Google Search Console Basics A Beginner’s Guide To GSC

Google Search Console or GSC – the rebranded tool still familiar to old souls in the marketing community as Google Webmaster Tools – is a pretty versatile piece of marketing software. While SEOs tend to be familiar with it, most marketers, conversion specialists, and website designers stand to gain something from understanding the basics.

At its core, GSC is a tool that …

  • allows marketers to see what terms people use to get to the website, and
  • provides an avenue to tell Google about how to crawl the site best.

Activating Google Search Console

There are 5 ways to activate Google Search Console.

You can verify by adding a file to the root of your site, or by using one of the 4 items below:

google search console basics - screenshot of the list of the 4 other methods to verify google search console

1. HTML Tag

You can add a small script on your <head> tag and let Google check that it exists, and you can verify ownership that way.

2. Google Analytics

If you also manage the Google Analytics (GA) account, you can use GA to verify that you own the GSC presence for the site.

3. Google Tag Manager

If you also manage GTM and use the container snippet, you can use that to verify ownership of GSC.

4. Domain Name Provider

You can sign in to your domain name provider and insert a text record into the DNS configuration.

As soon as GSC verifies that you own the site, it starts to collect and report data about search terms and crawl rates.

Once you verify that it’s your site, you can also create paths without additional verification. So, if you have registered and verified that you own, you can create an account for without needing to use one of the five methods mentioned above. The path will already be pre-verified.

Learning What People Are Searching For

Arguably the most important feature in GSC is the ability to check what search terms people use to get to your website. This, along with on-site search data and survey data, can tell you about user intent.

Within Google Search Console, you can go to Performance> Search Results to see the clicks, impressions, click-through rate and position of the search terms.

google search console basics - screenshot of a portion of the left navigation of google search console. search results is found under "performance"

If you’re LG, for instance, you might get data like this:

an example of the search results data lg might get from google search console. the table includes columns for queries, clicks, impressions, ctr, and position

Here’s what those things are:

  • Queries – the actual search terms people use to search on Google
  • Impressions – the number of times a page on your site appears for the given terms
  • Clicks – the number of times people click on a result to your website for the given terms
  • CTR – the click-through rate, or the percentage of clicks relative to the impressions
  • Position – the average Google position of your pages for the given terms

That data is useful for a slew of different functions. You can …

  • check if your educational pages are driving early stage terms to your site, and you can see how effective your top of the funnel efforts are
  • see what terms people are typing in when they either know your brand or are looking for very specific things, and are likely to be at the bottom of the funnel
  • see which terms in your space you don’t have high enough Google positions for, and can target those terms with new pages you create

The old version of this tool – Google Webmaster Tools – allowed users to see only 3 months’ worth of data. Google Search Console, by contrast, allows users to check up to 16 months’ worth of keyword data.

You just need to click on the date coverage near the upper-left side of the page, and change the date range as needed.

screenshot of the performance on search results page. at the top of the page is a date selector button that users can click on to change the date range

the performance on search results page with the date range modal open. the user has the option to filter the results to the most recent date, last 7 days, last 28 days, last 3 months, last 6 months, last 12 months, last 16 months, or set a custom start and end date

Letting Google Know What to Crawl First

Google’s spiders will crawl your site whether or not you have a sitemap. However, you can tell Google which pages you are prioritizing when you submit a sitemap via GSC. Google has a limited amount of crawl time dedicated to each site. And to make the most of that crawl time, you’d want to tell Google which pages you think the spiders should crawl first.

To start that process, go to Index> Sitemaps:

google search console basics - screenshot of a portion of the left navigation of google search console. sitemaps is found under "index". it's the item below "coverage"

Once you’re there, you can go add a sitemap by plugging in the location of the sitemap, and then clicking on SUBMIT.

google search console basics - screenshot of the sitemaps page. it has a "add a new sitemap" area with a bar where users can put their sitemap URL. below is a "submitted sitemaps" section with a table of sitemaps, including the type, the date they were submitted, when they were last read, the status, and the number of discovered urls

If you can build an XML sitemap that updates periodically, great, you can submit that. However, even if you don’t have that, you can still upload a basic text sitemap somewhere on the root of your site, and submit that location to GSC.

If you’re using a text sitemap, remember to save it in UTF-8 encoding, with the format below:

Once you’ve submitted the sitemap to Google, you can wait a while and then check how many of those pages Google has crawled – that should give you a pretty good idea about whether or not you are getting your most important pages seen by Google.

Checking if a Page Can be Indexed

Sometimes, for particular pages, you’d want to check if Google has issues viewing the page, seeing the HTML on a page, and rendering your pages correctly. For those kinds of problems, GSC has a feature called URL inspection:

screenshot of a portion of the left navigation of google search console. "url inspection" is located under "overview"

Once you plug in a URL to inspect, Google will tell you whether its spiders can crawl and index your page. You can click on VIEW CRAWLED PAGE to check what Google sees in the HTML, what the page looks like to Google, and more information on the page like the HTTP response.

It might help you identify whether you have pages to fix.

Checking Blocked Pages

There are probably pages on your site that you don’t want Google to waste its crawl time on. Since Google’s crawl time is limited, you’d want it to spend its time crawling your most useful pages, or at least your valid pages.

You probably don’t want to get a few page types crawled:

  • Your 404 page
  • Search strings with parameters
  • Anything protected by a login/account information before a user can access the section

For those types of pages, you’d want to exclude all of those via a robots.txt file.

You can check whether those exclusions are working under a legacy section of Google Search Console.

It will look older than the rest of the interface, and it’s no longer linked to on the new platform. However, it will allow you to check if the URLs you want to block are indeed blocked.

Understanding the Google Search Console Basics

Google Search Console is a very powerful tool if you know what you’re looking for.

Once you’ve verified your account, ensure you’re using at least the basic functions that make the tool worth the hassle verifying:

  • Review the search terms people use to get to your site, and learn intent data for the different parts of the funnel.
  • Submit a sitemap to Google, and check how many of your most important pages are indexed
  • Inspect URLs to check how Google views your pages

GSC is pretty handy when you know exactly where to dig.

This post was originally published in June 2018 and has been updated to reflect the interface of Google Search Console in 2020.

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