If you’re just starting your SEO strategy, you may be overwhelmed by all the complicated, expensive offerings out there to analyze site pages, authority, backlinks, and SEO.
But if you want to rank on Google, you have to dive in with something. A great place to start is by using Google’s own free tools.
If you’re familiar with Webmaster Tools, Search Console is what they’re calling it these days (seriously, I’m *still* getting used to saying Google Ads).
And for those who have already used Search Console in the past, the tool got a facelift! Now you can access it from a mobile device (yay for SEOs on-the-go!), it tracks 16 months of data, has detailed page data, new tracking flows, and improved reports.
How can Google Search Console help?
According to Google, Search Console “helps you monitor, maintain, and troubleshoot your site’s presence in Google search results.”
Basically, you don’t need to use the Search Console to show up on the SERP, but it can be helpful if you want to control how and when you’re showing up.
It is especially useful to see which pages on your website are indexed, which search queries show your site and how often users click through, viewing backlinks, and troubleshooting mobile usability and AMP.
If all that sounds like something you want to add to reporting, you’re in luck! Search Console easily links up with Google Analytics to allow you to see all the numbers in one place.
And to be clear, Search Console isn’t just for a site administrator. SEO specialists and content marketers on your team should be familiar with it to monitor and optimize inbound traffic, and your website developers can use it to monitor and resolve issues with markup.
How do I set up Search Console?
If you’re already using Google Analytics, you probably have a google account–but if not, set one up to get into Search Console.
Then, sign up for Search Console and confirm ownership of your website; like getting verified as a business account on Twitter or Instagram, you’ll need to provide proof that you are in fact authorized to view some proprietary insights for your website.
There are two different ways to do this now, by property type.
If you want to include all the urls across your domain, choose the “Domain” option. If you’re just trying to index part of your website, the URL prefix choice is for you.
Just by signing up for Search Console, you’ll automatically receive alerts when Google spots something that seems a little off–like some weird markup or a page that isn’t indexed. Once you get into the dashboard, you won’t see data right away–it could take a few days to get everything up and running (so keep this in mind if you’re working on the clock).
Adding Your Team With Search Console Users
It’s likely that members of your team will need to have access to Search Console as well, and Google gives you a few different management options: owner, full user, restricted user.
Whomever creates the Search Console account for your website property will automatically be deemed the owner, and fully in control of the tool.
The owner can add other full users, with view rights and some actionable power, or restricted users, who can only view data for the property.
Load Your Sitemap
A sitemap is the file on your website that tells Google which pages should be indexed. According to Google, if you have a smaller site (less than 100 pages), you can simply input the homepage URL for indexing as long as all pages are ultimately accessible from the homepage. But if you have a large site, a new site, or have a lot of isolated pages, you probably want to upload your sitemap.
Link Google Analytics
If you use Google Analytics (you should! You really should!), link your analytics with Search Console to capitalize on more granular traffic insights. More on this to come!
How do I get the most out of Search Console?
Lucky for you, if you’re just starting out in Search Console, you’re getting the best version yet. Believe us, this tool used to be much clunkier and more difficult to understand. That said, each website has different goals when it comes to SEO, so we’re going to break down each tab of the console for you below.
For Search Console beginners, this is probably the most useful section of the tool.
You can configure the Performance report based on which data you’d like to view (as you would in Google Analytics). Search Console allows you to group and filter by queries, pages, countries, devices, search type, search appearance, and date.
Basically, this will help you view where your organic site traffic is coming from, which queries are most likely to show your page, click-through rates from the SERP to specific pages, how your search traffic shifts over time, searches by device, and more. Oh, so much more.
Pretty simple: input a URL from your website and you’ll be able to access analytics for that page. This was part of the big revamp of Search Console, and is useful when you’re looking to optimize specific pages for the SERP.
Search Console keeps track of all the indexed pages of your website and you can view them here.
There is a high-level report that will display all the URLs by index status. Statuses include Error, Warning, Exclusion, and Valid which will be paired with a Reason for that status. While we won’t cover all the reasons here, you can reference this resource from Google on Search Console to learn more.
Pro tip: if your website has less than 500 pages, you may not need to use this report. Instead, you can simply search for your site on Google using this query, “site: your_site” (insert your homepage URL here), and the search results will display the pages Google knows about.
This section of Search Console will let you temporarily block your web pages from the SERP and lets you view content on your site that Google has flagged as “adult.”
Core Web Vitals
This is a great addition to the Search Console suite that allows you to fix poor user experiences resulting from long load times.
You can browse the Poor, Needs Improvement, and Good in the overview to understand how pages on your site are performing based on user data.
This report will also be broken into Mobile and Desktop so you can identify and fix platform-specific issues.
Which brings us to…
Mobile Usability Report
Fairly self-explanatory, this section of Search Console will show you with pages on your site are valid, aka mobile-friendly, or rendering an error, aka not mobile-friendly.
When you’re looking to fix mobile rendering issues, Google recommends fixing them in the order they appear on the summary report page–it’ll be sorted from general issues (like templates) to more granular.
When you’ve completed fixing the errors, you can “Validate and Update Google” from here to improve your ranking.
For more details on errors you may encounter, check out this resource from Google.
This report will give you even more insight into your top-linked pages, which domains link to you, and supplement the data you get through Google Analytics.
One of the best features here is the “top linked text,” which gives you insight to not only the domain that is linking to you but the actual text that the writer hyperlinked to your page. This is a great way to know how others are valuing the content you are producing.
Legacy Tools and Reports
Search Console has had a facelift. And we love it. But if you’re a legacy user, you may be missing out on the old set-up (with waaay more options in the left-side).
Because some of the tools that were eliminated don’t yet have replacements, Google stuck them under “Legacy Tools and Reports” for you to access.
- Crawl stats: if you’re brand new to Search Console, you probably won’t need this. Crawl stats checked the number of times Google crawled your site and how many requests it made. This was mostly used by developers or SEOs. However, check this every so often to make sure Google isn’t sending too many requests to crawl your site!
- Crawl Rate Settings: use this to reduce the number of times Google crawls your site, particularly if you crawl stats are showing too many requests.
- Tester for robots.txt: this helped developers troubleshoot their robots.txt files and fix blocked pages on your site.
- URL parameters tools: this was a pretty niche tool for pages with parameters that changed the content of the page, e.g. for international retailers. It was a bit tricky to use anyway, but advanced SEOs probably still use it.
- International Targeting: for international websites that feature different languages, this was useful when adding hreflang tags or a primary country on your website.
- Google Analytics Association: this is a pretty big one that personally, I still use. It imports Search Console data into Google Analytics and approves/denies other association requests from Youtube, an Android app, etc.
Connecting Search Console to Google Analytics
In order to leverage data from Search Console in Google Analytics, you’ll need to authorize data sharing in your GA settings.
Go to admin, click the property you want to add, go to Search Console setting, select the data you want to view, and hit save!
One final note: Search Console now keeps data for 16 months, so that is the max time span you’ll be able to access through GA. There is an average lag time of 48 hours before data will be shown in GA or Search Console.
By following this guide, you’ll be able to make sure you’re getting the most out of this powerful, free tool.
Take the time to set up your Google Search Console correctly and unlock truckloads of free data including mobile usability reports, site authority, backlinks, and several other SEO metrics.
We know it can be a little overwhelming trying to decipher the data.
If you’d like some help, you can schedule a free SEO consultation with us. We’d be happy to lend a hand and help identify some quick wins for you!