Wednesday, 11 March 2009

What you don't know CAN hurt you

I'd be very surprised if you didn't know that Google offers a range of web products beyond their search engine. You've probably got a Gmail account, will have seen Google Adwords and may even already use Google's Calendar, Docs, RSS Reader, Analytics or Ad Manager. Even Blogger.com is part of the Google family now.

There is one application that nobody seems to talk about much. It's not as sexy as some of the other apps, but it can have great value for devs like us. I'm talking about Webmaster Tools.

Webmaster Tools can tell you about the things going wrong on your site that you never dreamed were happening. The functionality is organised into Diagnostics, Statistics, Links, Sitemaps and Tools.

  • Diagnostics will detail any errors and problems encountered by Google's web crawlers and mobile cell phone crawlers while accessing pages on your site. It also gives a Content Analysis that identifies potential problems with site metadata, such as title and meta description information.

  • Statistics include the Top search queries returning pages from your site and which of them were clicked, 'What Googlebot sees', Crawl Stats including the current PageRank for pages on your site, Index Stats and Subscriber Stats based on products such as iGoogle, Google Reader, or Orkut.

  • Links details the pages on your site that have external links, internal links, and which links on your site have been identified as candidates for appearing directly in Google search results.

  • Sitemaps allow you to submit and manage sitemaps.

  • Tools allow you to Generate and Analyze a robots.txt file, Remove URLs from Google's indexes, Enhance 404 pages, or install the Webmaster Tools gadget on iGoogle.

Together these tools make a cohesive suite that can highlight a whole slew of problems to tackle that you never knew you had. This might sound like a nightmare, but realistically you need to know which pages on your site have broken links, or HTTP errors, or missing title tags, or even 404s.

I've only discovered one gotcha to date, which is that Google Analytics data seems to be intertwined with the results. If you have been a bit clever with renamed pageviews, you could get some extra errors reported.

Webmaster Tools takes minutes to set up, and after a day or so will probably give you a raft of "measurable wins" to chase. Most of the problems highlighted are easy fixes, but depending on the traffic on your site can have a significant impact. At worst, even if you get no problems reported, it's worth the minimal set up time to get a clean bill of health from Google's crawlers.

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