For most experienced SEOs, an article about mastering Google Webmaster Central might as well be titled "Mastering Breathing." However, just like anything else, there are always new things to be learned, and you might find a few new trick in here. For newbies, or those who aren't as experienced, then definitely read on and explore this important tool.
The first thing you need to do is verify your site. This is easy enough to do with an HTML file or meta tag. You'll notice that each subdomain (including the "www") is treated as a separate site to verify. Go ahead and verify these all as well so you can manage them.
While subdomains must be verified, one cool feature is that every directory of a verified site can automatically be verified as a separate site. Simply add the URL to the list of sites, and you can see, for example, who is linking to your "llama-sheering-tips" folder, what terms it ranks for, and geotarget it to a country (Peru, perhaps).
Once you're verified, you have access to information on links, keywords, popular searches, and more. For beginners, you'll especially want to make sure you're taking advantage of:
- Crawl error reports: You might find lots of highly-linked pages that have been abandoned through this method.
- Robots.txt testing tool: Make sure you aren't accidentally denying/allowing access to certain pages.
- XML sitemaps: These have been around a while, and are well worth the time it takes to build them (71 percent of new URLs are found through sitemaps when available, according to a Stanford paper). Don't just submit one sitemap though. Break them into categories – images, category-level pages, product-level pages, mobile site, videos, etc. It makes them easier to index and easier for trouble-shooting later.
- Internal and external link reports: Understanding the link structure of your site is vital, and is made a lot easier by a great Firefox SEO Link Analysis plug-in. The plug-in will check for any missing links, nofollowed links, and PageRank data. Download all of the sites linking to you check back periodically for any sites that have dropped your link. You can engage in "link reacquisition" by contacting those sites and seeing why the dropped your link – likely to be more successful than randomly approaching sites.
- Geographical targeting users for your international sites: This is best for a site with many country pages, or a site that only wants traffic from one country.
As for the newer features, definitely look into these:
- Parameter handling tool: This gives you another weapon in combating duplicate content issues. If you have tracking IDs in some URLs, for instance, specify the parameter for Google to get another hint that these URLs reference the same page.
- Change of address tool: This allows you to inform Google when you're moving domains (although this doesn't work with subdomains), but make sure you're also setting your redirects and other standard rules.
- Malware: See if Google thinks your site contains malware, causing them to potentially warn searchers about your site. Or, if you're actively giving people malware, see if Google has caught on to your sneaky plans.
- Page loading speed: This will be a factor in natural rankings soon, and is important to your customers regardless. The new page loading tool let's you take a look at how quickly your site loads, how it has changed over time, and how it compares to other sites.
And that's just Google. Bing and Yahoo both have Webmaster tools that you should sign up for and utilize as well.
Signing up for all three search engine tools has become a must when launching an SEO campaign. Don't simply sign up and lose your password under a stack of mail though; check in regularly for any developments with your site and always be on the lookout for the availability of more new tools. Doing so will play a part in keeping ahead of your competitors.