These days, the first thing I do after setting up a new website is link it to the Google Search Console tool.
Since Google is the number one search engine in the world, you naturally want to rank high in their SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages).
Google Search Console helps you keep track of how your site is performing in Google search, and what you can do to keep it performing well or improve its performance.
What Is Google Search Console?
Previously known as Google Webmaster Tools, this free resource from Google shows you how the search giant crawls and indexes websites, and then how they appear in search results.
The service also helps you monitor, maintain, and improve your ranking in those search results.
It includes several tools that give you insight into how your search result appears, what could be affecting its rise or decline in the rankings and how to fix potential issues that could be contributing to a decline.
Why Use Google Search Console?
Google Search Console is invaluable for anyone needing to monitor:
- Their site’s performance in search results
- Content accessibility
- Malware and spam issues
It’s really a one-stop shop to keep your site in front of potential visitors.
Guide to Google Penalties
One of the big benefits of using Google Search Console is the insight it gives you into penalties you may have against your site and how to fix them.
Google penalizes sites that violate their guidelines for what they consider good content.
There are several penalties Google enforces through their algorithms and human reviewers. Those include:
- General spam problems, including thin content and doorway pages
- User-generated spam problems, including spammy links in your comments section
- Hacked content spam, which is caused by a breach in your website
- Incorrectly structured data, in which a site inflates the data on a certain section to try to grab a rich snippet
- Unnatural outbound links, including 404s, incorrect redirects or links to spammy sites
- Unnatural inbound links, or links from spammy sites to your site
If Google finds and penalizes your site for any of these issues, Google Search Console will tell you and provide guidance to fix those issues.
For example, the Manual Actions page lists issues that human reviewers have found with your site. It also shows you how to fix those issues. Once you have, you can file a reconsideration request to have Google review your site again to lift the penalty.
How to Use Google Search Console to Optimize Articles
I’ve talked about how valuable Google Search Console is for maintaining visibility in Google search. But did you know you can use it to optimize your content, as well?
No doubt your site is filled with quality content that’s both compelling and useful to your audience. But all that effort to create great content is wasted if your audience can’t find it, right?
There are two ways you can use Google Search Console to optimize articles and make sure they’re seen.
To do that, make sure your content pages are set up correctly so that when Google crawls them, it’s very clear what the Googlebot is looking at.
Check your article pages in your Search Console. If they’re not ranking well, Google recommends checking the following issues:
- Make sure you have unique title and header tags that accurately describe your content. These tags will also signal to Google the important topics in your article.
- Make sure you have a meta description. This description could be used as the Google snippet.
- Use structured data markup. The structured data markup will indicate which text should appear below your link in search.
In all of these places, make sure you are using your keywords in a meaningful way. Google Search Console uses keywords to understand the topic of your article and to determine if it is quality content.
Frankly, anyone who has a website should use this excellent tool for both search ranking and optimization. If you don’t know how to use Google Search Console, here’s how you can get started.
How to Use Google Search Console
I’m going to assume that you are one of the millions of people who already has a Google account. If you don’t, get one. If you do, then go to the Google Search Console page and sign in.
Now, take a look at these steps and learn how to set up Google Search Console:
Step 1: Add a Search Console Property
Before you can start using Google Search Console you have to add something to track.
Google calls this a property and it can be either a website or an Android app. For this tutorial, we’ll be working with websites.
Click the “Add a property” button near the top of the homepage. Type in the name of the property and click the Add button.
It’s easy to add a site to Google Search Console, right?
Step 2: Verify Your Site
When you visit the verification page, you will get a number of verification options.
Google usually recommends HTML file upload, but other choices of Search Console verification include:
- Adding an HTML tag to your home page
- Signing into your domain name provider
- Verifying with your Google Analytics or Google Tag Manager account
When you select HTML file upload, you get a file to upload to your hosting provider.
I’ve used this method in the past, and it’s reasonably straightforward to get it into the correct (usually root) folder using the file manager of your web hosting control panel.
However, if you’re running a WordPress-based site and have installed Yoast SEO, there’s an easier way to add the HTML tag to your site.
Choose the HTML tag option in Google Search Console, and then copy the code that follows “content=”, excluding the quote marks.
Go to the Yoast dashboard and click on the “Webmaster Tools” tab. Paste the code into the appropriate box.
Then return to the Google Search Console dashboard and hit the “Verify” button.
If verification works, you will see a big green check mark.
This time, I used another verification method. I clicked on the Google Tag Manager button, clicked again to log in to my Google Tag Manager account and verification happened.
If verification fails, here’s a list of common issues that might be the cause.
Although I usually use a single verification method, Google recommends you use more than one to make ownership more “resilient.”
Pro Tip: You will need a different Google Search Console property for each version of your site. To get the most data, add them all. My Google Search Console account includes HTTPS and HTTP and WWW and non-WWW versions of my site, making four properties for a single site.
Step 3: Connect Search Console to Google Analytics
Once your site is verified, the next step is to link Search Console to Analytics. This allows the two accounts to share information, providing even more data for you to analyze.
To do this, click on the property name in the dashboard, select “Google Analytics property” from the drop-down menu under the gear, select the appropriate Google Analytics profile on the next screen, and press save.
Step 4: Learn How to Add a Sitemap to Search Console
One key benefit of Search Console is you can make sure Google is crawling your site properly and indexing all relevant pages.
To do this, you need to add a sitemap in one of the formats supported by Google. Most people recommend an XML sitemap, which can also be submitted to other search engines.
One way to create a sitemap is to use an online tool like XML-Sitemaps.com.
But for WordPress-based sites, it’s even easier to get your sitemap using Yoast SEO.
Click on the “XML Sitemaps” link in the WordPress dashboard, ensure the sitemap function is enabled, and then click on the appropriate button to see links to your sitemaps.
To submit a sitemap to Search Console, grab the URL you need (I usually upload the posts and pages sitemaps) and then go back to Search Console.
Navigate to Crawl > Sitemaps > Add/Test Sitemap. Paste the relevant part of the URL (Google includes the start of this by default), and then refresh to see your sitemap data.
Pro Tip: If you’re using Yoast, you can simply edit the URL of the sitemap to add it to a different property. Although my site is HTTPS and WWW, I was able to remove the WWW part of the URL in order to add the sitemap to the non-WWW property in Search Console.
Step 5: Submit Your Site URLs to Google
If you’re anything like me, you probably submitted your site to Google when you set it up to ensure (or at least try to ensure) that the search bots were crawling your site.
Google Search Console gives you another way to submit a URL in Google. It’s called “Fetch as Google.”
Go to “Crawl” > “Fetch as Google,” and then click the “Fetch” button. When it’s complete, hit the “Submit to Index” button.
When it’s done, it will report that the URL and linked pages have been submitted to Google’s index.
Using Google Search Console To Improve Your Website
Once you have those five steps out of the way, it’s time to explore Google Search Console in more detail to see what you can learn about your site’s search performance and how you can continue to improve it.
When you log in to Google Search Console, you’ll see a list of all the sites you added. The list includes messages relating to any recent issues Google has found with any of your sites.
If there’s a message, click on the link at the end to see more details and get help to resolve the issue.
Otherwise, click on your site’s URL to access Search Console features for that site.
In addition to the Dashboard and Messages center, Search Console has four main sections: Search Appearance, Search Traffic, Google Index, and Crawl.
There are additional links for Security Issues and Other Resources, as well. Each of the main sections has several sub-sections addressing different aspects of your site.
Google Search Appearance
Google Search Appearance shows you how your site looks in search results — how the title and snippet might appear, for example — which can affect how many people click on your search listing.
If you’ve just added your site, then there won’t be much to see, but you can guide Google by using the Data Highlighter tool.
This allows you to indicate the correct microformats for your content. For example, I used it to indicate that most of the content on my blog should be listed as Articles.
To use the Data Highlighter, click on the link, and then click Start Highlighting.
Add a URL for a recent post and select the type of post from the drop-down list. I chose Articles, but there are several other types to choose from, including Reviews and Events.
Click “Tag this page and others like it.” This will tell Google to treat other similar pieces of content in the same way.
The content comes up in a window next to the highlighting interface. Highlight each piece of information on your content and apply the appropriate tag.
When you have finished, click the Done button and Google will find similar content for you to check. When you have checked that the pages look similar, click Create Page Set to check a few sample pages.
When I did this, Google added my homepage, but it was easy to remove while checking the page set. Google wanted 10 example pages in all. Then I was able to publish the set.
Rich Cards are available in this section, as well. Introduced in 2016, this is another way to display schema markup in search results.
The HTML Improvements section is where Google highlights content issues such as duplicate meta tags or title problems. It’s a way to make sure that your search results look as good as they possibly can.
The Sitelinks section shows you different links from your site that appear under your main listing in the search results. Here’s how the Crazy Egg site shows up in search.
Those links should appear in the Sitelinks section of Search Console.
Accelerated Mobile Pages
The last part of the Search Appearance section looks at Accelerated Mobile Pages(AMP). Launched in October 2015, AMP aims to serve faster content to mobile, and there’s speculation that it will become a ranking signal.
This section points out any AMP errors and gives guidance on how to fix them.
See this guide from Yoast for help with setting up AMP for your WordPress site.
The Search Traffic section analyzes your site’s performance in Google search.
The first subsection is Search Analytics, which includes graphs and tables tracking clicks, impressions, click-through rate and position for the search queries that lead people to your site.
You can click the table to change sort order. You can also look at data for pages, countries, devices, and search type and gain good insight into how your web visitors search for and find your site.
The stats aren’t always identical to the data found in your Google Analytics account. That’s because, as LunaMetrics explains, while there’s some overlap, the two tools may be reporting on different types of traffic.
Links to Your Site
This subsection gives more detail on the sites linking in, the top content linked to, and the main phrases used to link to your content.
You can click on any link to get more detail on the link profile. In the screenshot below, I can see which of my pages have been shared on Pinterest. This is useful data for marketing; it’s one way to identify gaps in your strategy.
The Internal Links subsection allows you to examine your internal linking profile. Again, click on a link to get details on which internal pages link to it.
The Manual Actions section tells you about any penalties imposed by Google for potential web spam.
You will usually get an email warning, as well. It’s very useful. When one of my sites had been compromised by a code injection, I first found out about it via my Search Console account.
This is useful for international SEO. If you are using hreflang meta tags to indicate a particular language, data on this will appear here.
You can also set the country you want to target with your site. For example, although I don’t live in the US, most of my clients are there, so I set the US as my target country in this section.
This points out errors that will lead to loss of ranking in mobile search results.
Page elements that are too close together, poor viewport settings, and other issues will appear here. You can click on the arrows to the right for more detail on each error found.
The third main section of Search Console is the Google Index section. It’s divided into these four sub-sections:
This shows you how many URLs from your site have been added to Google’s search index. If you click on the advanced tab, you can also see if your robots.txt file is blocking any URLs and whether any URLs have been removed. All of the data is for the past year.
This shows the main words and phrases used within your content. It’s a good way to find out if there are overused terms.
This subsection lists any URLs blocked via the robots.txt file, and Remove URLs is a tool to ask Google to temporarily de-index some of your content.
The last main section provides data on what Google’s search bots find when they crawl your site. It has six subsections:
1. Crawl Errors
This subsection shows errors that the Googlebot found when trying to crawl your site. It shows errors both for desktop and smartphone.
2. Crawl Stats
Crawl Stats show the past 90 days of Googlebot activity. Look out for spikes or drops. Spikes may mean you have added lots of new content; drops may mean the bot is blocked somehow. Google lists other reasons for spikes and drops in its help files.
I believe the spike in the screenshot below was because I switched my site to HTTPS, forcing an increase in pages to crawl.
3. Fetch as Google
As I mentioned previously, Fetch as Google lets you see how Google renders your site.
4. Robots.txt tester
The robots.txt tester shows you how Google sees that file, and it allows you to check if you are blocking the crawler in any way.
As we learned earlier, Sitemaps lets you submit sitemaps to Google so its bots know where all your links are.
6. URL Parameters
URL Parameters lets you alert Google about which pages to crawl to help you avoid duplicate content. Learn more about this from Google.
Finally, Google rounds out Search Console with a collection of helpful tools.
Of these, I’ve found the structured data testing tool and pagespeed insights most useful for checking how my schema markup looks, and assessing desktop and mobile page speed.
Conclusion: Start Using Search Console Reporting
I’ve found Google Search Console to be an invaluable tool for managing and troubleshooting all aspects of my site’s search listing.
It’s also helped me keep my sites more secure by highlighting potential malware and spam issues.
Everyone should use it to improve their SEO. But don’t stop there – once you have an increased flow in traffic, make sure you make the most of it by optimizing your site for conversions (read: revenue).
You can learn how by reading our handy Getting Started Guide to CRO!