Does Google’s Search Console leave you cold? Think it’s just for geeks? This guide explains why every blogger should use it and how it could be your secret blogging weapon!
So much blogging advice is focused on the fun, sexy stuff. Branding, marketing and content creation may toot your flute but they’re only part of running a successful blog.
Listen up! Your blog is not just a pretty face!
My mission here is to help you become an all-rounder. A Blogging Ninja who can roll up her sleeves, get under the hood of her blog and know what to do when things aren’t humming along so nicely.
In the second part of this mini series (click to read the first instalment ‘The New Blogger’s Guide To Google Analytics’) I’m walking you through Google Search Console – the essential companion to Google Analytics.
You’ll learn how its insights can help you diagnose and fix hidden errors that may be hampering your SEO efforts and how it can help drive more traffic to your blog.
(Note: there is a new Beta version of Google Search Console available with a new interface. For ease of use, I’ll be referring to the current version in this article as this is the most widely used right now.)
First things first, you’ll need to create a Search Console account and link it your Google Analytics account (The first instalment in this mini series show you how to set up Google Analytics on your WordPress blog).
Here’s how you link Search Console to your Google Analytics account:
- Head over to the Search Console Home Page.
- Click the red button on the right hand side of screen +Add New Property
- Select ‘Website’, then enter your website’s URL and hit ‘Add’
- Next you’ll be asked to verify your website via ‘Recommended Method’ or ‘Alternate Methods’. Hit the ‘Alternate Methods’ tab.
- Select Google Analytics and hit the red button ‘Verify’. Google will look for the previously installed Google Analytics Tracking code on your website, verify it and link it to your Search Console account.
You can now access your account by clicking on the thumbnail of your blog (note: it can take several days for your site to show any data):
Why should I use Google Search Console?
In order to answer that it’s probably better to start with the common question ‘what’s the difference between google analytics and google search console?‘
Google Analytics tells us about visitor behaviour – where they came from and what they do once they’re on our site. Google Search Console helps you understand how Search Engine’s ‘see’ your site, such as which Keywords your site is ranking for and which of those are driving traffic to your blog (very, very useful) or who is linking to your site.
Search Console also tells you more technical stuff, like how many of your site’s pages have actually been ‘crawled’ and indexed. It also highlights any errors and provides insights into how you can fix them.
Let’s run through the Search Console features:
- Messages – Hints and notifications from Google about your website
- Search Appearance
- Structured Data – tells search engines what your pages are about (see ‘Featured Snippets and the Structured Data Tool’ below)
- Rich Cards – Like a Featured Snippet but usually contains more elements, such as testimonials or an image carousel
- Data Highlighter – a tool used to markup your content for Structured Data
- HTML Improvements – suggestions as to how you can improve your site’s user experience and performance
- Accelerated Mobile Pages – If you’ve implemented AMPs this is where you’ll find any errors
- Search Traffic
- Search Analytics – shows which search queries (keywords / keyphrases) your site is ranking for (see ‘Keyword optimisation / Search Analytics’ below)
- Links to your site – a list of all external sites linking to your site (backlinks)
- Internal links – a list of your website’s internal link structure
- Manual Actions – instances where a real, live Google employee has manually highlighted your site for Spam content
- International Targeting – allows you to set a Target country (see Pro Tip below) and shows when any language targets have been set
- Mobile Usability – lists any errors found when viewing your site on mobile devices
- Google Index
- Index Status – a chart showing the progress of your site’s indexing by Google
- Blocked resources – tells of any instances where Googlebot was blocked from crawling your content
- Manual Actions – A list of any pages flagged by a (human) Google reviewer as non-compliant with Google’s quality guidelines (i.e. Spam)
- Crawl errors – a chart and list of 404 (not found) errors found on your site
- Crawl Stats – charts showing progress on the number of pages crawled per day, kilobytes downloaded and (more helpfully) average time spent downloading a page
- Fetch as Google – allows you run tests to simulate how Google ‘sees’ and renders your content
- Robots.txt Tester – allows you to check if a page is blocking Google’s robots (also called ‘Spiders’ – a huge network of computers that crawl through website pages)
- Sitemaps – a sitemap is a ‘map’ of your site’s internal link structure. Googlebots crawl your content to build this map and you can check progress here. To help Google you can also manually add a sitemap here too (see ‘Sitemaps’ below)
- URL Parameters – alerts you to any issues with your URLs and enables you to amend them (probably best left to experts though)
- Security Issues – highlights any threats to your site including hacks and malware
- Web Tools – tools to help with structured data, running ads, testing your site for speed and adding your site to Google’s local Business listings (essential if your blog has a local focus!)
What should I focus on in Search Console?
While Search Console is a vital tool, it’s highly unlikely you’ll use many of the insights on a daily basis. A weekly check on indexing progress and site errors should be enough. You may wish to check in more frequently to see which search terms you’re ranking for, but your Google Analytics also now pulls this data from search console right into your GA Dashboard (Admin > Acquisition > Search Console). I tend to use both.
This is a really helpful area. It tells you about site-level errors and which of your site’s pages are returning a 404 (not found) error.
Pay attention to site level errors as they’re serious. If you have DNS or Server Connectivity issues, or Google’s robots can’t access your site, it won’t get indexed. This is a problem.
Contact your DNS/hosting provider and find out what’s happening. Use the ‘Fetch As Google’ tool to manually check to see how Google ‘sees’ your pages – it might have been a temporary issue that is now resolved. (If you only need to check for DNS connectivity there’s no need to ‘render’ as well).
URL errors are more easily fixable. 404 errors occur when Googlebots try to follow a URL from another site to a page on your site which doesn’t exist. Obviously this can be a problem if that link is generating a lot of traffic and is simply mis-spelled. If possible, reach out to that webmaster and ask them to change the link. Obviously the flip is if the error is your fault, you’ll need to find the offending URL and rename it!
404 errors can also happen if you delete a page, change the URL or if an intended redirect to another page isn’t working properly. Check spellings and fix any redirects (with a 301 redirect) if this is the case.
Don’t obsess too much about these lists of page level errors. Decide which pages are of importance and if the 404 is causing a serious issue for your site and how its indexed. Simply get into the habit of checking in, fixing any glaring errors and then marking all as ‘fixed’. Then, if any show up again, you know it’s something you definitely need to fix.
At the user level, 404 errors commonly occur when a URL is mis-spelled. While this is out of your hands, it makes sense to create a dedicated 404 page that will show to users in these instances. A free plugin like 404 page will do the job nicely. This allows you to add a link to your homepage or your main blog page along with a helpful search box while staying ‘on brand’. Don’t redirect 404 errors to a homepage.
Pro tip: 404 errors are annoying so take this opportunity to apologise to visitors while injecting a little gentle humour into your 404 page. It can turn a poor user experience into a much happier one and may be the difference between users staying on your site and clicking away!
Another super useful report is ‘Links To Your Site’ (also under the Search Traffic menu). This tells you which external sites are linking to your website. Also known as your backlink profile. Backlinks are hugely important. Links from quality sites add much-needed ‘link juice’ and authority to your content. You want lots of these!
Spammy, poor quality links (think low-grade, paid Link Directories) can harm your site’s reputation. Be sure to check in periodically to assess how your backlink profile is coming along. If you think your site is being affected by poor quality links, and you have no way to request they be taken down, simply download a list of the offending URLs, then submit it as a .text file (on separate lines, one per URL) using Search Console’s Disavow Links tool. It can take a few weeks but the links should eventually disappear.
One of the first things I like to do when launching a new site is to add a Sitemap to Search Console (and Bing Webmaster Tools). It’s not a guarantee that Google will immediately index and list your site’s content in search engine results (you’ll need to craft quality, relevant content for that) but it’s a step in the right direction in helping Google figure out your site’s architecture and what your content is about.
How to add a Sitemap to Search Console:
- Select your site from the Google Search Console home page.
- Click Crawl on the left side Menu.
- Click ‘Sitemaps’.
- Click the red button ‘ADD/TEST SITEMAP’.
- In the text field next to your domain, type ‘sitemap.xml’. You don’t need to add your website name, just Sitemap.xml.
- Click Submit Sitemap.
PRO TIP: As a UK blogger with a global audience, I like to set my site’s geolocation to United States as this is by far the world’s largest English speaking market (though you can target any country). It’s not a guarantee your site will show up more frequently in your chosen country’s search results, but it can help. To do this go to Search Traffic > International Targeting and select the Country tab. Then tick the checkbox and set to your desired country.
Keyword Optimisation / Search Analytics
Aside from checking on your site’s indexing progress, along with monitoring for any errors, probably the main reason for jumping into Google Search Console is to see which Keywords are driving traffic to your blog.
Back in the day it was really easy to see all terms people were typing into Google and which of these were leading to clicks and visits to your site.
Let’s look more closely at the Search Analytics screen (Keywords have been blurred out):
It’s very easy to amend the date range then sort by Queries, Pages etc. You can also augment each view with more juicy data by toggling ‘Clicks’, ‘Impressions’, ‘CTR’ (Click Through Rate) and ‘Avg. Position’.
The problem with Keyword Data
Unfortunately, because of the way Google handles data, if a user is logged into their Google account, these searches are now encrypted and shown in Console and Analytics as ‘Other’. A large portion of your queries will show as ‘Other’ (or ‘Not ‘Set’ in Google Analytics). It’s frustrating, but it’s just the way it is.
Focus on those terms that are bringing traffic to your site and use these as a basis for any keyword optimisation efforts. Ideally, you’ll rank only for relevant search terms, but occasionally the most random phrases pop up.
This is completely normal, but too many, or if your links aren’t attracting many click-throughs, and it could be a sign your content’s purpose isn’t clear to search engines. This is when some content re-formatting and a little keyword optimisation can go a long way.
What is Keyword Optimisation?
You’ve probably heard a lot about Keyword optimisation. In a nutshell it’s simply when you incorporate specific search phrases within your blog’s titles and body text which matches what people are searching for on Google. It uses these phrases as flags to determine if your content really is a good match for that search term.
Google’s looking for lots of other pointers, too. Things like length of article, age of site, number of quality backlinks and social proof help to give your site authority and signal quality.
To find relevant phrases, you’ll need to use a Keyword tool such as Google’s own Keyword Planner (free but you’ll need a credit card to set up an ad Campaign, which you can then immediately disable) or my personal fave Moz’ Keyword Explorer Tool. Ubersuggest is another popular choice. Both are also free.
Broadly, you’re looking for phrases with a decent number of monthly searches and low competitiveness. It’s probably wiser in the early stages of your blog to target ‘long tail’ keywords, which are less competitive. Instead of targeting something broad like ‘things to do in Barcelona’, go for something more specific such as ‘things to do in Barcelona for free’. You get the picture.
Search engines also want to see semantically related phrases within the text, which means phrases similar to the main Keyword. It makes sense, therefore, to include some relevant related phrases alongside your main Keyword. This free tool can help you find related Keywords.
It can take months to start showing up in organic search results, so don’t get too bogged down with Keyword optimisation initially. Focus on creating quality content, work on building your backlink profile and hopefully this should help move your site up the rankings.
If organic search traffic isn’t finding you after a few weeks or months, then it might be time to think about tweaking your copy. Always keep the reader in mind, and ensure any copy tweaks don’t affect the natural flow of your posts.
Featured Snippets and the Structured Data Tool
One of the lesser-used functions of Search Console is the Structured Data Tool. Ever searched for something in Google and noticed those boxes that sit at the top of search results? The ones that succinctly answer your question and usually have an image?
Let’s say you’ve searched for a recipe, or asked a question. It’s very likely your search results look something like this:
That box at the top? That’s called a ‘Snippet’ or you may know it as an ‘Answer Box’. Snippets contain what is known in Googleland as ‘Structured Data’. Very simply, these are articles or posts that have been formatted – or contain portions that have been formatted – to a concise structure that’s clear and easy to read.
Numbered or bulleted lists, a table or a short paragraph containing a succinct synopsis are the three main types of snippets. Google provides nine categories of Structured Data:
- Book Reviews
- Local Businesses
- Software Applications
- TV Episodes
If you create content that fits any of these categories – specifically content which concisely answers a specific search query – you could be missing out on a chance to outrank your competitors with a Featured Snippet at the top of search results.
Pro Tip: To boost your chances of attaining a Featured Snippet, try to place the relevant search query at the beginning of your post, followed by a succinct paragraph, list or table containing the ‘answer’. Use the post to flesh out your answer and add weight to your argument. Use related phrases!
Highlighting your data in Search Console is not a guarantee, more of a useful prompt so don’t feel you have to make all blog posts snippet-friendly. And remember, you’ll always struggle to compete with the likes of Wikipedia.
Look for search phrases where the first page of search results isn’t dominated by websites with a high domain authority. There’s a chance you could reach that coveted first place by structuring your blog post in a snippet-friendly format. It certainly doesn’t hurt to optimise the occasional blog post in this way. This helpful post from Moz about Featured Snippets has some great tips.
Markup is super easy to do and takes a few seconds. Here’s how to use the Data Highlighter in Search Console to markup a blog post for a featured snippet:
- Go to Search Console > Search Appearance > Data Highlighter > Start Highlighting. Enter the URL of the post > select the Category of Data you wish to highlight and if you wish to ‘Tag this page and others like it’ or ‘Tag just this page’. Click OK
2. Once your page has loaded, simply highlight an area of text (e.g Title) and select the appropriate Data Item from the dropdown:
3. Continue adding all relevant Items, then click ‘Publish’:
4. That’s it! Your post, product, review is marked up and submitted to Google. (You can always edit it later).
Wrapping it up
Don’t ignore Search Console’s technical insights. All the behavioural, human-focused data found in Google Analytics may seem juicier and more relevant, but it’s of no use to you if what’s under the hood isn’t functioning properly too. Slow page load, 404 redirects or crawl errors may be hampering your site’s ranking potential. Search Console is a good place to start when diagnosing potential infrastructure issues.
When it comes to optimisation techniques, it’s more of a complex brew. There’s no guarantee your efforts will result in wildly improved search rankings but they will help you adopt an SEO-focused mindset; an arsenal of best practices to give you the jump over less-savvy competitors. And because I know you’re a Blogging Ninja, what’s not to love about that?
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