Google Search Console Beginner’s Guide [2021]: Tips & Tricks to Improve SEO Performance

Google Search Console Cover

Always wondered how Google Search Console works and how you can use it to improve SEO? This guide will show you the most important features and smart ways to get better results for your website(s), side hustles or clients.

Watch the full walkthrough in the video below!

This blogpost is also fully covered in the video below for your ease 😄.

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1. What is Google Search Console?

Google Search Console, formerly known as Google Webmaster Tools (Google changed the name in 2015), is the go-to platform for search engine optimization (SEO). It is a free tool provided by Google and doesn’t have any upgrade or paid services. It allows you to retrieve a whole lot of information around your SEO performance on all areas: keywords and content, technical crawling/indexing options and internal/external links.

It is the most accurate information you will get around your website’s organic appearance in Google and the search engine spots technical errors and provides you with testing elements. It has built-in functionalities that will proactively update you about the status of your domain or if anything notable changes. Our practical tips will help you to take advantage of this underestimated tool.

2. How to set up Google Search Console?

First of all go to Search Console and sign in with your account by hitting “start now”. If your account is not linked to a specific property type yet, you will be asked to add your domain or URL prefix:

How to set up Google Search Console

The domain option was added quite recently and is an umbrella for all varieties that the domain could have. Think about connected subdomains, different protocols such as http vs. https, trailing slashes etc. Like the name says it covers your entire domain and is therefore in most instances the best option to go for.

If you would like to track a certain path, subdomain or protocol, it could be good to set up the URL prefix. This could be applied for the following examples:

  • Protocol: http://www.example.com (this will not include https)
  • URL path: https://www.example.com/blog (this will only include all URLs with this string)
  • Subdomain: https://blog.example.com (will only include everything in this subdomain).

Google created a clear table to get a bit of an idea around this:

google search console verification types

There is a big difference in verification, which is covered in the next part, but don’t let that discourage you.

Search Console: preferred domain

There are still many questions about setting your preferred domain. However, this setting is long gone, since the introduction of connecting your entire domain and Google’s statement about being able to pick the main domain based on (user) signals. If you feel like the “wrong” domain is being indexed by Google, there are some workarounds that might help you:

  • Use rel=”canonical” to point to the ‘original’ page.
    • Can be done in HTML and HTTP Header. Many CMS systems offer good solutions for this as well.
  • Use a sitemap to point to correct URLs
  • Use 301 redirects for retired URLs

3. Google Search Console Verification

As previously mentioned, the type of verification needed is dependent on the property type that you choose. So to refresh your memory: that could be either a domain property or a URL prefix property.

Domain property verification

If you’re looking to verify your domain property, Google Search Console is requesting you to prove domain ownership via a DNS record.

Domain property verification

Some providers are already connected with Search Console, which makes it super straightforward: just login to your account and verify the request. After that you will get a message stating that it has been verified.

If your registrar is not in the list, you will need to copy the TXT file, go to the provider’s website, find the DNS settings and click to modify them. This is different for any registrar, but see the example below to get an idea:

After that go back to Search Console and hit “verify”. Sometimes it could take a while, so if it fails, keep refreshing until you’re verified.

URL Prefix verification

If you would like to have data on a specific pathway or protocol of your website, it could help to have a separate URL prefix verified. To do this, Google offers an entire range of solutions, including the one mentioned above. So the easy solution would be to go for the DNS record.

URL prefix google search console verification

HTML tag verification

However, the default presented by Google, is to it with an HTML meta tag that can be added to your homepage. Obviously you can do this manually and use this guide by Google to learn more. Often you will probably work with a specific CMS, such as WordPress, Shopify, Wix or Squarespace. All of these platforms offer solutions for connecting the GSC account:

WordPress (Yoast) Google Search Console verification:
Within WordPress, it is probably easiest to download the Yoast SEO plugin, to click it in your WordPress sidebar, then go to ‘general’ and move to ‘Webmaster Tools’ in which you can upload the Google verification code or verify for Baidu, Bing or Yandex.

Yoast search console verification

Shopify Search Console connection
As we mentioned in our extensive article about Shopify SEO, the platform is becoming one of the biggest players in the eCommerce world. The following would be a quick way to upload your HTML tag to Shopify:

  • Go to Themes → actions and select ‘Edit code’.
  • Go to theme.liquid file. Right below the tag paste the copied GSC code.
  • Save it and go back to Google Search Console to verify.

Wix Google Search Console
Similarly, on Wix it also super easy to upload the HTML code:

  • Go to SEO Tools in the Wix dashboard.
  • Click Site Verification.
  • Click on Google Search Console to expand.
  • Enter the meta tag.
  • Click Save.
  • Go back to GSC to verify.

Squarespace Google Search Console
Squarespace has a built-in dashboarding solution ‘Search Keywords panel’, in which you can also connect your website by doing the following:

  • In the Home Menu, click Analytics.
  • Click Search Keywords.
  • Click Connect in the panel’s pop-up.
  • Log into the right Google account and select the correct domain.
  • Click Allow.

4. Enable search console data in Google Analytics

Once you have verified your domain to Google Search Console, it helps to also connect it to Google Analytics to have it in one dashboard and to connect it to other data points and segments. So how do you link GSC to GA?

Super simple:

  • Go to the linked GA account.
  • Head to admin in the bottom left corner. A new menu will open.
  • Click on ‘Property settings’.
Connect GSC to GA
  • Then scroll down to the button ‘Adjust Search Console’.
  • Click it and add the right domain.

5. Why should you link Google Ads to Google Search Console?

Another way of generating more interesting insights is by connecting the Google Ads account with Google Search Console. This will allow you to generate a paid & organic report which shows the paid and organic search results per query. It will get easier to compare data and to find opportunities on both ends.

So how do you link Search Console with Google Ads?

  • Sign into your Google Ads account.
  • Click the tools icon 🔧 in the upper right corner of the account.
  • Under “Setup,” click Linked accounts.
  • Under “Search Console,” click Details.
  • If you don’t have any linked Search Console accounts yet, click Link in the dialog box. If you do already have a linked account, navigate to the plus button to create a new connection.
  • Enter your domain name, but make sure to add both the version with “www” and without “www”. The protocol (HTTP or HTTPS) doesn’t need to be specified.
  • Click Continue and if GSC and Google Ads are both related to the same account, the link will be created.

6. Google Search Console Add User

To add owners, users and permissions in Google Search Console, you need to be a verified owner or delegated (verified) owner of the domain. If that’s the case, it’s super easy to add, remove or modify users and permissions:

  • Just head to bottom left corner to “settings”
  • You will find the following page:
Google Search Console Add User
  • Click “users and permissions”.
  • You can add users by clicking the “add user” button in the top right corner. For existing users, you can manage permissions by clicking the arrow next to them.

7. Add sitemap to Google Search Console

Then, you are finally done verifying, connecting data points and granting permission. It’s time to get the most out of Search Console 😎

You should now submit the domain’s sitemap to GSC as it is a crucial way of delivering the most important web pages to Google for crawling and indexing. Next to that, Search Console will provide you with insights of the status of the submitted URLs. Therefore it is highly recommended you do so.

So how do you add a sitemap to Search Console?
Just head to “sitemaps” in the sidebar menu, enter your XML sitemap URL and hit “submit”:

Submit xml sitemap to google search console

Some people will face some issues. One of the most common things that could happen, is the following:

Google Search Console couldn’t fetch sitemap

Google Search Console couldnt fetch sitemap

There could be two options:

  1. It’s an issue or delay at Google’s side. If so, just be patient and try again after a day. Often it will be resolved by then.
  2. It’s on your end: the given URL is faulty or the contents in the sitemap cannot be reached or discovered: always double check your XML sitemap. You can also do this by crawling it with a tool like Screaming Frog.

Remove sitemap from Google Search Console

It could happen that you would like to remove a sitemap, because it is outdated or contains bugs. You can do this by clicking the sitemap and click the three dots on the top right, which will provide you with an option to remove the sitemap:

8. Search Console “Performance”: tactics for better results

Google Search Console is an extremely underestimated tool and quite often really overlooked. There’s so much opportunity in the four main metrics: clicks, impressions, CTR and position. Before we dive into actionable tips & tricks, let’s look at the performance options that Search Console provides:

Search Type
In the top left corner, GSC provides the option to filter the type of search results. Generally you will get the most relevant data with regular “web” results, but for some businesses “News” will also give a huge amount of results. Images and videos are dependent on the type of website that you own. You can also compare the main metrics of these sources.

Search type GSC

Date range
Next to the search type, you will find the date range. This feature helps to set and modify a specific time range within the last 16 months. It can really help to spot patterns, but also to compare data on a Month over Month (MoM) or Year over Year (YoY) base.

Filters via + New
next to the date range, a button is located with “+ New” in which you can filter specific elements: queries, pages, countries, devices and search appearance.

Filters Google Search Console

For queries and pages you can choose between “containing”, “not containing” and “exact”. This is extremely helpful when you would like to filter on a keyword phrase or do the opposite and make sure a query string is excluded from the data.

Queries GSC
Queries Google search console

Main metrics
GSC follows four main metrics that you can toggle on and off to include in your graph and data sheets beneath:

GSC main kpis

Data options
Below the graph you can find a table that includes different data types that you can choose. Most commonly you will look at queries and pages. A nice hack that will be elaborately explained in the next bit is that you can add a double layer of filtering (i.e. first preview pages and from there choose queries).

GSC query metrics

If you would like to combine datasets and work in Sheets or Excel, export your data with the grey button on the top right!

Tips & Tricks to improve your performance

Enough of the explanation of every single report option. The more important question is, what it means for you and how you can use it for your own benefit:

1. Impression vs. Positions “Chack”  🤠 🤯

This one might be super generic, but is extremely useful, whether you’re using it for a broad dataset or on a page-by-page level.

Impressions and positions google search console

Sort your keywords on impression from high to low and check keyword positions that seem promising in terms of potential. In general you could say that keywords in the range of 5-15 for not too competitive terms could be interesting.

2. Capitalize on your unicorn 🦄 (80/20 rule)

Most likely just a few of your very successful pages will bring in the bulk of traffic. To generalize that, 80% of your organic traffic is most likely to come in by roughly ~20% of your pages or efforts. So it is important to realize this and approach your pages in such a way.
Below an example of one of our websites for energy suppliers:

find your unicorn 80-20 principle

By clicking pages first and then sort on clicks, you will see the best performing pages for your website for SEO. This is a perfect example of the 80/20 rule, where most clicks definitely come from three FAQ pages (sorry for the Dutch) for average energy usage, average gas usage and average gas price per cubic meter.

3. Hidden gem per page 🕵️

Why did we mention to find those popular pages, because they will have a sh*tload of related keywords and will probably give you ideas to generate new content for that page or create new pages.

How does it work? Let’s see for the example that we started with for the previous tip. Click one of the pages in the list and you will land here:

GSC pages to keywords

Then follow the arrow and click on “queries”, because it will lead you to the queries for that specific page.

GSC page queries sorted on impressions

Here you will get the entire list of keywords for that page. To find interesting keywords on a page level use trick #1, sort by impressions and look at positions and dig up new ideas for your page or creating new pages.

4. Optimize low CTRs

Obviously it’s a bit tricky to determine what would count as a remarkably low CTR. You could try to use benchmark studies such as Advanced Web Ranking to get these CTRs and although you can make them really specific, they will never really be the same for your website. That’s why we recommend you utilize your own Google Search Console data. To give a very concrete example:

See how for both keywords the avg. position is 5.2, but they have a difference in CTR. There could be all kinds of reasons for this, but it is definitely worth experimenting with metadata and see if you can improve keyword usage and a good call to action to improve the CTR.

5. Find high potential synonyms

For many products and themes there’s a broad range of keyword usage. To use the example of video doorbells, people search for:

  • Video doorbell
  • Doorbell camera
  • Smart doorbell
  • Wifi doorbell

Search console is the ideal platform to figure out the preferred usage for your audience and to see if you could slightly change copy and include synonyms that will drive you extra traffic.

6. Make sure not to forget images

Often overlooked, but for some websites, organic image clicks will take up a significant amount of the total. Especially for eCommerce websites with a lot (of visual) products, such as furniture it is extremely important to utilize traffic from images to the fullest.

You can check it out by:

  • Heading to the top left to select “search type”
  • And then filter on images.
Google search console images

From there you could use the previously explained tactics (especially 1, 3 and 4 are applicable). So check out how you can grow your organic image search clicks.

7. Breathe new life into pages that have lost traffic 💨

Over time pages come and go in terms of popularity. A five year-old blog could have lost a lot of traffic over the course of time, but could still have potential with a few little revamps. One of the downsides of Google Search Console is that it only shows a 16 month period of data for your domain, but that doesn’t prevent you from making year over year (YoY) comparisons that could be valuable.

  • So if you select “date” and compare a period of time, preferably last 3 months YoY, GSC will present you that data.
  • From there select “pages” instead of queries and sort on the biggest negative difference.
google search console year over year difference

The example above shows three pages from one of our recent projects that have lost quite some traffic compared to the previous year. The likelihood that these pages will perform better with a few minor tweaks is pretty high. So then select the page and check what queries have caused the drop, check what competitors are currently doing and try to improve and do it better.

9. URL inspection

The URL inspection feature in Google Search Console can be extremely useful for a number of reasons:

  • Checking the current status of the URL
  • Priority indexing
  • View crawled page or test your live URL

First, where can you find this in GSC?

google search console inspect URL

The button on the left will refer you to the bar on top that says “inspect any URL in ‘example.com’”. Insert the page URL (this can also be the homepage) that you would like to check.

Checking the current status
This is a nice method to see if the URL can and does appear in the Google Search Results. If this is the case you’ll get a green checkbox as in the image above. In any case, also if it currently doesn’t get indexed, you can open the coverage dropdown to see some information about the discovery, crawl and indexing of the URL:

Google search console URL inspection coverage

Priority indexing
The “request indexing” button allows you to get the page on a priority list for indexing. This means that Google will visit the URL with high priority and change (the indexed result) accordingly. This could help in different types of situations:

  • Whenever there’s an error and the URL does not appear in the Search Results you can first make the change and by requesting indexing the URL will quickly be crawled and listed in the search results.
  • Whenever you have made changes to the page or metadata and want Google to re-index quickly. Moreover, when you’re after a featured snippet or any other enhanced search results (such as structured data for FAQs), it is a quick way to see if it will be indexed in that particular way.

View the crawled page
Next to that, you can use this Google Search Console functionality to check how Google sees your page and if the most important elements are actually being crawled and indexed. Not to get too deep into the subject, because Javascript SEO is a topic by itself, but GSC can help you to figure out what elements of the URL are being rendered. By testing the live URL you can get the current status of the page and see how it is read:

  • By testing the live URL you will get to the page above.
  • Select “view tested page” and you will see the sidebar on the right.
  • This allows you to check elements in the HTML by using the search functionality or getting a screenshot of how Google sees your (rendered) page.

Especially if you have doubts if Google follows all important elements such as metadata, canonical tag, alternate hreflang, internal links, use this functionality to check the current status.

10. Check URL coverage and fix errors

Google Search Console allows you to check the coverage of the website’s URLs in the index and show excluded URLs and the reason behind that status. By selecting “coverage” on the left sidebar menu, you will land on the following page:

On the top left, you can select coverage for:

  • All known pages
  • All submitted pages
  • Sitemaps (which is also accessible via the left sidebar menu)

Google provides you with their list of crawled URLs and how it relates to the indexability status and submitted URLs in the sitemap (sitemap coverage). For an example domain it showed the following:

GSC coverage details
  • The valid URLs represent the indexed pages. The difference between the two is that the second line refers to indexed URLs that are not submitted in a sitemap. If these pages are meant to be indexed, this means they should also be added to the XML sitemap.
  • The warning URLs often depict a number of URLs that are indexed, but shouldn’t actually be crawlable. In this case 2 pages are indexed, though they’re blocked by robots.txt. This could be caused by external links.
  • Errors are referring to submitted URLs (in the sitemap) that are presented to the bot to be crawled and indexed. However in this case they’re currently marked ‘noindex’. Other cases could include server errors (5xx), 404 errors or soft 404s.
  • The excluded category shows pages that are currently not indexed due to reasons varying from being canonicalized, having a redirect, being blocked or just not being indexed by Google despite a regular crawling process.

11. Crawl stats and reports

Google Search Console also provides the option to get more insights around crawl stats. This might be a bit more advanced, but it is nice how Google upgraded this functionality and turned it into a light version of a log file analysis. It is a bit hidden, but to find this option, head to “settings” at the bottom of the left sidebar menu and then select “open report” at crawl stats.

GSC crawl stats

This will bring you to a page with insights around Google’s crawling process:

Crawl status GSC

You can find more information around:

  • Peaks in crawl requests.
  • Crawled response codes.
  • Crawled file types.
  • Refresh vs. discovery: recrawling a new page versus finding new pages in the crawl.
  • Crawl per Googlebot type (typically the biggest part will be smartphone nowadays).

The report is not super actionable, but it does allow you to discover redirects or 4xx URLs that are currently being crawled, but can be fixed to ignore them from the process.

12. Internal and external links

Another important element in Google Search Console is the report around links. It can be found right above the “settings” button on the bottom left in the sidebar:

GSC internal and external links

Qualitative backlinks generate more trust and authority for a website and therefore are a crucial element to ranking well. Internal links can be seen as a way to provide a blueprint of your domain and show the importance of certain pages.

Use this GSC functionality to see what external links you’re already receiving to what pages and what anchor text they’re receiving. If you can spot a pattern or can use best practices from particular pages that would be helpful:

  • To see what kind of content attracts the most links
  • What type of websites are linking to your domain
  • What anchors are used and if they fit the main theme of the page.

For internal links it is highly important that it’s a right representation of relevance. Often the top internal linked pages will be pages that are linked sitewide, such as in the navigation menu or in the footer. Some links might not be that important for you as they have no point in ranking well. Examples include the terms & conditions or disclaimer pages. Therefore you could consider adding a “nofollow” or excluding these pages from crawling in the robots.txt.

13. Google Search Console Enhancements

The enhancements tab includes core web vitals, mobile usability and structured data elements that are included on the website. Below an example of where you can locate this and what options might be available. The most prominent and valuable option is that of mobile and desktop core web vitals scores:

Google Search Console enhancements

Core web vitals
The image already shows that Google makes a distinction between mobile and desktop and the performance (poor, needs improvement or good) of the domain’s URLs for both and with a particular timestamp, so if you do any changes Google will revisit the score.

If you open the report more details will be provided and your scores will probably be divided between LCP, possibly FID and CLS. You can see the brief explanation by Google in the image below:

GSC core web vitals CLS and LCP

In short these are elements that affect the usability of your domain, which is becoming increasingly important. You can select the details below the graph to get more information around what (type of) pages are affected and what individual scores they show. There won’t be any recommendations for optimization, but Google will link to their tool pagespeed insights, which included the most important issues with regards to pagespeed and CLS.

You should NOT skip this as Google has stated multiple times that pagespeed is a ranking factor. On top of that CLS will be a ranking factor starting from May 2021.

14. Security & manual actions and legacy tools

Security and manual actions
Fortunately most domains won’t have to use the security & manual actions section and it will always show that there are “no issues detected”. However security issues could arise when your website is hacked or there’s malware on your domain. Manual actions are actions from Google that prevent the domain or specific pages from being indexed (a penalty) for not complying with Google’s Webmaster guidelines.

GSC security and legacy tools

Legacy tools
These tools refer to functionalities that used to be available in the old Google Search Console, but aren’t (yet) in the new one. One restriction is that you can’t use these tools with a verified domain property, but only with a verified URL property. If you select the learn more button, Google provides a full list of legacy tools and reports:

GSC legacy tools robots tester

The following tools could be especially helpful in specific situations:

  • Robots.txt Tester: this tool allows you to add (hypothetical) rules to your robots.txt file to see what URLs would be blocked from crawling. You can also send this list to Google, but be extremely cautious with this as you don’t want to block your entire website.
  • International targeting: when you have a multilingual / multi-region domain, this GSC report is very helpful to get an idea of how Google perceives alternate hreflang tags and / or language and region settings.
  • URL Parameters tool: only use this when you know what you’re doing! But it could be helpful when your website is full of parameters and you would like to apply more crawl efficiency.

15. Google Search Console vs. Google Analytics

Although there’s a possibility to integrate the performance report into Google Analytics, the tools provide distinctive functionalities and both have different purposes. Google Search Console (GSC) on the one hand is provided primarily for SEOs and is therefore extremely search engine and website specs focused. It helps you to understand all aspects of your SEO performance, including technical, content and link reports. Google Analytics (GA) on the other end is a more generic tool that is focused on traffic and user behaviour. Therefore SEO (or organic traffic) is just a piece within particular reports or segments within GA. It focuses on all channels that generate traffic to your domain and how the user interacts on those pages.

Google Search Console obviously is only showing Google data. And although that definitely will be the primary driver of organic traffic in most markets. In some countries other search engines such as Bing, Yandex or Baidu have more popularity. Those search engines also individually have set up their own version of “Search Consoles”:

16. Google Search Console Checklist

  1. Connect and verify your domain property (or URL prefix).
  2. Enable Search Console data in Google Analytics (and Google Ads).
  3. Add relevant users to the account.
  4. Add your XML sitemap to GSC.
  5. Let the data come in and use performance insights to improve your content.
  6. Check your URL coverage and see if you need to fix any errors.
  7. For deepdives use URL inspection.
  8. Make sure core web vitals are performing well and there are no mobile usability issues.
  9. Utilize link insights for backlink best practices and make sure internal links represent page significance.
  10. Add and test structured data.
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