Google webmaster tools is a free service that is offered by Google to help website owners improve their rankings and get the most out of their SEO efforts. Indeed, if you really want to do well in the search engines, you should look at using Google Webmaster Tools from day one, before you start working on improving your site.
The toolset costs nothing to use and is very easy to set up. All you need to do is prove that you own the website that you want to track. There are a few ways that you can do that. Perhaps the easiest is to add something to our domain’s configuration in the DNS records. If you don’t have access to the domain registrar or don’t feel confident doing that, then you can add a meta tag to the home page of the site. Alternatively, you can upload an HTML file to your webserver, or, if your access is so restricted that those two things aren’t an option, but your web designer had already set up Google Analytics for you, then you can link your Google Analytics administrator-level account to Google Webmaster tools.
Once you’re up and running, you will be able to see a lot of information about the site. It can take a few hours for Google to populate the account, but once the information starts to show up you will have some real insights into how Google sees your site. The dashboard offers information about things like which keywords you rank for, your traffic levels (from search), and whether or not the Google bot experiences any crawl errors while it is going through the website. It will also give you information about the number of pages that Google has indexed, and how many sites are linking to your website.
Google is not perfect, and it does struggle with crawling a lot of websites. Providing a sitemap can help with this. Sitemaps can help Google to find new pages that it has overlooked. If a page isn’t indexed, then Google won’t be able to show it in the search results, and this means that you’ll miss out on traffic from it.
Sitemaps have to be formatted in a special way, as an XML file, and you cannot have more than 50,000 URLs per sitemap file. The file must not be bigger than 10MB. If your file is too big or contains too many URLs, then you will need to break it up into more than one file and submit each one individually. You can get free sitemap generation plugins for most common Content Management Systems.
Google will read the sitemap and index your site over a period of time. Sometimes it won’t index every page. If the pages are generic or contain duplicate content, then it will ignore them. This should not be a cause for concern as long as the vast majority of pages on your site are being indexed. If a huge number of pages are being ignored then you should review the quality of content on the site.
There may be some pages that you do not want Google to look at – things like RSS feeds, or pages that are “low quality” that you would prefer to be skipped over. If you create a robots.txt file, you can use this to discourage all of the major search engines from accessing content that you are not keen to have indexed. Note that if content is highly sensitive, it is a better idea to password protect it, because if content can be loaded, someone will find it and access it.
Sitelinks are something else that Google will offer in the webmaster tools section. You have a degree of control over what you can have appear in that section. Google does not allow people to pick what shows up as sitelinks under a search result, but it does allow you to specify what pages you do not want to be used for sitelinks.
Another valuable option for webmasters is the change of address option. You can use this if you want to move to a different domain name and have your links automatically updated to point to the new site in the search results. This won’t help you with any links on third party websites (you should set up a redirect, if you still control the old domain), but it will help you to avoid losing a huge amount of traffic.
It’s worth checking the penalties section as well. If you have a penalty for, say, spam or duplicate content, it will appear here. You can then find out why you have the penalty, take measures to rectify the issue, and contact Google to submit a reinclusion request once the issue is fixed.