As SEO’s we all want to make Google happy. I know, Google says to build websites for the user, not Google. However, it is important to keep in mind that you need to make sure Google is happy when they visit your site as well. There’s a lot of places to go for information on improvements that should be made on your website, but one of the more overlooked places is actually a Google property. Today I’m going to cover a few areas in Google Webmaster Tools that can help you send some good signals to Google (while improving user experience at the same time).
I’m going to assume you already know what GWT is and just don’t use it as often as you should. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go read more about it here, sign up, verify your site and come back.
The first section I’m going to cover is one of the more important sections. There’s a link right on the Dashboard page to the Crawl Error section of GWT. This will show you all errors that Google’s spider encounters when crawling your website. As you can see above it won’t just show you 404 errors but 500 and 403 errors as well.
Google’s spider doesn’t just go to random URLs hoping to encounter an error, it visits pages by crawling your website. Following your internal links and navigation (or sitemap) as well as links it encounters while crawling other websites. The same way a normal visitor would use or encounter your website. See, that is the key. If a visitor is running into errors while navigating your website, that means a bad experience for the visitor. Google doesn’t like bad user experiences, so you can make Google happy by cleaning up these errors while at the same time making your visitors happy.
I’ve seen cases where website owners will just 301 redirect every 404 error to the main index page and be done with it. While that eliminates a 404 error, that doesn’t mean you’ve improved user experience very much. Take some time to go through the pages GWT lists and 301 redirect visitors to the page they probably intended to land on, or the closest relevant section or page.
Keep in mind what I said earlier, Google only encounters these pages if you link to it from your own website or if someone else links to that page from their website. You may find random pages in that list that never existed, ever, but that just means someone else typo’d the page they were trying to link to on your website. Help redirect them to where they intended to link to.
Next up is the HTML Improvements section, under Search Appearance. As you can see above this section focuses on the “meta” elements on your website. These are elements that Google uses to help form your search result listing. If the information is not accurate (and a lot of time even when it is) Google will have to come up with it’s own meta data based on other information on your website when it generates your listing.
Say someone is searching for “What is the best beer bar in Orlando?” and you have a page covering exactly this topic. However, every single Title tag on your website is just your brand name. How does this help the searcher know that the page from your website that Google is listing will answer their question? They don’t, and will probably pass on your listing in favor of someone else. That means a lower click-through rate for your listing, which leads to a loss in ranking.
Google will end up rewriting your Title tag or meta description for you if it thinks your content is worthy of being ranked, but it’s probably not a great idea to rely completely on Google for this. You’re making them put in the extra effort to determine the appropriate description to use. Make Googles life as easy as possible to index your content and Google will reward you.
The last section I want to cover isn’t always as clear as to what exactly the issue is. It could easily just be a false positive, but should still be something you check just in case. GWT will allow you to submit a sitemap of your website that contains a list of every page on your website. This is to help Google quickly crawl pages on your website, with extra data like how often it should crawl it. For this post I’m focusing specifically on the ratio of submitted pages versus pages Google is actually indexing.
Before I get into that, it may be a good just to make sure your sitemap isn’t causing an error when Google tries to crawl it, GWT will let you know if there is an error. In making this post I found out that this websites sitemap was throwing an error because of a bug with Disqus and I had no idea. A quick upgrade to Disqus and the error was gone and Google is free to use my sitemap again.
Back on topic, if you see that, like in the example above over half the pages you include in your sitemap aren’t being indexed you might have a problem. I say might because the software you use to generate your sitemap could very well be including pages that you have a “noindex” set on for robots. So in that case, you have a page in your sitemap submitted, but at the same time you are telling Google you don’t want it indexed.
Other reasons Google may not be indexing a page that clearly exists and is included in your sitemap is because it considers it low quality, thin, or duplicate content and doesn’t think it belongs in search results (bad user experience). You may also have a canonical issue where hundreds of pages are mistakenly canonicaling (I just made that word up) to another page and Google is taking your word that that is the case and not indexing those pages.
There are a host of reasons why you might see this discrepancy but this section is merely a great indication that something isn’t right and you should investigate further.
These sections aren’t something you need to check daily, I check it a couple times per month for all of our clients just to keep an eye on it for them. I’ve caught some major issues very quickly that would have taken a long time to realize were going on if it wasn’t for keeping an eye on GWT. GWT also has a set of automated messages it will send if it detects any trends going on, such it noticing an increase in 404 errors.
There are some other sections in GWT that are just as useful that I will try to cover in a later post.
In the meantime, what’s one section in GWT that’s helped alert you to a problem with your website or a clients that really saved them from trouble?