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The Best SEO Tool Money Can't Buy -- Because It's Free

Google Webmaster Tools is a great way to improve your site's search rankings -- and it's free! Here's how to get started using it on your own website.

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A former colleague emailed me the other day to ask me for SEO tool recommendations. In her email, she wrote that she'd been hired as an in-house SEO for a start-up company, and she wanted to know what I thought was the best SEO tool for a company on a very tight budget.

Now, there are a wealth of fantastic paid SEO tools out there that deliver both performance and value. Some of my favorites include link building tools like Buzzstream and Citation Labs, and SEO campaign platforms like Raven, DIYSEO, and SEOmoz.

When money is an issue, however, I told her there are a plethora of free SEO tools to choose from. And my favorite free all-purpose SEO tool is Google Webmaster Tools.

Google Webmaster Tools Does It All

Google Webmaster Tools (WMT) provides site owners and search marketers with detailed reports about websites performance and visibility in Google. With WMT you can:
  • Learn how Google sees your site and how to diagnose problems or issues Google is having crawling your website to gather information
  • Get reports on which search queries and keywords drive traffic to your website
  • Find out who links to your website
  • Give Google critical information about your website

In many ways, Google Webmaster Tools gives you some of the same data and site analysis you'd get from a professional SEO audit (which often runs a few thousand dollars) -- and you get it all for free. So given the wealth of data and the cost (you can't beat free!), WMT is hands-down the best SEO tool on the planet, and one that every website owner should be using.

Let's take a deeper dive into GWT and look at ways that non-professional SEOs and bootstrapped business owners can use it to help their website perform better in search results. 

Getting Started with Google Webmaster Tools

Okay, let's start with the basics. If you don't already have a Google Webmaster Tools account, you can set one up pretty easily. WMT allows you to use the same tracking script for your Google Analytics account. So if you have GA on your site, just follow these instructions to verify your website.

If you don't have Google Analytics already installed, there are a number of other ways to verify Webmaster Tools.

As I said, there is a wealth of information you can get from in Webmaster Tools, and best part is you don't need to be a professional SEO consultant to know how to interpret it and act on it. Now, to touch on every single feature and report in WMT, I would need to write 10 articles to cover them all. Instead, I'm going to talk about a handful of features most likely to benefit the average website owner.

Google Search Query Data

One new feature that Google rolled out last year was a "search queries" report, which allows you to see what search queries people use to find your website, where your site ranks in Google for those searches,and what the click-through rate (CTR) is for your website in the search results.

Take a look at this sample dashboard, courtesy of a company that specializes in Chicago meeting planning.

wmt-search-queries

As you can see, this company has recently seen a 50 percent increase in impressions (number of times they show up in the search results) and a 67 percent increase in clicks for one of their top searches.

The benefit of seeing this information is you get feedback on exactly how well your website is performing in Google's search results for specific keywords you might target with your SEO or online marketing efforts. You know what is and what isn't working and where to focus your future efforts.

Making Sure Google Finds Your Content

Tracking how your website performs for specific keyword searches is important, but there's more to SEO than choosing the right keywords and working them into to your content. If Google can't find your website content, then all the keywords in the world won't make a difference.

That's where sitemaps come into play.

A sitemap is a list or a map of all of the pages of content on your website -- it includes everything from blog posts to sales and product pages. Presenting Google with a list of every page on your website helps it find all your content.

The more pages of content you have in Google's search index, the more opportunities you have to rank for a wider array of keywords. So in short, building a sitemap for Google can result in more traffic to your website.

Given how important content discovery is for SEO, one of the first things I do when I begin working with a new SEO client is to generate a sitemap for Google and submit it through Google Webmaster Tools. This may sound difficult, but it's really not hard at all. Google offers a number of great resources for creating and submitting sitemaps.

Also, you can create a site map pretty easily on your own using one of these free sitemap generators. Finally, if your blog or website is hosted on Wordpress, there's a free and easy sitemap plugin you can use, as well.

How "Healthy" Is Your Website?

In addition to tracking keywords and ensuring Google finds all your content, it's equally important to pay attention to the overall health of your website. As Google continues to roll out updates to purge the search results of low quality websites, website owners need to maintain a healthy website. Among other things, this  means fixing crawl errors

Crawl errors, such as 404s, are errors that occur from broken links on your website. When users click on a broken link and the URL is dead, the user is unable to find the information he or she seeks. This leads to a poor user experience, and Google punishing websites that deliver poor user experiences with site-wide ranking penalties.

That's why it's important to find these broken links. Again, this may sound difficult, but it's actually pretty easy with the help of Google Webmaster Tools.

WMT gives site owners a complete overview of all of the crawl errors, including 404s, that Google finds while crawling your website. Take a look at this sample dashboard, courtesy of a company that offers info on Texas assisted living facilities.

WMT-404s

Notice how many 404 errors this website is yielding: more than 6000! That's an incredible amount of broken links, and the site owner would be wise to fix all of those 404s. To do so, they would need to implement a 301 redirect on the offending URLs, which sends both the search engine and the user to a "good" pages.

From a SEO perspective, a 301 redirect is the best method for solving 404 errors because it passes a majority of the "SEO value" from one URL to another. What's more, the fewer dead pages you have on a website, the better the user experience and the more favorably your site is in Google's eyes.

If you're running your site on Wordpress, implementing 301 redirects is easy and something you can do on your own with the Simple 301 Redirects plugin. If you're site is built on Drupal, you can download the Global redirect module. However, if your site is not running on Wordpress or Drupal, you may need to bring in some Web development help. Never fear, you can find affordable and reliable technical help on a remote staffing site like oDesk.

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