Formerly Google Webmaster Tools and initially launched in the early 2000s, Google Search Console has been a free resource for SEO and search and digital marketing more generally since 2015. We’ve covered as much as we can but, if you’re looking for something specific, the following table will let you skip to the topic you need…
What is Google Search Console? AKA Google Web Console
Google Search Console is a free tool ostensibly designed to help brands monitor and maintain their site’s presence in search results. Launched in May 2015, replacing Google Webmaster Tools, and updated sporadically since, Google Search Console is one of the many tools that developers and SEOs use to monitor the performance of their sites. It offers error reports, keyword reports, mobile site reports, page experience reports and more – making it an ideal tool for any brand, but perfect for newcomers.
Setting up Google Search Console
First, you’ll need to log in to Google Search Console. Once there, you’ll be presented with a binary choice between adding a property by domain or URL prefix. Essentially, this allows you to decide how you’ll prove ownership of the site.
If you choose to add your property, you will need to verify your ownership of the property via DNS, you’ll do so through your domain host (generally the place you bought your domain name) and the DNS settings options you’ll have there. To prove ownership this way, you’ll need to follow these steps:
- Log in to your Google Admin console, you’ll find the code in the setup tool.
- Copy that code and then open your domain’s DNS records (generally called something like: Advanced Settings, Control Panel, DNS Management, or Name Server Management) and select the option to create a new record.
- Create a TXT record, fill in any compulsory fields, then add the code to the field titled something like: Value/Answer/Destination and save the record.
- Enter your domain into the ‘Domain’ box and click ‘Continue’ – this can take time, however, as you’ll need to wait for your registrar to publish the verification code which can, in extreme cases, take up to 48 hours.
You can also verify using a snippet of code which is inserted into your head section (before the closing tag). You can find the code you need to copy and paste by expanding the box indicated below (accessible during the verification process) – once you have placed the code snippet on your site (an option for adding such can often be found on the ‘Developer’ page of the ‘Site Options’ menu on WordPress sites, but it will vary), you can then click ‘verify’.
Once you have verified your site, you’ll be met with your homepage – the ‘Overview’, a left-hand side menu with your available reports, which we’ll take a look at one by one. Firstly, we’ll have a look at the Overview page.
As you would expect from an ‘overview’, the first screen offers a big picture view of your site’s recent performance, coverage, experience and enhancement with full reports available at a click.
These charts provide a top-level overview of some of the deeper reporting levels, so we’ll cover them as we go through the applicable menu options.
Google Search Console Performance Report
An expanded version of the top-level performance report from the overview, this is made up of two sections – your site’s performance in SERPs, and your site’s performance broken down in to categories, so a top-level performance and a break down performance.
The top-level report offers insights in to the performance of your site overall – with four metrics displayed in a line graph:
- Total clicks: – The total number of clicks through to your site resulting from searches.
- Total impressions: – How often your site has appeared for a consumer’s search term.
- Average CTR: – The percentage of impressions that resulted in a click.
- Average position: – The average position of your top ranking page whenever your site appears in a search result.
It’ll also show you some top-level stats on where the traffic is coming from. These can be filtered by:
- Search type: – this can be filtered to include only web searches, image searches or video searches – it’s worth pointing out here, that the ‘google images – organic’ source seems to have disappeared from Google Analytics, so this will be where you’ll need to look for performance in this area.
- Date: – this is simply the start and end dates for the report.
- Country: – restricts the report to only include searches made in a specific country.
- Query: – narrows the report to searches that contain a specified keyword or phrase.
- Page: – filters the report to searches for which a specific URL appeared.
- Device: – allows you to see searches only from desktops, mobile phones or tablets.
- Search appearance: – shows searches where your site appears in either ‘Web Light’, ‘AMP’ or ‘AMP article’ results.
While the uses of this are probably obvious, this group of potential filter combinations allow you to compare your performance on different devices, track your site’s performance over time and the frequency your site’s AMP pages appear in SERPs.
The break down table organises your site data more specifically – giving you greater insight into performance. While the metrics remain the same for each of the five options, they are still subject to the main page filters – so that comparison between devices, queries etc. can still be made. The metrics for the table are:
- Impressions: – how many times the specific page, query etc. has generated an impression.
- Position: – the average position of the specific page, device, country etc.
There are other metrics there – but to access them, you will have to either export the data, or connect your GSC to Data Studio (there’s a guide on connection a little further down, and there’s a guide to creating a basic GSC report a little further still.
The dimensions available here (again, all filtered by the main page level filter) are:
- Queries: – gives you the search terms for which your site has appeared.
- Pages: – which of your pages has appeared in search.
- Countries: – which countries your site has appeared in results for.
- Devices: – how your site has performed on mobile, tablet and desktop.
- Search appearance: – how your site has fared across ‘Web Light’, ‘AMP’ and ‘AMP article’ results
This table gives you the ability to determine your best performing content, topics, queries you are answering well and those you could answer better, which countries are seeing your work and which could do with a little extra help – whether in the form of translation or paid promotion – and more besides.
Tip: the keywords which matter most
The Performance report allows you to develop your understanding of which search queries are drawing impressions and clicks to your website from Google. You can also see the average position in Google’s search results pages (SERPs) – this can help inform which keywords you should be targeting and tracking.
Make a list of the keywords that are delivering the most clicks (traffic driving keywords), Google these to check the position of your website and take a look at any pages ranking above your site and consider:
- Is the content better?
- Does the page cover the topic in more depth?
- Do they include images, videos, etc.?
- Is the site ranking more authoritative or trusted?
These keywords are among the most important to your site (provided they are relevant – if they’re not, then you need to investigate why), so think about your pages in comparison to competitor content, what does your page lack? This can assist you in boosting the organic performance of your site.
The next report in the menu is the ‘URL inspection’ tool – this crawls a specific URL as entered and offers some key information: whether the page has been indexed, whether it is mobile friendly and (less importantly these days) whether AMP is in place, among other things.
By expanding the top tab, or clicking on the others, you can see what the declared canonical tag for the page is, its last crawl date, as well as open up a page specific mobile usability or AMP report.
Your ‘Coverage’ report gives you the headline numbers on your indexing performance and any errors present with your site’s coverage by search. This allows you to ensure you have not ‘noindex’ed any important pages, and whether or not there are any other errors that are halting your progress in search. In addition, by overlaying the ‘impressions’ line, you can also see immediately whether your errors are causing any real problems with your visibility.
The report is broken up in to a stackable bar chart with four options and a ‘Details’ table below. The four metrics in the top chart are:
- Error: – gives you the search terms for which your site has appeared.
- Valid with warnings: – which of your pages has appeared in search.
- Valid: – which countries your site has appeared in results for.
- Excluded: – how your site has performed on mobile, tablet and desktop.
This can also be filtered to ‘All submitted pages’ and to your submitted sitemap (with the default ‘All known pages’).
The details box allows you to dig a little deeper in to the highlighted issues in the main chart – however, any pages you have specifically noindexed will show as errors, so don’t panic but do make sure you keep an eye on the total so that it matches your own number (to save you having to go through the URLs every time).
By clicking on any of the errors or warnings, you are directed to a more in-depth report on the issue – with effected URLs listed and exportable to a Google Sheet or CSV.
In addition, once you have tackled any issues present – you can then click a button to have Google validate the fix for you.
Sitemap is where you enter the location of your XML sitemap for validation – this allows you to communicate to GSC what you expect to see indexed and, therefore, is an important part of setting up your GSC profile. There’s some more information on the importance and creation of XML sitemaps here.
As you might expect, the removals page allows you to submit requests to temporarily or permanently remove URLs from the index. This can be in the case of content which has been redirected, or products no longer supplied – but which may otherwise see a large number of users hit a 404 barrier.
Added to Search Console in 2021, the page experience report represents another step in Google’s push to improve the speed and usability of the web. This particular page serves as an overview of a site’s performance on mobile and desktop devices – which is then explored further in the Core Web Vitals reports (accessible via both the tab below the main chart and from the side menu).
Core Web Vitals
While offering less information than Google Lighthouse Report, the Search Console CWV report is a handy resource for keeping on top of performance. There are ways and means to add the more detailed data to Data Studio, but sadly not through the GSC connector as yet (January 2022). If that changes, this post will be updated to reflect that – if not, I’ll eventually get around to writing up how to do it another way.
For the moment, you’ll have access to the parred back version in Search Console – though there is a drill down option, it still isn’t hugely detailed. To begin with, you’ll see a chart something like the following:
If you select ‘Open report’, this takes you to a second chart and a table below with further details on the statuses of the various pages on the site. If you want a little more detail on Core Web Vitals themselves, you can find some more information on them here.
The Mobile Usability report, like many of the other GSC report types, is split in to the top table and ‘details’ box below. Errors detected by this report include:
- Clickable elements too close together: – as you might imagine, this refers to icons, menus and the like which are positioned in such proximity that it makes clicking on the right option difficult or impossible.
- Viewport not set: – while I’d hope you won’t see this error, this refers to the <meta name=”viewport”> element which should be set generally as <meta name=”viewport” content=”width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0″>.
- Content wider than screen: – generally experienced when you have failed to define a width or break points for your site or images, this is where you’ll see pages on your site which require sideways scrolling to see the whole page.
- Text too small to read: – again, this is fairly self-evident but refers to the size of your text when viewed on smaller screens – again, you can resolve this by selecting specific increases in font sizes along with your break points, attributing font sizes relatively (using em or rem), or by specifying font sizes along with your @media queries.
Enhancements is really a menu header rather than a report, but both reports within it are set out much the same way and deal with similar elements of your website.
The product report in the enhancements section provides what is essentially an issue log of your product mark-up – allowing you to keep an eye on problems that might occur, or when Google changes its expectations of best-practice.
The same is true of the review snippets report – you can find example code on the developer site, while the report in Search Console will notify you of errors, and – with a click through from the errors – will provide a list of problem pages.
Again, this report is split in to the same two sections – with the totals and details separate. With opinion split on the benefits (not to mention the general morality) of Google’s AMP project, it was a surprise when AMP was removed as a requirement for featuring in various rich results – and with the much-touted speed boost of AMP (accelerated mobile pages) never really seeming to appear, there has been a growing feeling that the AMP project is all but dead.
Nevertheless, you can check for issues with your AMP pages (if it has been implemented) and, again, click to reveal impacted pages, using this report.
Unparsable Structured Data
Very much in keeping with the ‘it is what it is’ naming convention, the ‘Unparsable structured data’ report provides you with a bar chart above and table below that lists URLs with errors in your structured data.
While there is an extensive list of the errors here, the most concerning one to see would be ‘Invalid JSON document’ which could potentially stop all of your mark-up from working as it should.
The sitelinks searchbox report refers to the searchable rich result for a brand term – for which Google gives the below example on the developer’s site:
In order for this report to mean anything for your site, you’ll need to add a schema snippet to the <head> of your site – which should look something like this:
Once this has been implemented, you’ll get the same style of report for this section – with the chart above and table below – though provided you add the schema correctly, your report should hopefully remain happily uninteresting.
One thing to bear in mind with sitelinks, however, is that you can have everything right – and you’ll likely still see no sitelinks searchbox for your brand in search results. In fact, Google rarely shows this particular rich result for any brand – regardless of schema implementation. So don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t see it appear.
Security & Manual Actions
The manual actions report is within the ‘Security & Manual Actions’ section of the reports and is entirely binary – you will either have a manual action penalty and it will tell you where and why, or you won’t, in which case you’ll see the below message:
Directly below your ‘Manual actions’ report and identically presented, the ‘Security issues’ report will again describe an extant problem, or give you the all-clear:
Honestly, there is no one tool that will give you a full reflection of your external inbound links – but in case you haven’t the budget for the two or three it would take to give you a representative picture, GSC’s link report is a decent place to start. There are 4 reports – each of which will give you a little more information about how your links (internal and external) are representing your brand and the information they communicate about you.
Top linked pages (External links)
This report gives you the pages on your site that have presently earned external links, and the report shows as a table with the target URL and the number of links, but each can be clicked on to see the number of linking sites.
While we think everything that we write is worthy of linking to, we write what we do because we think our audiences may need to read it. However, it’s seldom the case online content that everything will earn a click let alone a link. This report allows you to see what parts of your site, what content you’ve produced, is earning your site links.
Most of your links, generally speaking, will probably be to your home page, however, you’ll be able to scope out content that you could be promoting more, or that could use updating in order to maintain its relevance.
Top linked pages (Internal links)
Links are a reasonable way for search engines to determine importance (though, obviously, there are a lot of other factors) and this is true internally as well as externally. Therefore, this report – which, as with external links report, can be expanded to show all pages – can let you see whether there are any of your important pages that are presently underserved by your internal linking strategy.
Top linking sites
Top linking sites is not just a way to check for your biggest fans – it can also represent an opportunity for prospecting. By downloading the full list, you can run it through whatever tool you’re using to audit links, but you can also check out sites that have linked to you once or twice and, using tools like SEMrush, Ahrefs or others, you can look for similar sites that might also want to link to your content.
Top linking text
Set up like the rest of the reports in this area, the top linking text report provides you with a list of the anchor text that is being used to point to your site – while you can tell from a glance whether your top text is what you want it to be, if you have hundreds of results here, you can export the list, possibly using delimiting in a spreadsheet and run it through a word cloud generator to discover trends in the anchor text and expose areas you may need to work on.
Legacy tools and reporting
This report provides information on the location currently associated with your site and whether any hreflang tags used on the site are matching this targeting.
This has been deprecated now for a sleeker messaging experience accessible from the main GSC pages, but this previous version – which will show the same notifications of issues etc. – is still accessible here.
This allows you suggest how Google should treat specific parameters in your URLs – for example, by excluding search strings from the index. As the disclaimer on the page suggests, however, this is something that should only be done if you entirely sure how the parameters work on your site.
The Web Tools report includes the following:
- Ad Experience Report: – designed to identify ad experiences in violation of the Better Ads Standards. If violations are identified, you can request a review of your site once the issues are resolved.
- Abusive Experiences: – designed to mislead website visitors using things like auto-redirects to a new page with no action, abusive experiences are any designed to mislead or trick users. This report uncovers any that may have been discovered on properties you manage.
- Abusive Notifications: – these use or reference browser notifications to mislead users, promote malware or for phishing. Falling into two broad categories, abusive notifications include “Permission request issues” and “Notification issues”, this report returns any issues discovered on your property/properties.
Scroll to the bottom of your current data sources and select ‘add a data source’. Then select GSC from the list of sources (one scroll down – for me at least).
You’ll then need to choose the site you want to connect to – for which there’s a search function if you are managing multiple sites.
Then you’ll need to choose between the two options – site impression or URL impression. For this report, we’ll be using site impression as it holds average position data while URL impression doesn’t (though it has landing page data instead), after which you can click the connect button.
You can then add the data source to the report (changing any of the dimensions and metrics to the measurement you prefer).
You can then confirm the process and add it to the source.
Who should use Google Search Console?
When Google renamed Webmaster Tools to the GSC, they did so with the aim of being more inclusive. It was thought that the vast majority of those using the service to improve or monitor performance weren’t in fact ‘webmasters’ and therefore, it was seen perhaps as a little too technical and needed to be more accessible.
Under the new format, Google said that the platform was for “Anyone with a website! From generalist to specialist, from newbie to advanced, Search Console can help.”
They then broke down their target audience into five subsections for the types of people that should be using GSC and what each group could expect from using it. Their five groups are identified as:
- A business owner who delegates: – even if you don’t think you know how to use Search Console, you should be aware of it, and become familiar with the basics. You might hire your webmaster or a marketing specialist to help you set up your website with Search Console. In that case, you can work with that person to ensure you have access and control to all of the reports for your website. In addition, it’s a good idea to learn all you can about how your site is performing in search results so you can make important business decisions about your site.
- SEO specialist or marketer: – as someone focused on online marketing, Search Console will help to analyse your performance on Google Search, optimise your ranking, and make informed decisions about the appearance of your site’s search results. You can use the information in Search Console to influence technical decisions for the website and contribute to sophisticated marketing analysis in conjunction with other Google properties – such as Analytics, Google Trends, and Google Ads.
- Site Administrator – as a site admin, you care about the healthy operation of your site. Search Console lets you easily monitor and, in some cases, resolve server errors, site load issues, and security issues like hacking and malware. You can also use it to ensure any site maintenance or adjustments you make happen smoothly with respect to search performance.
- Web Developer – if you are creating the markup and/or code for your site, Search Console helps you monitor and resolve common issues with markup, such as errors in structured data.
- App Developer – if you own an app, you will want to see how mobile users find your app using Google Search. Search Console can help you integrate your app seamlessly with the world of websites.
What are the benefits of using Google Search Console?
The main benefits of using the GSC are to monitor performance in the search engine results pages (SERPs) and to discover how Google and others see your site.
One of the most important benefits, however, is that you are able to make sure that your site is optimised for, and that Google can access all of your content. You are also able to check when new content has been crawled, and build lists of content that is dated, or which you no longer wish to rank for. Google also states that you are able to:
- Create and monitor content that delivers visually engaging search results
- Maintain your site with minimal disruption to search performance
- Monitor and resolve malware or spam issues so your site stays clean
In terms of visibility, GSC can be used in a number of ways. It can help brands understand exactly which queries caused their site to be displayed in the SERPs and which queries display the site more frequently. This gives the business owner the perfect opportunity to see where they’re strong and where to concentrate future strategies.
Search Console can also highlight if you are gaining the maximum exposure for your most basic details. You can use the platform to see if your product prices, company contact info, or events are highlighted in rich search results.
What are the differences between Google Analytics and Search Console?
While there is obvious overlap between the two tools, the main distinction is that Google Search Console is focused on search and the searcher while Analytics is focused on your website and the how users interact with it. In this regard, the overlap between the two platforms can provide much needed context for the information on each of them. The queries that appear in GSC for example, can help to explain the behaviour of users on your site.