This guest post is by Dave Taylor of AskDaveTaylor.com.
Whether you’re writing about changing diapers, improving your bowling score, finding a job in the travel industry or how you get pictures off your cellphone, I think it’s a universal truth that if you’re writing online, you want better search engine results placement.
Most likely you’ve installed some SEO plugins that promise to improve your results and they might even be working, but if your site’s been up any length of time, it’s quite probable that things have started to break behind the scenes and hurt your results without you ever being notified. A scary prospect, really, and if it’s dramatic enough, you can start to really sink down the search results without any further explanation.
That’s why Google has its Webmaster Tools and while they’re primarily designed for people who have complete control over their Web site it can even be useful if you’re on blogger.com, wordpress.com or typepad.com. in fact, you don’t need to be a blogger to find it helpful: problems hurt any site, regardless of its structure.
Proving your own site
The first thing you need to do with Google’s Webmaster Tools is verify that the site you want to analyze is your own. This is typically done by adding a special line of HTML to the head of your home page, as I detail here.
If you can’t change your header, there are some alternatives that Google offers, but if you have zero administrative rights on the site, you might well be out of luck. If so, check with your hosting company to see if it offers alternative administrative tools that let you know about broken links, etc.
Key elements of a Webmaster Tools report
Once you have verified ownership of your site, you’ll see on the left side that the major areas are Site configuration, Your site on the web, +1 Metrics, Diagnostics, and Labs. Below it there’s some help that really highlights what you can glean from the Tools: Crawl errors, Search queries, Links to your site and Sitemaps. All good stuff.
There’s good analytic data that appears to be somewhat of an overlap with what you can get from Google Analytics (or your favorite analytics package if that’s not your particular cup of tea) and sometimes it reveals things that perhaps you didn’t want to know, like “sexy girls” is the #1 search for people who get to my Attachment Parenting Blog. Yikes. Not what I write about on my site nor anything I want people to be seeking when they arrive on my blog.
The heart of the Webmaster Tools, however, are the diagnostics because it’s the primary way we can learn what Google’s search spider finds broke on the site. Go to Diagnostics and it further breaks down into Malware, Crawl errors, Crawl stats, Fetch as Googlebot and HTML suggestions.
All good stuff, but let’s go into Crawl errors as it offers great bang for your proverbial buck.
Not too bad. This blog has a few hundred pages but I’m only seeing 36 of the hated 404 not found errors. Look closely and you’ll see that the format is bad link, error encountered, linked from and date detected. The first one is illustrative:
Error: 404 (Not found)
Linked From: 10 pages
Detected: Jul 30, 2011
The real value is that if you click on the link that shows how many pages have a link to the bad URL, it’ll show you exactly what pages need to be fixed on your site and, sometimes, on other sites too. Here’s an example:
The first link is from another site called bubhub.com.au but all the other pages that link to this bad URL are on my own site. That’s something I can fix immediately.
Where to go from here
You can see we’ve just touched on the tip of the iceberg with the Google Webmaster Tools. It’s deep, it’s complicated, but even if you just poke around and look at the 404 errors generated for your own blog and fix as many as possible, you’ll be pleased to see how your ranking improves and, perhaps even more importantly, you’ll be happy to know that you’ve just improved your readers experience. And in the end, there’s nothing more important than happy readers, is there?
Dave Taylor has been blogging since the tools first appeared online. This is his 31st year online. His primary blog is the popular Ask Dave Taylor! offering up free tech support on a wide variety of topics including blogging and SEO. You can find him on all the major social networks through DaveTaylorOnline.com.