Google Webmaster Tools (GWT) is one of the most powerful tools available to website owners. It’s free, relatively easy to set up, and offers a tonne of useful features. However, in order to get the most out of GWT, you first need to understand what you’re looking at.

In this post I’ll be explaining some of the top-level features of GWT, how to interpret data, and ultimately how to action your learnings.

For the sake of this article, let’s assume that your GWT account has already been set up and your site has been verified. If it hasn’t, go and do that now.

Dashboard

The site dashboard is the first page you’ll see when you log into GWT, after selecting your property from the GWT homepage. The dashboard contains top-level ‘status’ information about your website, including crawl errors, search queries and sitemaps. GWT will also display any new messages or notifications regarding the health status of your site here.

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This information provides a good snapshot of your site’s health, but to gain any real insights you’ll need to dig a little deeper.

So let’s look what happens when you click on each of the main tabs displayed on the dashboard.

Crawl errors

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The Crawl Errors, or Site Errors tool shows pages of your site which Google is unable to access (crawl), based on data from the last 90 days. There are several different types of crawl errors which I won’t go into detail about now, but typically the most common error is the 404 (page not found).

A 404 error is returned when Googlebot attempts to visit a page that does not exist, usually because the page has been deleted, or because the url has been changed, or spelt incorrectly.

In such instances, it is recommended that any important* urls returning a 404 page are redirected to a ‘live’ version of that page, or most relevant equivalent. Redirects will need to implemented at server level, or if using WordPress, via a simple Plugin.

Once you have fixed any crawl errors, you can manually mark them as ‘fixed’ within GWT, to stop them showing in future.

*concentrate first on redirecting urls which actually send traffic to your site. If it’s an old news story that hasn’t been looked at for 10 years , it may not be worth the bother.

Whilst Google won’t actively punish your site for having 404 errors, it is best practice to keep them to a minimum, in order to improve user experience.

Search queries

Search Queries tools show information about the visibility of your site in Google’s organic search results.

Within this tool, you’ll encounter the following elements:

Queries – The total number of search queries that returned pages from your site over a specified time period.

Query – A list of specific search terms which returned a page from your site in search results. GWT shows data for the top 2,000 queries, but the filter tool allows you to include or exclude sets of data, for more detailed analysis.

Clicking on a specific query will reveal more information about its performance in search results, including which of your site’s pages are showing in search results for that query:

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Impressions – The number of times pages from your site appeared in search results over a specified time period.

Clicks – The number of times your site’s listing was clicked on in search results. By sorting your queries by clicks, highest at the top, you can see which search queries bring your site the most traffic.

CTR (click through rate) – The percentage of impressions which resulted in a click. A high CTR suggests your site’s search result listing is relevant to the user’s query, whilst a low CTR typically indicates the opposite.

Average position – Shows the average top position of your site on the search results page for specific queries. Google calculates average position data as follows: “we take into account the top ranking URL from your site for a particular query. For example, if Jane’s query returns your site as the #1 and #2 result, and David’s query returns your site in positions #2 and #7, your average top position would be 1.5.”

You’ll notice that each of the elements within this tool contain change data (indicated by green-up or red-down arrows). GWT allows you to see change data for time periods of 30 days or less.

You’ll also notice that the Search Queries page has two tabs on it; Top queries and Top pages. This gives you two options for displaying your data: the latter shows which of your pages perform best in search results, whilst the former shows which queries (search terms) drive the most visibility in search results. Ultimately it’s the same data, displayed differently, and how you view it will depend on what information you’re looking for.

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There are a number of ways to use search queries data, including:

  • Improving your search display listings to increase CTR. For example, an informed search query with a low CTR could suggest that your display listing is not entirely relevant to the query. Ask yourself: does the page title reflect the query? Is the snippet compelling? Does the listing stand out from other listings or offer any unique value? If the answer to these questions is ‘no’, then consider re-writing them.
  • Review which keywords (queries) send the most visits to your site. If certain queries which you think should be sending visits are not, then you might not have enough content on your site in relation to that query. On the flipside, if your site receives lots of clicks from an unexpected query, then you need to make sure that the page users land on contains relevant and compelling content in relation to that query.
  • Consolidating site content. For example, if a single query results in multiple pages being shown in search results, you could consider consolidating content into fewer pages, so not to dilute traffic or confuse the user. If an old, or no longer relevant page is showing regularly for a query, you might consider redirecting it to a newer, more relevant page, which ultimately has more chance of converting.
  • Review how users from different countries behave. By using the location filter, you can segment search queries data by country, which can be extremely useful for analysing how your site performs in different locations.

If, for example your site gets lots of impressions but no clicks from Canada, you could think about creating a page on your site which is optimised specifically for the Canadian audience, to help improve CTR. On the other hand, if you can see that a certain country is driving lots of clicks, you should look in Analytics to see how those users are interacting with the site once they arrive.

GWT’s Search Queries tool is rich in insightful information, you just need to know what you’re looking for. Many people often skip this step of the user journey and go straight to Google Analytics, but this pre-Analytics data can be just as useful when it comes to maximising conversions.

Sitemaps

The third tab on the GWT Dashboard is ‘Sitemaps’.

Put simply, a Sitemap is a list of the pages on your website. Google uses this to discover pages which it might otherwise miss.

Sitemaps can also be used to provide Google with descriptive metadata about specific types of content on your site, such as the running time of a video, or contextual information about images.

The GWT Sitemaps tool is the place to submit and test sitemaps, as well as monitor the index status of your site’s content. The index stats are typically updated every few days, and the number of indexed URLs displayed is only a close approximation. However, it’s important to keep a close eye on the status of your Sitemap/s,  to ensure that Google can access your content. The Sitemap page will list any warnings or errors relating to your Sitemaps, but once any issues have been resolved, you’ll need to re-submit the Sitemap and test it is working.

For information about submitting a Sitemap check out https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/183669?hl=en&ref_topic=8476.

In summary

To the untrained eye, GWT can appear an intimidating caboodle of technical jargon and graphs, but by focusing on a handful of features, and having specific goals in mind, it’s actually an extremely accessible tool.

The three toolsets outlined within this article are a good starting block for anyone keen on improving their GWT knowledge, and I’d recommend that anyone who owns a web property invests time in familiarising themselves with these basics at the very least.

For more information about Google Wemaster Tools and its features, check out https://support.google.com/webmasters/?hl=en and if you have any questions or suggestions of your own, please feel free to leave a comment below.