/Test Sitemap button. You’ll then be prompted to enter the URL of your sitemap. About 98% of the time, it should be your website URL followed by /sitemap.xml. If you’re working with a web team, they have probably already created your sitemap, and you can check with them for the URL. Enter the URL into the box, and then click Add Sitemap. You can also opt to click the Test Sitemap button to make sure there aren’t any glitches or technical issues before submitting. This is one of the features I use most frequently in my work at Papercut because we deal with website redesigns on a daily basis. Any time you go through a redesign or significantly alter the pages on your site, it’s important to submit a new sitemap so Google understands the new layout of your content.
Search Queries and Top Pages
Both of these reports are found under the Search Queries tab in the Search Traffic menu, and they come in handy for getting a feel of how your site is performing in Google’s search results. The Search Queries tab shows the queries (aka keywords) that your site is visible for, as well as the number of impressions (times your website showed up for that keyword), its average position for a specific query, and its click-through rate. As an SEO professional, I can use this data to determine if a site is visible for the terms I’m targeting. Analyzing keywords with high numbers of impressions but low click-through rates can also clue me in on places where I might need to tweak a title tag or a meta description to make the site more enticing in Google’s search results. Even if you don’t work with SEO, this data is useful. You can get a sense of the words people are using to find your site, which might help you come up with ideas for new content. The Top Pages tab shows the same data (impressions, position, and click-through rate) but is organized by page, rather than keyword.
The Crawl Errors reports, not surprisingly, are located under the Crawl menu. This is a great resource to use for identifying technical issues on your site that prevent Google from accessing and crawling your content. The Site Errors section shows issues that prevent Google from getting to your website at all. These can include things like robots.txt errors and DNS errors. The URL Errors section shows specific URLs that Google had trouble crawling. The most common type of error you’ll see here is a 404, or a page not found error. This occurs when a searcher navigates to an old page that no longer exists on your site. These errors are inevitable, but it’s a best practice to keep tabs on them and clean them up with a 301 redirect to relevant content. Recently, Google updated this data so that errors are displayed by desktop, smartphone, and feature phone, so you can easily identify issues plaguing your mobile users. If you see anything in any of the Crawl Error reports, you’ll need to contact your web team to help you correct the problem.
Change of Address
If your site is moving to a new domain, the Change of Address feature in Webmaster Tools is how you notify Google about the new URL. Think of it as a digital version of the change of address cards you send out to your friends when you move into a new house. This is another feature that you’ll probably need to collaborate with your web team on because a domain migration has its own unique set of technical considerations that will need to be accounted for beforehand. Still, it’s important to be aware that it exists so you don’t miss it in the chaos of a domain switch. For some more specifics on where to find this feature and how to use it, check out the official how-to guide from Google.
It’s Worth It!
Phew, I know that was a lot. But, like I said, setting up Webmaster Tools is pretty simple, it’s FREE, and it offers too many benefits not to sign up. Even if you only use it for alerts about malicious activity, it’s still worth it. Having additional data about your website will help make it a better tool for your business and your customers. So, if you haven’t signed up for Google Webmaster Tools yet, give it a try!
Have any questions or thoughts you’d like to add? Share them below in the comments!