Being able to access a wealth of free data directly from the source means Google Search Console (GSC) is arguably one of the most useful SEO tools for anyone invested in the successful ranking and search performance of a site.
With so much data available for free, Google Search Console can be an ideal starting point for your SEO strategy, but it can also feel overwhelming and leave you unsure where to begin. We’ve put together this beginner’s guide to outline straightforward steps for using Google Search Console for SEO success.
What does Google Search Console do, exactly?
As mentioned above, GSC is a free platform provided by Google, with a number of tools that provide insight into how your site looks and performs on Google. The interface is broken down into four main menu areas: Performance, Index, Enhancements and Security & Manual Actions (and a section for Legacy Tools & Reports, that are gradually being updated and replaced).
The reports in each section allow you to monitor and troubleshoot a number of vital factors that affect search performance, such as: issues with indexing or crawlability, whether mobile usability is up to scratch (an important ranking factor), whether Core Web Vitals need improvement (coming soon as a ranking factor), and which keywords are driving traffic to your site, to name just a few.
What is the difference between Google Search Console and Google Analytics?
Those of you already familiar with Google Analytics may be wondering how the data and reports in Search Console are different. The main difference to remember is that Google Analytics provides metrics on the behaviour of users once they are on your site and which traffic sources they came from, whereas Google Search Console focuses solely on the performance of your website in terms of discoverability and appearance in Google search results.
Your ideal website reporting and monitoring scenario will be one which utilises a combination of data from both platforms for the ultimate understanding of your users and how to optimise your site. For convenience, you can configure some of your Google Search Console data within your Google Analytics account so that you can see landing page, query, device and country data without having to switch between platforms.
How do I access Google Search Console?
To access GSC you need to login with (or create) a Google account and to be able to verify ownership of the website that you want to monitor. If you already have an account set up for using Google Analytics then create your GSC account with the same details.
Once you’ve logged in, you’ll need to add the property (website) that you want to monitor. You’ll be given the option to choose between a domain property or a URL-prefix property. The domain level property will combine data from all subdomains and multiple protocols (http, https, ftp), whereas a URL-prefix property will only report on the URL with the specified prefix and protocol. Which option you go for depends on whether you want the data to be aggregated or separate in the GSC reports.
Usually a domain Property is preferred but you’ll need access to your DNS control panel for verification. If this isn’t an option for you, choose a URL-prefix property and you’ll have a range of verification options, including setting up a Google Tag Manager snippet.
Once set up, make sure you link your new Google Search Console account with your Google Analytics account!
Using Google Search Console for SEO – The Search Results Report
For beginners looking to develop an SEO strategy, the Search Results report, under the Performance menu, is a great place to begin. The reports here are less to do with technical SEO aspects, instead providing insight into how many people have seen your site in search results, which pages they clicked through to, and which search queries they used to discover you.
At the top of this report you’ll find four key metrics:
- Total clicks - The ultimate goal for all of our SEO efforts, clicks are the number of times a user clicked through to your website from the Google search results page.
- Total impressions - The number of times a user saw a link to your site in their search results.
- Average CTR - CTR is short for click-through rate. Click-through rate in Search Console is calculated by dividing the number of clicks by the number of impressions. A high click through rate is the goal here.
- Average position - Where, on average, your site appeared in the search results.
These metrics can then be filtered by the following dimensions: queries, pages, country, device, search appearance and date. You can also click on ‘New’ to add a custom filter, for example a specific URL or date.
With this information, we can quickly identify opportunities for improvement:
1. Find missing keywords to target using the Queries report
The Queries report will be sorted by number of Clicks in descending order. Looking through the list, are there queries (keywords) you’d expect to be bringing traffic to your site which are missing?
This is an indicator your site is not well optimised for those keywords and provides you with two potential action points. Firstly, if you already have existing content which you think should be bringing in traffic for those keywords, then you know there are on-page SEO improvements to be made. Secondly, it may be that you do not have any content for that query, in which case your action would be to start producing new pieces of content to target those keywords.
2. Improve Click Through Rate using the Pages report
Looking at the Pages report, identify Pages that have a high number of impressions but a low click through rate. If pages are getting a high number of impressions but nobody is clicking through, this indicates room for optimisation of the search page result (SERP) snippet appearance. In the screenshot below there are plenty of candidates for such improvements.
An organic snippet is the information about your site shown on search engine results pages. The snippet consists of a Title Tag, URL and Meta Description and serves as a little advert for your page. Amongst all the competition, it needs to stand out and seem enticing, therefore your Title Tag and Meta Description should be working hard to drive clicks through to your page. Read our article on optimising Title tags and Meta Descriptions for guidance.
3. Look out for keyword cannibalisation
Keyword cannibalisation occurs when you have multiple pieces of content targeting the same keyword. It can mean that the two pieces of content are competing with each other in search results. Search engines will not know which page to show and your most important content could be getting outperformed by something else. To check for keyword cannibalisation, start on the Queries report in Google Search Console and click through to a specific Query, then click on the Pages tab to see which pages are getting clicks for that query.
In the above screenshot, there are two pages getting clicks for the query ‘Carbon Trading’ and we can see one is hugely outperforming the other. This may be a problem if the second, poorly performing page, was equally or more important.
If you find you suspect you have a keyword cannibalisation issue, the action points would be:
- Review the intent of the pages. Multiple pages should both be able to rank well for shared keywords, as long as the intent is different. For example, you may have an information page and a purchase page that target the same keyword, but the intent and purpose is completely different. As long as you ensure each page is optimized around intent and not duplicating information, multiple pages can target the same keywords.
- If you’ve reviewed the pages and realised that actually, the intent is the same, then you have a cannibalisation issue. At this stage you have a few options: consolidate the two pages (in which case one will need to be removed and redirected to the other), canonicalise one of the pages, set one of the pages to noindex, or fully update one of the pages so that it targets different keyword altogether.
4. Identify keywords that could give you a rankings boost
One of the advantages of digging into the data in Google Search Console is that it can give insight into unexpected successes. For this tip, you want to click on an individual page from the Pages report and then click on the Queries tab to see which queries were driving traffic to the page.
From this list, you may find unexpected terms which have been achieving a good click through rate for the page. Make sure you have the Position checkbox enabled so you can see the column for Average Position in your Queries table. Identify queries that, as well as a good CTR, have an average position on page 2 of search results (roughly positions 7-15). They could be terms which you weren’t intentionally trying to target or terms with slightly lower search volumes but nonetheless, the CTR is strong. By making further on-page optimisations for those terms, you could achieve a rankings boost and see those clicks keep coming in.
Lastly, remember to benchmark and monitor changes in Google Search Console data
Following the steps above, we can see just a few of the ways that Google Search Console is a great starting point for SEO beginners. Not only is it free to use but some of the simplest reports can give us a great deal of insight into how our site is performing and where we can make improvements.
As a final tip, we recommend exporting data out of GSC so that you can benchmark and monitor your optimisation efforts. This can be done easily using the Export button at the top of the Search Results report. From here, you can download as an Excel or .csv file or output directly into a Google Sheet. By doing this at regular intervals you can create custom spreadsheets to benchmark how specific queries or pages are performing.
We like to go one step further and use Google Data Studio to create branded, customised reporting dashboards for our clients. Data Studio is another free Google platform which connects with Google Search Console and Google Analytics, allowing you to blend data and compile an at-a-glance overview of the most useful metrics from each. We highly recommend this approach for getting the most out of your data.
If you have any questions about using Google Search Console or setting up benchmarking, get in touch with the Liquid Light SEO team.
Emily is one of our Account Managers and specialises in content and SEO. When she's not helping clients, you'll find her on a walk with Poppy the sheepdog, stretching it out at yoga, or shaking it out at a dance class.