What is Google Search Console?
Google Search Console used to be called Google Webmaster Tools. Basically what it does is it shows you how your website is performing from Google’s perspective. This makes it a very useful tool to improve your site ultimately so it can rank better on Google.
This only shows you Google’s perspective. That’s important. It’s not the complete picture. It’s a large part of the picture, given that Google has such a giant share of the market, but it doesn’t give you data from Bing or Facebook or Twitter or anything else. That might seem obvious, but it’s not to everybody.
What Google Search Console does is show you your site’s performance on Google’s search engine, what pages are crawled and if there are any indexing issues there (like crappy structured data, problems with redirects or even missing pages, also known as 404s), it’ll show your site speed and if there are any pages that are particularly slow and it’ll show you a list of links to your site, both internal and external.
If you want to get started with SEO (which you should), I recommend mastering Google Search Console as your first step. This is what we’re going to do now.
How to set up Google Search Console
Obviously, before you become a Google Search Console master, you have to set it up. There are a couple ways to do that and I’m going to show you both: there’s the right way and there’s the easy way which I only recommend you do if for whatever reason you can’t do the right way.
The first few steps are the same either way. Go to https://search.google.com/search-console.
Click on the button to get started and sign in to your Google account (this doesn’t have to be a Gmail account or any account where you manage your email through Google).
If you’ve never set up a Google Search Console account before, you’ll be at a crossroads with the two options I’ve mentioned. If you have set up an account before and you’re looking to set up a new one, just click the little chevron by your property name in the top left and click + Add Property.
All right, so now, whether this is your very first GSC account, or your hundredth, everybody’s at the same place. Time to make a choice.
1. The Right Way to set up Google Search Console
Also known as “The Correct Way” or “The Proper Way” or “The One True Path”. Google Search Console calls it a “domain property”. I genuinely don’t know why the other way is still even an option other than to continue to make GSC available to those who don’t have access to a site’s DNS settings for whatever reason (there is actually one benefit to the other way, and I’ll get into it later). I work at an agency and that does happen a lot with our clients so just to get the quick data we need we’ll do the quick way.
But if this is your website, there’s no reason for you to not do it this way.
The main reason why you want to do this is because it brings all of your properties together. What do I mean by that? From Google’s perspective these sites:
…are four different properties. Now hopefully, you’ve set up your site properly so it’s redirecting all your HTTP to HTTPS and non-WWW to WWW (or the other way around — don’t use HTTP). If you haven’t, this is where you can get some additional Google Search Console headaches. Like this:
This is the HTTPS non WWW property of a website:
This is the same website, only HTTPS with WWW.
This is the same website, HTTP, with WWW.
How useful is this data?
It actually gets worse because this particular site wasn’t set up with any canonicalization, which means you set the primary property. See, what happened is, for a single page randomly in January, Google decided to make a different version the canonical version. So imagine you’re going through your reports and you see traffic suddenly die like this (this is for a single page on the HTTPS, WWW property of a site).
How long does it take you before you realize that the traffic just got moved to another one of your GSC properties? This is the same page, but on the HTTPS non-WWW property.
This is the headache of not using the domain property (yes taken to an extreme because of other issues, but you’ll face slightly less dramatic versions of these problems).
Now even if you’re redirecting, you’ll often have orphan clicks to another property that’s not your canonical one. Usually it’s so little it’s not that big of a problem, but now that we have the ability to bring all that data together, why wouldn’t we? (The domain property is new as of 2019, so this is exciting!)
Like I said, you’ll need access to your domain name provider to do this, which is something you should hang on to anyway, so if you’re not sure, it’s time to dig that up now.
So in the left-hand side of the popup, in the text field, enter the domain for the site you want to set up GSC for, no HTTPS, no WWW, just your naked domain (mycoolsite.com).
You’ll get a line of code with a button to COPY. Do that.
Next, go to your domain name provider, like GoDaddy, Bluehost, or if you’re on Squarespace or Wix, likely Squarespace or Wix. Here’s a Twitter thread where I show you how to do this with Bluehost…
…and here’s one where I show you how to do it on Squarespace.
Once you’ve done that, go back to Google Search Console and click Verify. It might take a couple of hours for your DNS settings to update so check back in a bit.
And that’s it, you’re done. You’ve set up your Google Search Console! (Google sure knows how to pick a green that makes you feel good.)
2. The Wronger Way to set up Google Search Console
All right, before I get into how to set up the other way (called URL prefix), let’s talk about when this might be useful to do. I wouldn’t choose it as an alternative, but as well as your domain property.
First, if you want to see Google Search Console data in your Google Analytics, you’re unfortunately going to need a URL prefix. I have to believe this is because they haven’t rolled out the functionality to connect the domain property yet. But that’s where we’re at.
Second, Google Search Console reports are awesome. There’s lots of useful, insightful data in there and I’m going to get to how to unlock it very soon. Its big limitation though is that it caps the number of entries to 1000. That is a lot, but it’s certainly not comprehensive. And when you have a large site, particularly one that’s content heavy, then you’re going to lose a lot of helpful info just because it’s not in the top 1000.
So that’s when it makes sense to add a URL prefix property as well, but then I would just do it for the subfolder you’re interested in, so https://mycoolsite.com/blog.
The other time it makes sense is if for whatever reason you can’t get access to the domain register for the site and you need that data now.
Let’s get into it, how do you set this bastard up? Well, first you start by setting up your Google Analytics. I’ve gone through an entire post showing you how to do that and if you need a refresher, just click here.
Once your analytics tag is properly set up, go to GSC, + Add Property, and enter the full URL of the folder you’re going to track. Remember how HTTPS, HTTP, WWW and non WWW make a difference. So make sure you’re picking the canonical version of your site (if you’re not sure which it is, just visit your site at all four locations and check that they all redirect to the same version).
So in the case above, where we just want to see data for the blog subfolder, you’d enter that whole URL: https://mycoolsite.com/blog.
Click Continue. (If you’ve set up your domain property, at this point, your ownership will automatically be verified, woohoo!)
You now have a smorgasbord to verify your property. Choose Google Analytics and click Verify.
If you’ve set up Google Analytics properly, shouldn’t be a problem and you’ll get that lovely green checkmark. And you’re done!
Before we move on to the next section, there’s one more thing you need to do to set up your account: submit your sitemap.
What’s the purpose of a sitemap?
A sitemap is a file on your website in an .xml format that lists the pages on your website and how they’re organized. Think of it like a table of contents in a format search engine crawlers can easily read.
If you have a larger site, Google recommends you create several sitemaps.
The good news is most popular CMSs (WordPress, Squarespace, Wix) automatically create your sitemap and add to it whenever you add a new page to your site. You can find it at yourwebsite.com/sitemap.xml. All you have to do is submit your sitemap on GSC.
How do you submit your sitemap on Google Search Console?
On the left hand side, select Sitemaps under Index.
- In the text field, enter the URL for your sitemap (should just be your homepage URL + /sitemap.xml)
- Click Submit and you’re done!
How to link Google Search Console and Google Analytics
Congratulations, you’ve set up Google Search Console. That wasn’t too hard, was it?
Next we’re going to link your GSC to your Google Analytics account so you can get some of that tasty, tasty data right in your Analytics reports.
Like I said, if you want to do this, you’re going to have to set up your non-domain property. ☝️
- In Analytics, go to Admin ⚙️> Property Settings.
- Scroll down until you find the Search Console section, and then click the Adjust Search Console.
- From the list of sites, select the one you want to connect and click Save. If you haven’t created a non-domain property yet, you can do so by clicking the Add a site to Search Console button.
And there you have it! Now in Google Analytics, you can go to Acquisition > Search Console and get data on what’s happening in search without having to set foot into GSC.
But if you’re wanting to dig, you’re going to have to…
How to navigate Google Search Console
Google Search Console is actually quite easy to navigate. It doesn’t have nearly as many reports as Google Analytics.
In the Performance section you get to see how your website has done in Google search. There are four metrics you can get data on:
- Clicks (how many people clicked to a page on your site from Google)
- Impressions (how many times a page on your website showed up for a search, no matter in what position)
- Click-through rate or CTR (the percentage of clicks divided by impressions)
- Average rank (the average position in the search engine ranking page—or SERP—that your page was at)
The main filters are:
- Queries (the actual searches made within the reported timeframe)
- Pages (the pages on your site that ranked)
- Countries (the countries the searches were made from)
- Devices (the type of device — mobile, desktop or tablet — the searches were made from)
This is where I spend most of my time and at the end of this post, I describe one of the ways I use this report to improve SEO so let’s move on to our tour of the park https://cdn.embedly.com/widgets/media.html?src=https%3A%2F%2Fgiphy.com%2Fembed%2F68fNQSKhsD7RC%2Ftwitter%2Fiframe&display_name=Giphy&url=https%3A%2F%2Fgiphy.com%2Fgifs%2F68fNQSKhsD7RC&image=https%3A%2F%2Fmedia.giphy.com%2Fmedia%2F68fNQSKhsD7RC%2F200.gif&key=61d05c9d54e8455ea7a9677c366be814&type=text%2Fhtml&schema=giphy&wmode=opaque
Discover & share this Animated GIF with everyone you know. GIPHY is how you search, share, discover, and create GIFs.
When you publish a new page, head over to the URL Inspection tool, enter the new page’s URL and request it for indexing.
Once a page is in Google’s index, you’ll be able to see if there are any issues with it. This is a very useful diagnosing tool.
The coverage report shows you the health of your site:
- Which pages are valid
- Which pages have issues or errors
- Which pages may have issues or warnings
- Which pages are being excluded
The types of issues that you can have are:
- Crawl issues
- Redirects errors
- Missing pages (404s)
- Crawl anomalies
- Crawled, but for whatever reason, not indexed.
We’ve talked about sitemaps already but in case you skipped that section, a sitemap is like a table of contents for your website that tells search engines what pages are on your website and how they’re all organized. Your sitemap is usually found at your directory’s URL + /sitemap.xml.
Speed and Mobile Usability
These are two important aspects to making sure your site is properly optimized for today’s internet users.
The speed section will give you an overview of how fast your pages are loading. When you click into the report, it will show you two graphs: one for mobile and one for desktop.
For more details, you can open either report and see how many pages are slow, moderate and fast.
Mobile usability will let you know if your site is not ideally optimized for mobile screens.
We’re ending our tour with the T-Rex of SEO who put the “king” in “ranking”. I’m talking about…
That’s right. There’s nothing in the SEO world more ferocious, more terrifying, more deadly to the SERPs than getting other sites—quality sites—to link to yours by the power of your excellent content.
You want to rank? You’ll need content. You want to rank on page 1? Good luck doing that without links.
And it’s not just external links, or back links (when other sites link to you) but internal links too.
Remember your sitemap, how search engine crawlers use that to understand not just what pages exist on your site but how they’re organized? Internal linking further does that, showing how different pages are related to each other.
I mean, what is the World Wide Web if not a bunch of pages linked to each other?
Anyway, the final section before you get to Settings shows you links, both external and internal, where they’re coming from and where they’re going to. So you can see on your site the top linked to pages (this will usually be your home page) as well as what other website found your content interesting enough to link to.
How to use Google Search Console to improve your SEO
You know, it’s great to have Google Search Console set up and to know what the different sections do. And I mean I’m the first to say it’s interesting to see how many people are coming to your site and where they’re coming from and what they’re doing once they’re there.
But if that’s all you’re doing, there are better things for you to do with your time.
The magic of Google Search Console is that by using the data, you can get results like this:
Here is one of my favourite ways to use GSC.
Go to your Performance report. Filter your data by pages and then sort them by Impressions to see which pages are showing up the most often in search results.
Click on your top pages to filter your data per page then take a look at what keywords that page is ranking for. You can set the average position filter to identify some lower ranking queries.
Find keywords that have high impressions and low clicks that are relevant to the page you’re writing about and would improve the existing content. You’re going to optimize your page for them.
Take the keyword and either use it in the H1 and Page Title of your page or if it’s a subtopic of your page content, then add a new paragraph (or edit an existing one) and use the keyword in an H2 or H3 of the page.
Queries are questions searchers have so when you optimize your content, you’re not just inserting these keywords in barely relevant places. You’re providing the best possible answer on them. If you do that, within a couple weeks, you’ll see results.
Get familiar with Google Search Console
You know how I said that Google Analytics is like that childhood friend that you can keep going back to and it feels easy and familiar?
Google Search Console is that friend you make in high school or university, when the world is opening up before you. You go deeper with them and it feels like the conversations are more genuine, the insights sharper (plus it’s part of the illustrious three name club).
That’s not to slam Google Analytics. It’s useful and necessary. But when there’s a problem that needs solving and GSC is the answer…
Honestly, I wish I’d learned about GSC and how cool it was years ago. It has radically changed the way I understand websites and the strategies that are necessary to get them to perform at their peak.
All right, if you have any questions, comments or concerns, leave them in the comments below. And if there’s something about Google Search Console you love that I haven’t covered (or that I have, that’s fine too), lemme know!