I recently had the opportunity to work with Nicole Hunn, author, baker, photographer and creator of excellent recipes at Gluten Free on a Shoestring. Nicole operates a gluten free baking and recipe blog and sells two fantastic gluten free cookbooks focused on creating delicious and affordable gluten-free foods. After completing our initial search engine optimization audit and alterations, we were left with the question: “How do we keep up the positive momentum?” Just as Nicole crafts easy-to-execute instruction for her readers, we needed to formulate a recipe for her long-term SEO program.
Our answer and resulting recipe came from Google Webmaster Tools, a complimentary toolset offered by Google to help web developers and SEOs. Essentially, Webmaster Tools allows us to see our websites through Google’s eyes. It sheds light on how well our sites are being indexed, what potential issues Google is having when attempting to access our content, and the optimization opportunities that await if we are willing to take advantage. Here are five simple elements within Google Webmaster Tools that Nicole and several other clients find particularly useful.
Traditional sitemaps were actual web pages used in the dawn of the internet to help visitors find their way around a website, similar in format to a yellow pages directory for web pages. Later they demonstrated value from a search engine optimization perspective as they provided one page on the site where a search engine spider could quickly gather and access every single page on a site. Today, sitemap pages are used less often. As website users, we have evolved to a more conventional site navigation format and search engines typically rely on a different kind of sitemap, an XML file.
You can create your sitemap XML file manually or with a variety of available tools. Since Gluten Free on a Shoestring operates on the WordPress platform, we simply found a sitemap plugin that updates with every new page or recipe post that is added. After creating your sitemap, you can submit it to Google Webmaster Tools and allow Google to quickly index all the important, visitor-friendly pages of your website. Once submitted, Google will provide statistics regarding index frequency and ratio (i.e. the percentage of pages submitted that are being indexed).
Located within the “Optimization” section of Webmaster Tools, the HTML Improvements data shows areas for growth with our on-page optimization efforts (i.e. alterations to web page titles and meta descriptions). As you can see by the table on the right, Nicole’s site has a few duplicate meta descriptions and duplicate tittle tags. Considering the site has well over 450+ recipes, these numbers aren’t too bad. However, as each page should be treated as a unique destination with a custom welcome mat, these are worthwhile fixes. By clicking on the “Duplicate meta descriptions” or “Duplicate title tags” links within Webmaster Tools, we can get a full list of pages that require modifications.
The “Health” section within Webmaster Tools includes a Crawl Errors report. This helps us identify pages that could not be found or produced a 404 error. Minimizing errors improves website experience and in turn improves a site’s standing in search engine results. Here are a few of the errors found on Gluten Free on a Shoestring.
These kinds of errors should not cause panic. They are simply pages that once existed and do not any longer. Either the page went away, or it was renamed. Every error page requires a redirect to transfer visitors away to a relevant page on the site that still exists. It is important to use 301 redirects whenever possible, which alert Google that a page has moved permanently. Redirects can be placed within page code, within a .htaccess file (fun!), from the hosting server, or in Nicole’s case, with a separate WordPress plugin.
The Search Queries report within the “Traffic” section is particularly useful when trying to determine where to focus immediate attention with your optimization program. It provides a table with keywords, their impressions, clicks, clickthrough rate and average position in search results. The table below shows several keywords for which Gluten Free on a Shoestring has been optimized. While each of these terms has a top 10 ranking (as shown in the Avg. Position column on the far right), there is certainly some room to grow with each. The optimal “Avg. Position” would 1.0, which would signify a top ranking.
When we click on each of the terms presented above, Google Webmaster Tools shows us the page(s) that has earned the corresponding ranking. At this point, we are presented with two optimization options:
- Increase usage of the term on this page (i.e. keyword density). This can be a little tricky as we don’t want to overdo it and suffer any “over optimization” penalties. However, there may be some room to insert the target phrase into page headlines or text in a way that does not compromise the integrity of page content.
- Promote this page with an eye toward acquiring more links. This could involve a variety of strategies from a social media push to guest blogging on other baking/cooking/food blogs, Q&A sites, or even utilizing traditional media. We’ll also want to consider how other pages within Nicole’s site link to the page in question.
Employing one or both of the options above should help us secure a more favorable ranking for terms and corresponding pages that require a little added SEO attention.
Links to Your Site
Find your most common link sources with the Links to Your Site report, which is also located within the “Traffic” section. Data presented within this report can encourage us to create and/or reconfigure our link acquisition plan.
Based on the information available, we are typically left with three potential next steps:
- Keep it Up: a link source may be providing a high volume of quality inbound links thanks to consistent site promotion efforts.
- Make Adjustments: there may be a few link sources that are unexpected or unfamiliar. Determine if these sources are worth a more concerted effort. Is there more we can do to garner additional links from this source? Do the links we have acquired require some modification to maximize effectiveness?
- Focus on Other Sources: Just as you might spot a few surprising link sources, there may also be a few glaring omissions. Are there partners, news outlets or other potential link sources upon which we should place emphasis?
Please note that there are other fine tools I would recommend for link diagnostics such as Open Site Explorer or Majestic. However, Google Webmaster Tools should be considered a legitimate tool to help inform a well-rounded link promotion strategy.
By utilizing these five elements and the entire toolset from Google Webmaster Tools, you can craft a venerable SEO recipe. What other tools or reports within Webmaster Tools do you rely upon?