Google Search Console – a Beginner’s Guide to Finding Actionable SEO Tasks
Google Search Console (GSC) can be a helpful tool – providing you use it. This guide isn't meant for advanced users nor is it a comprehensive dive into every feature GSC has. I'm not looking to overwhelm you. Instead, we're going to go over eight simple GSC features that can provide you with actionable tasks you can start working on right away to improve your site's SEO.
Ensure your site isn't suffering from a Manual Action
Not every “penalty” handed down by Google is the result of their algorithmic updates. In some cases, Google has singled you out and given you a penalty. This action is referred to as a Manual Action or Manual Penalty. In the old days, you only got these penalties as the result of breaking Google's guidelines severely and intentionally. You had no idea when you got one either except through the power of deduction. In recent years, these manual penalties have become more common, been given for less severe offenses, and Google will even tell you about them.
Log into your Google Search Console account. Click on your site > Search Traffic > Manual Actions.
The message you hope to see on that screen is “No manual webspam actions found.” If you get that, your site doesn't have any manual penalties. If you get any other message, then you have a problem that you need to address.
You can find more information about some of the types on manual actions here. You'll find information on recovering from a manual action for compensated content and sponsored reviews in specific here. However, the same general path will work for most manual penalty issues.
Check for security issues
To create a more secure web, Google began notifying webmasters whose sites have been hacked or contain malware a few years back. To find out if your site has any security issues, open your Google Search Console and click your site > Security Issues. If you see a message saying “Currently, we haven't detected any security issues with your site's content.” then you're good to go.
However, if you see a message that your site has been hacked or contains Malware, you can find Google's guide for what to do if you're hacked here and you can visit the Google forums for asking specific questions and troubleshooting issues surrounding this topic here.
Check your Crawl Errors report
The Crawl Errors report shows you pages on your site that Google has tried to access that gives them an error. They can find these URLs via crawling your site internally or from crawling links to your site from other websites. Having a lot of broken pages on your site makes your site look neglected and can affect the rate at which Google crawls it. Maybe more importantly, it also creates a bad user experience.
In GSC click on your site > Crawl > Crawl Errors. Here you'll find the top 1000 URLs on your site that are giving Google errors. The most common error you'll see – and what we'll discuss here – is a 404 error which is listed under the Not found tab – but you can find a complete list of HTTP status code meanings here.
You can click on each URL giving a 404 error to see the details. On some errors, you might site two additional tabs next to the Error details tab. The In sitemaps tab will appear if the URL that is giving the error is linked in a sitemap on your site and show you which sitemap it's linked within. The Linked from tab will show you pages on the web that Google has chosen to note that they found the URL linked from.
Something to note here – some of these 404 URLs will be legitimate URLs on your site, and some will likely be malformed URLs (URLs that are not complete or have unnecessary or random additional characters – meaning they were never real URLs on your site) – many from external websites like scrapers. If the malformed URL is from your site, you can fix it. If it's from a legitimate external site, you can ask them to fix it. If the malformed URL is from a scraper or other spammy site and has never existed, there's not much you can do about it. I usually just mark them as fixed and hope Google doesn't come across them again.
When it comes to the legitimate 404 crawl errors, you have a few options for dealing with them.
- If the URL is truly gone and no sites of value on the web are linking to those URLs, ideally you'd serve a 410 status code for them to let Google know the page is truly gone and isn't coming back.
- Alternately (and for the technically impaired), you can leave the page as a 404 and Google will eventually realize it's not coming back and drop it from their index after encountering that code for the page multiple times.
- If the URL is truly gone and sites of value on the web are linking to them, you can 301 redirect them to a different page on your website. Redirecting the URL allows you to transfer some of the value of the incoming links to that now deleted page to a different URL on your website.
- If the URL is not truly gone, and the 404 is instead occurring because you changed the URL structure of your website, you can 301 redirect the old URL to the new URL the content from the old page now resides on.
The only advantage to using a 410 vs. a 404 for pages that are truly gone is that Google will drop pages using a 410 from their index faster, so don't stress if you don't have the knowledge to serve one. Leaving the 404 will eventually create the same result.
If you need to create 301 redirects and don't have the technical skill to do it via htaccess, you'll find a free WordPress plugin that will allow you to create them without needing to understand code here.
Once you've implemented your 301 redirects, you'll want to click “Mark as fixed” for any URLs that were serving a 404 that are now redirecting within the GSC Crawl Errors report screen.
Note – if you end up doing redirects for removed content or old URL structures, you'll likely have internal links in posts and pages on your website that point to the old URL. While this isn't a huge issue, whenever you implement 301 redirects, you should ideally update any links within your control that link to the old URL to link directly to the new URL vs. passing the bot or user through the 301 redirect.
You can find pages within your site linking to the old URLs and now redirect by using the free Broken Link Checker plugin. Install and activate the plugin and then wait for it to crawl the internal links on your website. Then visit the link report screen by going to your WordPress Dashboard > Tools > Broken Links.
Click the search button at the top right of this screen and yourdomain.com into the URL field and choose Redirects from the Link Status drop-down. This screen will show you a list of URLs internally linked to within your site that are redirecting. You'll have the option to fix the redirects link by link or bulk fix all of the redirects listed on that screen at once. The plugin will fix the redirects by replacing the link(s) to the old URL in your site to the direct link to the page it redirects to.
You can do the same thing for 404 links that are truly 404s that you won't be redirecting by performing the same search and choosing Broken from the Link Status drop-down. You'll have the option to change the URL being linked to or unlink it link by link or bulk unlink all of the broken links listed on that screen at once.
Side note – you're probably going to see a lot of broken links and redirected links also listed by the plugin to external sites. You'll find a guide for handling those here.
Submit your sitemaps
If you're using Yoast's SEO plugin – and you should be – then you have a nice and neat sitemap of your WordPress blog available at the click of a button. Go to your WordPress Dashboard > Yoast SEO > XML Sitemaps and make sure “Click this box to enable sitemap functionality” is checked and click Save Changes if it wasn't. Underneath that, you'll see a button that links to your XML sitemap.
If you're not using WordPress and your CMS doesn't have built in sitemap functionality, you can find multiple options for creating sitemaps here.
Once you're armed with your sitemap, open your Google Search Console and click your site > Crawl > Sitemaps. Once the next screen loads, click the red Add/Test Sitemap button and input the URL of the Yoast generated sitemap on your blog. Test your sitemap first. Assuming there are no errors, repeat the process again, but submit the sitemap this time instead of testing it.
That's it. You only need to do this once. Google will continually recheck your sitemaps for changes, and the Yoast SEO plugin will make sure your sitemap stays up to date.
Check to see if you have mobile usability errors
If you've been doing any website optimization, you've likely run your site through Google's Mobile-Friendly Test, which will show you whether or not your “site” is mobile-friendly in Google's eyes. The problem with Google's test is that it is performed on a single page, which means that your homepage can pass the mobile-friendly test, but a separate individual page on your site might fail for whatever reason.
Of course, it's not practical to run every single page of your site through Google's mobile-friendly testing tool. The good news is that Google will tell you about individual pages with mobile usability errors inside the Google Search Console.
Go to Search Console > the site > Search Traffic > Mobile Usability. This page will show you what mobile usability errors individual pages on your site are generating. Clicking on any of those errors will provide you with a list of the pages with that error so that you know what you need to fix.
Note – this may seem like a minor concern, but Google will be moving to a mobile-first index soon. Once they do, pages that provide a poor mobile experience will notice a negative effect on their rankings. Keeping on top of your mobile usability issues – and fixing them – is an important task.
Overview the internal links in your site
To see a sampling of the internal links within your site Google knows about, go to GSC > the site > Search Traffic > Internal Links. This page will show you a list of the internal pages on your site and how many other pages on your site link to them. Clicking on any of the internal links listed will show you which URLs on your site are linking to them.
Unfortunately, this report isn't as useful as it could be if Google were to show you the anchor text being used to link to these pages internally. That said, there's one meaningful task this report allows you to undertake. Any important pages you want to rank well on your site should be well linked to internally. For instance, if you have an important page on your site showing two internal links you'll want to add more links internally to that page. This additional linking may be achieved by changing your information architecture or site navigation or by finding other pages on your site relevant to the important page and adding an in-content link to it where it makes sense.
Check out the incoming links to your site
I refer to the GSC incoming links report as the poor man's link research tool. The information regarding external inbound links contained in this report pales in comparison to the data you can get from researching your backlinks using tools like Ahrefs, SEMrush, and Link Research Tools. I would use one of those tools for backlink research over the Google incoming links report every day of the week.
However, if you don't have the budget to pay for one of those tools the GSC incoming links report is better than nothing. To see a sampling of external links to your site Google knows about go to GSC > your site > Search Traffic > Links to Your Site. You'll find three core reports listed on this screen.
– Who links the most
The Who links the most report shows you the top 1000 domains that are linking to you externally – ordered by the number of incoming links you have from that domain. My use of the word domain instead of website here is deliberate. It consolidates the links by domain, which isn't the same as by site. An example would be wordpress.com. This report groups all links from the wordpress.com root domain together instead of from each site/subdomain from wordpress.com.
Clicking on any root domain in the list will bring you to a screen that shows all the different URLs on your website being linked to by that domain. Clicking on any of those individual URLs will show you a list of the specific URLs from that domain that are linking to that page of your website. This report can help you get a feel for the overall quality of your backlink profile. You should see more legitimate sites than spammy ones. If that's not the case, you'll want to work on developing more meaningful backlinks for your site.
If you see a ton of spammy links, you might want to consider disavowing them – but that would be a whole separate blog post. You can find more information on what disavowing is and why people might do it here.
– Your most linked content
The Your most linked content report shows you the pages on your website Google believes are linked to the most ordered by the number of times they're linked to. Clicking on any URL in the list will show you a list of root domains linking to that page. Clicking on any of the root domains listed on that screen will show you a list of the specific URLs on that domain that are linking to your page.
As with the Who links the most report, your most important pages ideally will have the most external links pointing to them. If you see a critical page missing from the upper portion of the list, you'll want to work on developing more external backlinks to those pages.
– How your data is linked
This report will show you the top 200 anchor text combinations being used by links to your site according to Google. To be honest, this report is fairly useless. It doesn't show you what pages the anchors are pointing to or where they're coming from. So there's no actionable information to be gleaned from it.
Dig deep into the Search Analytics reports
Back in the day, Google used to provide full keyword data to analytics – meaning you used to be able to see which keywords used in Google organic search brought visitors to each particular page of your website and data surrounding the conversion of specific keywords.
In 2011, they began restricting that data using Not Provided. In 2013, they stopped providing keyword data to analytics entirely which resulted in having no way to know which keywords were sending traffic and conversions from organic search. It was a huge blow to the webmaster community. A quick search for Not Provided will produce tons of articles written by SEOs with attempts to find workarounds.
GSC already had Search Analytics at that point, but the data was basic and a lackluster replacement for the previous data. But over the last few years, Google has been providing more data through their Search Analytics. It's still not an equal replacement, but it has become more robust and can now provide some actionable information.
Go to GSC > your site > Search Traffic > Search Analytics. By default, this screen will show you the search keywords sending traffic to your site ordered by the number of clicks to your site they generated. There are numerous ways to sort and view data they have about your site. I'm going to focus on a few simple and actionable views.
– See which keywords are driving traffic to which pages
On the default screen showing queries click the radio button next to Pages. Click on the URL for a page shown in that list. Now also tick off the radio button next to Queries. You'll see a list of the specific keywords that individual page is ranking for and receiving traffic from.
On this screen, tick the box next to Position. You'll see your ranking position Google is reporting for each of the keywords generating traffic to that page. You can pick keywords you're ranking for – but not in the top spot for – and further optimize the page for that term.
Keep in mind that it's often easier to move a page from position 10 to position 4 on a valuable keyword then it is to move from position 2 to position 1. I like to look for terms that are generating a significant number clicks despite being at the bottom of the first page or the top of the second and make some slight optimization tweaks (like ensuring that full phrase is on the page where appropriate) to move it a few spots higher.
– Find opportunities to optimize CTR
CTR refers to click thru rate. It's the percentage of people who click on your result when your page appears as one of the results on the search result page they're viewing. From the default Search Analytics screen, tick the checkbox next to CTR. The resulting screen will show you the click thru rate you're getting from the top keywords generating traffic to your site.
If you see a keyword generating a significant number of clicks with a low click through rate, you should do a search for the term and view your result as a user would see it. Do you have a custom Meta description written for that page? Does it contain a strong and relevant call to action to incite users to click on the page?
With the CTR box checked, if you tick the radio button next to Pages, you will be presented with a list of CTR by page overall. Click on any URL in that list and then tick off the Queries radio button. You can now see the CTR to that particular page by individual keyword.
– Segment branded search terms from generic search terms
A branded query is most often one that includes the name of your company or website. Sites typically rank higher on their branded queries, so segmenting the view to filter out branded queries will give you a more accurate depiction of the average CTR, Impressions, and Position for your site.
Unfortunately, this view is limited in helpfulness because you can only filter the report by one keyword at a time – which can cause issues depending on the number of branded queries your site may generate. For instance, if you're a blogger branded queries might include both your site name and your name. But GSC limits you to only being able to exclude one query.
That said, it is still worth checking out. Especially to segment the view to only include a branded term. You should be ranking highly on these. If you're not, you might have a problem you need to research and address.
Pro tip: You can somewhat group branded queries by including only a portion of it in the filter. For instance, my site name is Sugarrae, and my name is Rae Hoffman. By segmenting out any query containing rae it will group sugarrae, rae hoffman, sugar rae, etc into or out of the view collectively.
– Segment data by Search Type
If you get significant traffic from images or videos or want to, you can segment the data in GSC Search Analytics to show you traffic by type: The Web, Images, and Videos.
As an example: from the main GSC Search Analytics screen click on the dropdown under Search Type, mouse over Filter by search type and choose Image. The resulting screen will show you a list of keywords generating traffic to your site via Image search. You can click on any keyword to see what pages are receiving Image traffic from that keyword.
You can also filter this report by the Pages radio button to see a list of pages receiving Image traffic. If you click on any page in the list, it will show you all of the keywords generating Image traffic to that page.
Checking the box next to Position on these views will show you the rankings of your Images for each term when available. If Image or Video traffic is important to you then you can work on optimizing your images or videos for terms as suggested in the See which keywords are driving traffic to which pages section above.
– Keeping your historical GSC data
One huge limitation to Google's Search Analytics that it is important to note is that they only store your data for 90 days. To maintain the historical data, you'll need to either export the data on a regular schedule or use a tool like Raven Tools that stores the historical data for you after you've integrated their tool with your Google Search Console.
To export the historical data yourself, see this script and post written by Paul Shapiro. The post explains how Paul has been automatically downloading GWT data and includes his Python script for doing so. It also includes some tips for displaying the data in a usable fashion.
It's a good start
As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, Google Search Console has a significant number of features. But the above is a quick-start guide for newbies that will help you focus on some of the more important features and opportunities it provides.
Do you use AdSense on your website? If so, you'll find my guide to getting meaningful, actionable data from the AdSense reporting interface here.
Please note – I use affiliate links on this site. This means I might earn a commission if you click on a link and sign up for something.
Great post! There´s actually just one thing missing in the article. How can you setup Search Console in a way in which the domain corresponds to the User´s Country?
Very helpful post Rae! :) I was wondering how often do you submit your sitemaps?
You only have to submit your sitemap once and google will keep crawling it without no further action from you. : ),