This article is very in-depth guide about setting up Google Search Console (formerly known as Webmaster Tools). I will not only discuss the basics, but also some more specific items, so make sure to keep reading. If you sign up at www.google.com/webmasters/tools and perform some basic initial configuration you will receive a lot of feedback about the state of your website, both technical and from an SEO point of view, and it will help you to have your site indexed very fast.
Another big advantage is that you will receive notifications from Google if they find something is wrong, like a hack, old software versions, indexation issues, etcetera. If you don't register, you miss out on all this.
Register your site
First, create an account. Then you can start registering your first site by submitting your URL. The first step in this process is always to prove that you are the owner of the site. This can be done in a number of ways, either by placing a small HTML-file in the root of your site or by placing a snippet in the head of your pages. It can even be done using your Google Analytics data (if you already have it active this is the preferred method).
Recently Google started emailing you right after you verified your site, giving you quick links to the basic actions that you should take:
You should always register your site using both the www and the non-www version, as 2 different sites, even if you technically ensured that only one of these is used. This leaves you with 2 records for the same site. In some cases, you can even register more:
- If your site is (partially) available over SSL, you should also register the HTTPS versions
- Using subdomains? Same story
- For multilingual sites that use a subfolder structure: register the language structure as separate records, like separate ones for website.com/en, website.com/nl, website.com/fr, etc.
All this means you end up with multiple versions of your site in Webmaster tools, but that is ok, see the next step.
Combine all properties for your website into a set
To keep an overview, Google introduced the possibility to combine all properties for a website into a set. This is very easy to achieve: sign into your account and you will immediately notice a new button at the top-right next to the familiar Add A Property button, called Create a set:
Click it, and you will be prompted to give it a name and indicate the properties you would want in the set. In this example you see the set I created for my own site with all 6 properties I already had:
From this moment on, you can keep on checking your site in the combined view of the set.
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Preferred domain and Geographic target
After you registered both sites (www and non-www), go to Site Settings (top-right corner) and set the preferred domain, which should be the same as the one you technically enforce (usually the non-www version):
In the same screen, you can also set your Geographic target. For sites targeting a specific country, you should also set the Geographic target. This is not necessary if you have a country-specific domain, like .fr, .de, .co.uk, etc., but only for generic domains like .com, .net, .info, etc. By the way, this setting was recently moved from the Site Settings to International Targeting, under Search Traffic.
Submit sitemap to Search Console
The next step must be to go to the Crawl > Sitemap section and submit your sitemap.xml file, which is basically a matter of pointing Google to the location of your sitemap.xml file. The default location is the root of your domain, but if you have a sitemap extension like X-Map or Jsitemap, you should look up the location of the file in the extension parameters. Submitting your sitemap will help you to have your URLs indexed quicker. Make sure to resubmit if the sitemap is changed:
Having done these steps (registration of all subdomains, setting preferred domain and sitemap submission) your webmaster tools initial configuration is now ready. This is really what you must do. This does not mean you should not explore the tool more. There are many very useful features packed, so let's continue exploring the most important ones that are left. They are mainly for monitoring or for more advanced actions:
Crawl Errors in Search Console
Under Crawl >> Crawl errors, you can find all issues encountered by the Google bots that crawled your website. This is a pretty crucial item to check regularly, as you should avoid any issues as much as possible. Indeed, often these errors are there because of issues in your site set-up. Especially if many errors are encountered, this could have serious consequences for your SEO. Google will even contact you by email if they find sudden increases in the number of errors encountered. So, check this every now and then. You will find an overview like this:
You can click any of the items, and they will tell you from which location the error is referenced from, like an internal linked you created incorrectly. You should then correct this error, and mark the item as solved. Usually, there will be some funny errors that are hard to solve, but minimizing this is something you should really aim for.
Check HTML improvements
Especially with new sites, it pays to monitor Search appearance > HTML improvements. Google needs at least a few weeks to generate the warnings and errors. If Google Search Console encounters duplicate metadata errors, they will be listed here:
Always try to minimize the items listed here. Especially duplicate content issues can easily be found now. The example above points out some Duplicate meta descriptions. Of course, this could mean that you used the same meta description on different pages. However, it can also mean that actual duplicate content is found. If pages are fully identical, they will also be listed here.
Even if you managed to clean up the errors, come back once in a while. Not all issues are discovered immediately. Even if your list of issues seems clean, new ones may be found and reported here later.
Mobile usability in Search Console
A pretty new feature in Google Search Console is the Mobile usability feature (found under Search traffic). Especially with Google focussing so much on mobile usability and even having said they use it as a ranking signal, it is a must that you check this. It will show you the known issues for your site. Especially if you have a responsive site it is worth checking this, to see if there are indeed no issues with your site.
For further checking of mobile issues, also check Fetch as Google under Crawl. You can now check how Google "sees" your site. I wrote an extensive blog article about this feature here, so I will not discuss it here. Make sure to check it though, it is a very powerful feature!
Google Analytics has recently started blocking data about keywords, but under Search Traffic > Search Queries in webmaster tools there still is a lot of information available. Actually I use this function more than my Analytics account now! Something I often do is to filter by Impressions. It tells you for which keywords your site is often shown in the SERP pages. Often, these words may not even be expected, and it can offer you possibilities for further SEO improvements. From this example, you can see that the most displayed search term in the SERP for my site is for Search engine optimization tips while this was not even targeted specifically. Actually, it is the reason I am updating this very article ;)
You see I have a lot of impressions, but I am only ranked 34th, so I am on the third page. Still, this means that 4018 people actually make it to page 4 for this keyword combination, so there are a lot of opportunities! I could try to optimize Click Through Rate, but also I can maybe optimize the keyword a bit more to rank higher.
In the mean time, Google added a new feature in May 2015, allowing you to set filters and custom columns:
Structured data in Search Console
With the new focus on microdata introduced in Joomla 3, this subject is of particular interest. It will tell you if the microdata is actually discovered. Go to Search Traffic > Structured Data and you should be able to find it. The graph below shows the microdata that I configured for breadcrumbs (which was destroyed after a template upgrade wiped out my overrides...):
Any errors in the way your structured data is set up will also be listed.
Links to your site
Finding out which sites link back to you is very valuable, and actually the list that Google Search Console maintains is actually available for you under Search traffic >> Links to Your site.
Funny to see Wordpress.com linking to me ;) Note that the list is not perfect. If you need more exact data, use an audit tool, like SEmRush.
Also you will be notified if Google hands out any penalties for your site, which is something you will hopefully never encounter.... If so, it will be shown under the Site messages section:
Especially watch out for the warnings. Usually, you should only be getting informational messages, like changes to the preferred domain you have set, or additional users that got access to the account.
Change of address
Just one more option to point out is the Change of address feature. You may rarely need it, but if you do, this might come in very handy:
You will use this if you need to transfer your whole site to a new domain. This is always a risky operation, and you should make use of this option if you will ever have to do so. I wrote a full blogpost on this subject here.
Bing and Yahoo Webmastertools
There is a lot more in Google's Search Console, like backlinks (both incoming and internal), a list of keywords that your site ranks for, possible security warnings, etc. etc., depending on how advanced you need to optimize your site.
Though being of much less importance, both Bing and Yahoo also have a (combined) version of Webmastertools. Make sure to register your site there as well, and basically perform the same set of operations.