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.
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:
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:
The Google Index section helps you understand how your site appears in Google’s massive search index:
The Crawl section is the perfect place to see how Google is crawling your site, and proactively detect if there are any problems:
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.
You’ve done all the upfront work for your SEO campaign. You’ve carefully designed your navigation and internal pages so that your users have the best possible experience. You’ve fine-tuned your onsite copy and page titles to be optimized for searches. You’ve even spent the last several months updating your blog with fresh, authentic, well-written posts to attract new customers and show Google that you really know your stuff.
There’s only one problem: if Google doesn’t see what you’ve been doing, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve done. If there’s some kind of blinder preventing Google from being able to see or crawl your material, it might as well not even exist.
Fortunately, Google knows how destructive these blinders can be, and it knows that they’re sometimes undetectable (since Google’s algorithm operates invisibly in the background). In response, it’s developed a series of tools you can use to test whether there are currently any page errors interfering with the normal crawling of your site.
The first thing you’ll need to do is set up a Webmaster Tools account (if you haven’t already). Here, you’ll be able to access all these tools at any time and determine the state of your site.
There are many different factors that could lead to Google being unable to see or index your site, and all of them are equally bad. However, some of them are more complex to fix than others. Knowing where to look for these errors is half the battle; the other half is simply a matter of correcting them once they arise.
Overall Site Errors
If you’re paying attention, you should be able to catch broad site errors on your own. Still, sometimes your entire site can go down and it’s a matter of days before you notice. This is bad news. In Webmaster Tools, head to the “Crawl” tab and check out “Crawl Errors.” At the top, you’ll see a short row of different statuses, including “DNS,” “Server Connectivity,” and “Robots.txt Fetch.” A little green checkmark next to each of these will let you know that your site is up and running.
If your site is down, one of these will likely be responsible for the issue. You can use this diagnostic report to determine how to take corrective action.
Individual Page Errors
You’re going to stay in the same place for these type of errors, which are far more common and less noticeable. Scroll down to where you see the phrase “URL Errors.” Here, you’ll find data from the past 90 days on all the individual pages of your site that are returning errors. Sometimes, this is due to loading issues or other minor forms of interference, but for the most part, these will be the all-too-common “404 error” or “Not found” error.
Even if you’re generally on top of your work, you’re bound to have at least a handful of your internal pages showing up here as 404 errors. This can be due to changing your page navigation without updating your sitemap, changing the URL name of a page without setting up a redirect, or just taking a page down and forgetting to make the necessary updates afterward. In any case, this report will show you exactly which pages on your site are returning the error and when the initial instance of the error was detected.
The best way to fix these is to either restore the pages in question or set up a 301 redirect, which will direct Google’s bots to head to a new URL instead of the old, problematic one.
Meta Data Errors
These aren’t actually errors, per say, but they can get in the way of your site’s ranking and are notoriously hard to detect without the proper toolset.
In Webmaster Tools, head to the “Search Appearance” tab and click on “HTML Improvements.” Here, you’ll find a list of different discrepancies with your site’s meta data—namely, the title tags and meta descriptions of your individual pages. This list will be conveniently broken out into which are duplicates, which are too long, which are too short, and which are non-informative.
There’s no easy way to fix all of these errors at once. Instead, you’ll have to take a look at an individual page level and rewrite the titles and descriptions under scrutiny. With duplicate meta data issues, sometimes the problem is fixed as easily as changing a couple of words.
Finally, you’ll want to check that Google is properly indexing all your pages. In this process, you’re going to be comparing two things: the first is your own sitemap and the second is the “index status” you’ll find in Webmaster Tools. You can find this under “Google Index” and “Index Status.” Under the Basic view, you’ll be able to see how many pages Google is currently indexing—if this number doesn’t match the number of pages on your sitemap, you have an indexing problem. Check to see that your sitemap is up to date, and that none of your pages are currently being blocked by robots.txt. If you have any recently added pages, remember it may take a few days before Google indexes those pages.
Page errors can seriously slow down your SEO efforts, but they’re only temporary setbacks. Figure out where the problematic areas are, take corrective action, and it won’t be long before your rankings are back to normal.
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.