If you’re not using Google’s Webmaster Central, you should start. Google Webmaster Central is a great bundle of free Google tools to help you understand how Google indexes your site. It’s essential to ranking well in Google’s natural rankings. And as a bonus of sorts, by fixing problems revealed by Webmaster Central, you often can improve your positioning on secondary engines, too.
For starters, you need a Google account. Go to: https://www.google.com/accounts/newaccount.
Next, go to (and bookmark) the Google Webmaster Central homepage: www.google.com/webmasters.
The Help Center, blog and forums are worth monitoring. These resources provide valuable advice from Google and outsiders for successful search engine optimization. Someone on your Web team should skim the new information weekly. For now, let’s focus on Webmaster Central’s Tools.
Setting it Up
Fire up a browser and go to https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/siteoverview. Log in, add your site, then verify you control it. You prove ownership by adding a meta tag or uploading a file — either method takes about a minute.
You can add multiple sites to your dashboard; for example, your http site, your https site (if public), your blog. My firm’s “brochureware” information site is www.rimmkaufman.com, so that’ll be my example.
• The Webmaster Central Tools homepage is the first stop. It gives stats on the most recent crawl.
This page informs me that Google last crawled my site four days ago. Higher profile sites are visited more frequently. On that visit, Googlebot encountered more than 100 “404,” or “Page Not Found,” errors. Drilling in, it appears most of these 404s are WordPress blog “tag” result pages in which the tag includes an ampersand. Not a big deal, but I put it on the “to fix” list.
• Robots.txt tab is next. This lets you see which areas of your site you’ve asked spiders to avoid. Compliance with robots.txt is voluntary; spam scrapers and other bad guys can (and do) ignore it. But Googlebot is well-mannered and obeys your robots.txt. A syntax error or logic error in your robots.txt can destroy rankings, so it makes sense to glance at it every few months. On my site, I see we’re giving Google freedom to roam, but we’ve opted to exclude ourselves from the Internet archives (www.archive.org) via the following two lines:
URL Canonicalization and the www.
Onto the next stop:
• The Preferred Domain tab. This critically important tool allows you to help Google understand your URL canonicalization, which is the process a search engine uses to de-dupe multiple copies of the same page in their indexes.
A common dupe scenario is our domain with and without the “www” prefix.
Does worrying about the triple-w prefix on your URLs seem esoteric and irrelevant? It isn’t. Canonicalization errors can lead to serious degradation in your organic search rank, resulting in far less traffic (and thus, sales) from natural search.
Here’s the three-step recipe to avoid canonicalization woes:
1. Decide on the preferred base URL for your site.
2. Tell Google about your decision.
3. Have your Web servers enforce your decision using 301 redirects.
For my canonicalization, I’ve chosen “www.rimmkaufman.com” — with the triple-w prefix — as the base URL, though I still can use the shorter form without the triple-w prefix when speaking and on printed marketing materials. But the “true,” or canonical, domain has the triple-w.
My company and I informed Google about this choice using the Webmaster Central Preferred Domain tab. We set up our Web server such that if you reach our site without the triple-w, it redirects you to the triple-w form, using a 301 redirect (“Permanently Moved”). All this configuration takes about one minute using Apache (or IIS) and Webmaster Central, and is quite important. (For more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/URL_redirection.)
Providing duplicate content to Google dilutes your page rank, leading to lower placement on search results pages and reduced sales.
Use a free tool like Web-sniffer.net to ensure your server is handing out 301 permanent redirects, not temporary 302 or 307 redirects. Again, while this small detail sounds obscure, it can have a substantial sales dollar impact.
• The Query Stats on the Webmaster Central Statistics tab is the next visit. This page shows top searches in which your site is displayed, and top searches in which your site gets clicked. For my site, the highest traffic search for which it ranks highly is “RIMM” (we’re 10th). Sadly, those searchers are looking for stock information on Research In Motion (ticker: RIMM). We rank highly on other high-volume but irrelevant searches, such as “O’Reilly” (some of our blog posts are pg. 1 for this computer book publisher).
More Analysis = More Content, Links
“Google Panama” is relevant (I blogged regularly about Yahoo!’s new search platform in late 2006), as is my content on “what is a brand.” Such stats help you determine where you are and aren’t appearing in Google for high-traffic natural searches, and help you craft your content accordingly.
By analyzing these results, I can develop more content and links related to the phrases “paid search,” “Google and Yahoo!,” “bid management” and “online branding.”
There also are WordPress plug-ins to map your blog. Google provides detailed Sitemap info at www.google.com/support/webmasters/bin/answer.py?answer=34654&topic=8514.
There are additional features within Webmaster Central that I’ll leave to you to explore. Hopefully this article gives a taste of the powerful tools available there, which also include a help center, blog and discussion forums. The time your Web team invests in learning Google Webmaster Central will be well-rewarded. You’ll come away with better indexation, better rank and higher sales.
Alan Rimm-Kaufman, Ph.D., heads the Rimm-Kaufman Group, an online marketing agency offering paid search services and Web-effectiveness consulting. You can reach him via his blog at www.rkgblog.com.