Google Search Console (GSC) is a free tool that lets you see in-depth information about your website’s status on Google’s search engine and fix problems that your site may have appearing in Google’s search results. If you have been around SEO spaces for a long time, you may also know it by its previous iteration, Google Webmaster Tools.
GSC contains a host of valuable data regarding your site’s Google search performance, indexing status, links, etc. All this data is presented in highly configurable reports, which you can compare and contrast to get more insight on how well your site is doing in Google’s search results.
In this article, I’ll explain what Google Search Console is, why it is one of the most important tools SEOs use, and how any businesses with an online presence can leverage its potential and use it to gain a leg up on their competition.
Why Google Search Console Matters in SEO
Google Search Console can improve SEO in four major ways:
Google Search Performance
GSC shows how often your site appears on Google Search measured as “impressions”, how many clicks your site gets on Google Search, your site’s click-through-rate (clicks divided by impressions), what keywords you’re ranking for, and how well your site ranks for certain keywords.
You can then use such data to find high-performing keywords and model your content around such keywords to rank higher.
It doesn’t matter how good your content is or how optimised your metadata is if Google can’t find and crawl your website in the first place to have your pages show up in the search results. You can get confirmation that all your pages are crawled and added to Google’s Index with GSC.
If you’ve added to or updated your site, you can also use GSC to have your site reindexed to account for the changes ASAP, instead of waiting for Google to eventually get around to it.
The layout and look of the search engine results pages (SERPs) has been changing constantly. This is most visible in SERPs with rich snippets, which are enabled with schema markup, like average ratings for products, step-by-step instructions for recipes, and schedules for events. For mobile users, Google also serves up much faster loading pages through search results. Websites that have such features tend to rank higher.
GSC shows you if you are using all these elements correctly.
Technical Site Issues
Another tenet of good SEO is making sure your website is free of technical problems and is running as smoothly as possible. GSC lets you know if there are any issues on your site that you need to immediately address, such as server errors, 404 errors, domain errors, and security issues.
How to Use Google Search Console
Now that you have a basic understanding of what GSC is for, it’s time to learn how to actually use it.
Setting Up Google Search Console
- Sign in to your website’s Google account.
- Go to Google Search Console.
- Click on the “Add property” dropdown menu. Alternatively, you can type your website’s URL in the text box under Domain and click continue.
- Your site should now be added to Google Search Console.
- Verify your site to prove that you are the owner or an authorised user by first clicking on Manage property next to your website on the GSC dashboard. There are multiple ways of verification:
- Use Google Analytics
Select Google Analytics tracking code under Recommended method. If you already have a Google Analytics account tied to your website, you just have to click Verify. If it doesn’t work, check the HTML of your site’s homepage to see if the GA code is in the <Head> section.
- Add HTML Tag
Select HTML tag under Alternate methods. Copy the provided meta tag on GSC then paste it in the <Head> section of your site’s homepage, then save the updated HTML. Go back to GSC and click on Verify.
- Upload HTML
Select HTML file upload under Alternate methods. Download the provided HTML file, then upload it to the specified direction. Go back to GSC and click on Verify.
- Use Google Tag Manager
Select Google Tag Manager under Alternate methods. If you already have GTM code in your site’s HTML code and have “View, Edit, and Manage” permissions enabled in your GTM account, all you have to do is click Verify.
- Click Crawl on the dropdown menu in the GSC dashboard, then click Sitemaps, then click Add/Test Sitemap.
- Type “system/feeds/sitemap” in the text box that appeared, then click Submit Sitemap.
Your website should now be all set to use with GSC.
One other thing you might want to check before diving into the details of GSC is your site’s robots.txt file. This file can tell Google what pages on your site you don’t want to be indexed.
- Click Crawl in the dashboard, then robots.txt Tester. It should show your robots.txt file and if there are any errors. You can also edit it with this tool.
- Click Submit once you’re done making changes, and GSC should give you a copy of the updated robots.txt.
- Upload the new version to your site in the root domain (www.yoursite.com/robots.txt)
- Click Verify live version in the Tester tool for confirmation and to tell Google to crawl your site to see the changes.
There are two roles that can be assigned to GSC users for each verified website, with differing levels of access to GSC data and limitations on actions they can take. It’s important to assign these roles before anything else to ensure the right people in your staff can do what needs to be done regarding SEO and site management without any roadblocks.
Has complete access to all the data and tools, can add or remove users, and change settings. Verified owners completed the verification process for specific sites, and they can assign other users as delegated owners. Delegated owners can also assign others as owners.
Can see either all or some data, and make some changes. They can’t add or remove other users. Full users have access to all data, while restricted users are limited to what has been assigned to them.
Submit Changes to Google Index
Whenever you make changes to your website, Google has to crawl it to see those updates and add it to their index. Google does this automatically, but it may take some time before you see the changes reflected in the search results. You can speed up this process by manually submitting changes to Google.
- On the GSC dashboard, click Crawl then Fetch as Google.
- In the text box that shows up, you can either type in the address of a specific page you want to be re-indexed, or you can leave it blank to have Google crawl through the entire website.
- Click Fetch and Render. How long this takes depends on the size and quantity of pages that are going to be fetched for crawling.
- Click Submit to Index, then choose either to Crawl Only This URL if it’s just that one page you want updated, or Crawl This URL and its Direct Links if you want the entire site updated.
- Wait for the process to finish.
Once you’ve taken all these steps, Google should reflect the changes in the next couple of days.
Check Site Errors
So you may be wondering why your website seems to be running fine from the outside and that your SEO strategy seems sound, yet your site is still not ranking as high as you think it should be. It could very well be a problem under the hood with site or URL errors. Thankfully, GSC can alert you to such problems quickly.
On the GSC dashboard, click Crawl then Crawl Errors to see internal issues that have to do with how Google is crawling your entire site or specific pages.
The Crawl Errors window separates Site Errors from URL Errors.
- Site Errors are shown at the top and include problems with the site’s DNS, server connectivity, and robots.txt file.
- URL Errors are at the bottom and can vary greatly, from simple 404 errors to errors on mobile devices to malware attacks.
Click on any error to get a description and more details such as when it was detected. Depending on your SEO and web development expertise, you can either fix these problems yourself or notify the people responsible for fixing site errors.
Another handy feature in GSC is the URL Inspection Tool, which shows all sorts of important information about a page in its most recently indexed version.
To use it, simply type the URL in the search bar that says “Inspect any URL…” at the top of the GSC interface and press enter.
The first thing it tells you is if the URL you’re inspecting actually shows up in Google’s search results. You’ll also be able to test if that a live page can actually be indexed. For your convenience, you can also just request Google to crawl the relevant page for indexing in the same tool.
There are other useful details presented in the URL Inspection report such as when the URL was last crawled, what are its referring pages, and the canonical version of the URL, among other things.
Understanding Google Search Console’s Reports
One of Google Search Console’s most powerful features are its comprehensive reports on various data sets collected by the platform. Fully explaining each would take another whole article, so I’ll just go over the essentials to give you a baseline understanding of the data and how you can use it to develop and fine-tune your SEO strategy.
- Overview Report
As it says, the Overview Report gives you the big picture of your site in terms of search performance, pages indexed, and mobile usability. It is the jumping off point before you dive into the details regarding the following three major reports.
- Performance Report
Finding out how well your site is performing on Google is easy with the Performance Report. It collects up to 16 months of search results data that includes total impressions, clicks, CTR, and average position data. You can filter the data by search query, search type, country, date, and device, with more filters to come. You can also overlay the data to make visual comparisons.
The Performance Report also shows data from users finding your site through Google’s Discover feed on mobile and Google News.
Data from the Performance Report is generally used for more in-depth keyword research.
We’ll get into a little more detail on how to use the Performance Report in a dedicated section below, as this is the SEO specialist’s bread and butter for developing an actionable search strategy.
- Index Report
To see how much of your site is crawled properly by Google, the Index Report is what you should look at. It shows all the indexed pages, the status of your sitemap, and the pages that currently have crawl errors. This is also the section where you can choose to hide or remove specific pages.
The Index Report is useful for spotting indexing issues, notifying your team about these problems, and making quick changes to what you want Google to index.
Improving user experience is the primary goal of reviewing the Enhancements section on GSC. It covers all the elements present on your site that affect how searchers interface with it on-site and in Google’s SERPs. Examples would be how fast pages load, how they look on mobile, what extra information shows up for your pages in the search results, etc.
GSC rates the quality of your implementation of such enhancements, and lets you know if you’ve done things incorrectly. Although some of these elements don’t directly affect your search rankings, improving them will make for better user interactions that can indirectly lead to more search traffic and engagement.
- Security & Manual Actions
Address pressing security issues and violations of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines immediately in this section of GSC. It warns you if your site has been hacked or infected by malware, and if the site has anything that goes against the guidelines like a high number of unnatural and irrelevant links.
This section shows all your site’s links, including external and internal links. You can export the data from all the top websites that link to yours for easy backlink monitoring, which is useful to spot link spam or negative SEO.
You can make changes to how GSC interacts with your site in the Settings menu.
- Change of Address lets GSC know you’re migrating your site to a new domain.
- Crawl Stats Report shows when and how often Google crawls your site.
- Association lets you link other Google services like Google Analytics and Google Ads to GSC.
Interpreting the Performance Report
SEO experts spend most of their time on GSC using the Performance Report because it is where all the crucial data on how well a website is doing on Google Search lives. Whether it’s showing the CTR of a certain page or the number of clicks a page is getting per keyword, the hard data is there to dig through and analyse.
The depths to which you can go with utilising such figures are limitless, but you can get started by making simple observations with the data you already have.
Take a page that gets a lot of impressions but isn’t getting a lot of clicks. Its low CTR could be a result of a basic problem like having a title or description that doesn’t quite match what searchers are looking for or a description that doesn’t sound useful or compelling.
Filters can help you drill down to certain pages and make more specific analyses.
Click on “+ NEW” at the top of the Performance Report, choose “Query”, and under the Filter tab, choose “Queries containing” in the dropdown menu. You can then type a keyword you’re interested in to see which pages you have that are ranking for that keyword.
Depending on which pages show up, you can find out if you are doing something right or wrong with those pages and the keyword you are trying to rank for.
The keyword you use as a filter doesn’t necessarily even have to be one you are actively using for your SEO strategy. If you see that certain pages are getting clicks and ranking high for such a keyword, you can pivot towards using that keyword instead for SEO, so long as it’s relevant to your overall goals.
For a more advanced version of filtering via queries, the “Custom (regex)” option in the same dropdown menu lets you configure terms as such that you can include and/or exclude spelling variants and typos, specific page categories, and even user intent with terms like “how”, “what”, or “buy”.
Get Expert Support for Google Search Console
Google Search Console is one of the most important tools in any SEO’s arsenal and I am only scratching the surface of what it can do and how it works. Hopefully, though, this guide has shed some light on how useful this free tool can be for formulating and executing a solid SEO strategy.