With the constant hype around new tools and "systems" promising SEO magic, it's easy to overlook, or even downright dismiss, valuable tools free for the using. One such tool is Google's own Webmaster Tools.
I'm continually amazed at the number of people that don't take advantage of the wealth of information the Big "G" makes available about what it's looking for, what it's crawlers have found, and what needs some attention. Maybe they dismiss the tool as less effective because it's free, and isn't promising them untold amounts of push button traffic.
Personally, I feel it's one of the most valuable tools you can take a regular look at in your efforts to rank your site higher. Checking the Google Webmaster tool every couple of weeks, or at least monthly, can help you avoid problems in your site, as well as provide some key search results data that can drive your SEO efforts.
Here are 5 key elements to check in Google's Webmaster Toolbox:
This may sound overly simple, but what is Google bringing to your attention about your site? Anything they find important enough to send you a message about, even an automated one, is something you need to pay attention to. If you do nothing else, at least log in once a week to see if there are any messages waiting for you about your site.
A sitemap, as far as the search engines are concerned, can be considered a lifeline of sorts for your site. Without a sitemap, search engines might not know about all of your valuable content. The first step is to make sure you actually HAVE a sitemap registered with Google. The second, and ongoing thing to check is errors with your sitemap. It also is handy to see how many of your pages have been indexed by Google. Missing pages means you should resubmit that sitemap to not only Google, but the other search engines you're targeting.
3. Site Health
The Health section of Webmaster Tools is an area you should ideally check on a weekly basis. These are the two most important areas I check on all my sites at least once a week:
Crawl Errors - Are there any issues Google's search bots are having crawling your site? Oftentimes these errors signify broken links on your site. You want to fix these quickly (or get rid of the links), not only for your search results, but the usability experience of your site visitors.
Malware - Although you should be running anti-virus and malware protection at the server level, this is a last line of defense notification system to let you know when your site has been infected. This is another area you want to address ASAP if you notice a problem. Nothing is worse than getting your hard earned rankings slapped down because of malicious code on your site.
4. Search Queries & Content Keywords
I find these two areas go hand-in-hand as I look through what data Google has collected on my site. The Content Keywords are the keywords and phrases Google sees as relevant based on your site content. Adjusting what your content is focused on will impact this list as it's updated. Couple that with the Search Queries Google has recorded for your site, and you have a nice picture of the result of your efforts. Paying attention to these two lists will help you ensure your content is matching up with the queries you're getting traffic for.
Another aspect to consider with the Search Queries is what I consider to be low-hanging SEO fruit. It's typically much easier to bolster your rankings for keywords and phrases you're already getting traffic for than it is trying to bust into the top 10 for brand new keywords or phrases for your site. You should pay close attention to what Google is sending you traffic for and consider how you can leverage that for long tail traffic or what you can add just a bit more effort to in order to improve rankings for current results. Why not go with the flow and just paddle a little harder to ride the wave of traffic you're already on.
5. HTML Improvements
Similar to the other site health areas, this one is a no brainer in my opinion. Taking into consideration what Google thinks you need to fix on your site is going to help your ranking efforts over time. Most notable on this list are duplicate meta descriptions and duplicate title tags. Pay attention to those and take corrective action as those pop up.
Although nobody likes to be told what to do, having a behemoth search engine like Google give you tips about what it wants to see in your site is pretty valuable. Take a few minutes to listen, consider what it sees, and take action to fix problems. Your search engine results will thank you, and it won't cost you a dime!