When it comes to SEO, many small business owners can feel lost. SEO is a complex topic, and most business owners are too busy focusing on running the actual business to really understand the specific mechanics of search engine optimization.
However, the reality is that knowledge is power, and business owners who take some time to understand their SEO campaigns will be in a much better position to succeed online. If you don’t even know the basics of what you’re doing online, it’s hard to make the right decisions in terms of what agencies or employees to hire.
Fortunately, small business owners and managers have powerful tools at their disposal to help understand their status online. One such tool is Google Webmaster Tools. Sometimes known as WMT, Google’s Webmaster Tools platform allows website owners to understand how Google views their website, see any problems that might exist on Google, and monitor their traffic from Google. And while the tool does offer some advanced functions, many of the critical WMT features are easy to use and understand. In this post, we’ll cover some of the best ways that business owners can use WMT to understand and improve their SEO.
Getting Started with Webmaster Tools
Like almost all Google services, WMT isn’t an application you download – it’s a web application that you access through your browser. You can view your Webmaster Tools account by visiting https://www.google.com/webmasters/ and logging in with your Google account.
If you don’t see anything listed, it’s because you have not verified your website yet. Google requires you to prove that you actually own or control your website before it provides data. This is to prevent competitors or other malicious actors from viewing your private website information. To verify your account, you have a few options, including uploading a verification file to your website, adding a meta tag to your homepage, or verifying through Google Analytics. Your webmaster or marketing agency should be able to help with the verification process if these options sound too technical.
One note to keep in mind: if you are using an SEO or marketing agency, they should already have a Webmaster Tools account configured, and they should be happy to give you access. If they can’t or won’t give you access, this is usually a bad sign. Either they’re not competent enough to have setup the account, or they’re hiding data from you. In either case, it could be a sign that you’ve got a bad agency.
Using the Search Queries Report to Track Traffic
Once you’ve got a WMT account working, one of the first things you’ll probably want to check out is the search queries report. This can be accessed under the left hand menu item named “search traffic”. This report will tell you how many clicks and impressions you’re getting from Google.
Using the date range selector on the top right, you can view your traffic trends over about a 3 month period. This is very useful to help you measure progress in your SEO efforts and look for trends, problems, and successes. This report also shows you the most common keywords that are driving traffic to your website, which is another important set of data that can help you understand your customers and develop future optimization goals.
One note of caution: although Google’s WMT data is useful and interesting, it isn’t the final word in your online success. True analytics tools like Google Analytics will generally give you a more accurate picture of your traffic. Additionally, remember that while tracking traffic and rankings is good, the true measure of your online success will always be sales and conversions.
Getting Messages from Google
Your WMT account is the primary way that you can communicate back and forth with Google about your website. Of course, Google serves billions of users and trillions of webpages, so don’t expect any really personal customer service, but you can at least get some updates from Google through WMT.
The first thing you’ll want to look at is the site messages report, which you can find at the top of the left hand menu. In this screen you’ll find messages – almost always automated – from Google about your website. This can include things like warnings about errors, updates for CMS software that you’re using, security warnings, changes to account access, and more. Checking your account for these messages once in a while is a good way to ensure that you’re not missing any big issues.
A similar screen you’ll want to look at is the “manual actions” link, which you can find under the Search Traffic menu on the left. This is the page where Google will inform you if your website is suffering from a manual penalty – a sign that you or your SEO company has done something seriously wrong.
Checking Your Website for Errors
No website is perfect, and as your site goes through changes, redesigns, and software updates, you’re bound to hit some errors from time to time. Google Webmaster Tools allows you to find some of these issues and hopefully resolve them.
The first screen you’ll want to look at is the main error tracking screen, called “crawl errors” and found under the Crawl menu link. This screen tells you exactly how many broken links, server errors, and other issues that Google is finding on your website. Fixing as many of these as possible should always be your goal. You can also track the number of errors over time, which is very helpful in determining if some change to your site is causing problems.
Another similar screen can be found in the “HTML Improvements” link, located under the Search Appearance menu item. Here Google will inform you about problems like duplicate page titles and descriptions, non-indexable content, and more. While you don’t always have to take action based on this data, you should at least be aware of these potential improvement opportunities and consider implementing them.
Finding Out Who Links to You
The final feature we’ll cover in this report is the “Links to Your Site” screen, found under the Search Traffic menu item. This feature shows you which other websites are linking to yours, and offers various other details on your overall backlink profile.
You might already know that when it comes to SEO, getting links to your website is very important for strong rankings. However, especially recently, it’s very important that the links you develop be high quality. Many websites have suffered from penalties from building bad links and using black hat SEO tactics.
Viewing your links is a great way to assess your current link building progress and make sure that your current SEO provider isn’t building low-quality links. Although it’s outside the scope of this post to explain exactly how to tell which links are good and bad, for now we can suggest just trying to use common sense. Does the link look out of place? Is it placed on a page that is relevant to your business? Are the other links on the page about similar topics? Using simple tests like this will help you understand the quality of your current link profile. If you see many links that seem low in quality, be aware that a Google penalty becomes a possibility, which can be very time consuming and expensive to manage.
Although Google Webmaster Tools has many other functions and options, that’s all we’re going to cover for now. We hope this post will help you use this powerful tool to better understand your website’s progress and performance. If you’re interested in learning more about SEO tools and campaign management, don’t hesitate to ask! The Tech-Critic team is available to help with all of your SEO questions and concerns.