When it comes to knowing how well your website is living up to your company's goals, Google's Webmaster Tools program can provide a trove of data showing how well your site is performing and how it's viewed by the web's largest search engine. Yet even though all this information is available free of charge, plenty of webmasters are missing out by not enrolling their sites in the program.
So if you haven't started using Google's Webmaster Tools yet, consider setting up an account and filling out your profile. Then, use this list to guide you through the parts of the Google Webmaster Tools dashboard you'll want to pay special attention to:
Crawl errors: When you log in to your account, one of the first items you'll want to click is the "Crawl errors" box that appears on the main dashboard. This will take you to a screen that showcases any indexing errors Google has encountered while trying to read your website. Indexing errors can prevent your site from being displayed correctly in the natural search results and limit the amount of traffic you receive. You'll want to fix any errors found here as soon as possible.
Search queries: Navigate over the "Traffic" menu in the left-hand sidebar and select "Search Queries" from the list that appears. This page will show you all the natural search queries for which Google has sent you traffic over a given time period, as well as how many clicks you've received for each phrase and your average position in the search results pages. This information can be valuable when planning a content marketing campaign or when determining the types of content your readers are most interested in.
Sitemaps: The "Sitemaps" page, which appears under the "Optimization" menu, is where you'll want to upload your website's sitemaps. Google offers detailed instructions on how to create a sitemap. Having updated sitemaps listed with Google plays a significant role in how well the search engine will index your site.
+1 reports: Social signals are playing an increasing role in search engine optimization (SEO). Given that Google owns the Google+ network, it's not surprising that the number and quality of "+1" votes your site's content receives affect how well your pages rank in the search results.
To see how many "+1" votes you've received, as well as how these social signals are influencing your search performance, navigate to the "+1 Reports" section on the "Traffic" menu. Monitor these numbers regularly to ensure that your social media marketing campaigns are paying off.
Site performance: The "Site performance" menu can provide an evaluation of your site's speed, as well as concrete recommendations on how these metrics can be improved. Site speed is an important SEO factor, as websites that operate quickly and efficiently typically offer a better user experience than slow sites. No one wants to sit around waiting for a slow-loading site and Google doesn't want to send visitors to those pages.
Links to your site: One final tool under the "Traffic" menu deserves mention: the "Link to your site" feature. This section provides information covering which sites are linking to yours, how many links each site sends, which of your content pages have received the most links and what anchor texts are being used to refer to your site.
While the information here isn't as detailed as what you can put together using paid SEO tools like Raven Software or SEOMoz Pro, it's still valuable data for planning future link-building activities or checking for low-value links that might be harming your site's overall SEO.
Messages: Finally, be sure to check your Google Webmaster Tools message center. This is Google's primary way of getting in touch with website owners who are violating the company's Webmaster Guidelines. If you see a message about a violation on your site, you should resolve it as quickly as possible. By checking this page regularly and taking action, you should be able to avoid serious damage to your site's rankings and traffic.
AJ Kumar is co-founder of Single Grain, a digital marketing agency based in San Francisco. Single Grain specializes in helping startups and larger companies with search engine optimization, pay-per-click, social media and various other marketing strategies.