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Don't settle for broken linksIs your web team using Webmaster Tools to improve site performance? If not, they should. 

This post is for owners of e-commerce websites who don’t get involved in day-to-day operational trading/site optimisation and web managers/admin staff who aren’t using Webmaster Tools daily.

Ok so this isn’t new thinking, it’s not going to blow your mind with its creativity or innovation. But it’s important; the basics are essential.

I still meet Client teams (and occasionally agency staff) whom have either never heard of Google Webmaster Tools (yes I am going to focus on the mighty Google as it still dominates global market share, stats here.), or don’t really know how or why they should use it.

They really should use it as part of the overall site management toolkit. 

Read on to learn why and see how easy it is to use the data to help inform your planning process. 

The first question to ask whoever manages your website day-to-day is have we implemented Webmaster Tools?

If they look at you with a vacant stare, be worried. Adding Webmaster Tools to your website is quick and easy (either add a meta tag or drop a file onto the root domain - learn the basics here). You can add up to 100 sites, so if you own multiple brands/domains, you can verify each one.

Once that's done, you can log-in to your Webmaster Tools account and go to work with a pair of piiers and a blow torch. In this blog I'm concentrating on what I consider, from personal experience, to be the top priorities when using the data available.

However, as with anything, I strongly advise that you learn yourself how best to interpret the data avaialble to help your e-commerce business.

Top tip

Make sure somebody in your web team starts every day by scanning the Webmaster Tools dashboard for anomalies. If your site crawl errors spike suddenly, you need to know why and do something to prevent it happening again. Keep an eye on:

  • Search queries. Any big new entries, or previous home bankers gone missing?
  • Links to your site. Are the numbers increasing or decreasing?
  • Crawl errors Are the numbers reducing over time (they should be)?
  • Keywords. Is your keyword density in the right areas?
  • Sitemaps. Have you got a green tick next to your sitemaps?

Below I will focus on the top three priorities based on what I consider to be the business benefit.

There are many other facets to the data available via Webmaster Tools, including page load speed and setting crawler access, but we'd be here all day if I covered everything and I'm a consultant, so I'm allergic to handing over all the goods upfront.

Priority 1. Site Crawl Errors

There are two key reasons you need to address site crawl errors regularly:

  1. If you have a broken link or obsolete URL, that means a broken customer journey. Dead ends put people off and could prevent potential customers from visiting your website, making them less likely to come back in the future.
  2. Search engines don't like dead ends. If your URL returns an http error status, the page will be discarded as the search engines will focus on pages that work properly and internal links pointing to it become worthless.

    If this is the case, you can wave goodbye to SERPs visibility.

The basic tenet of SEO is that to be loved by Google, you need to be loved. You can't be loved if people can't find your website because the links they're shown don't work, or the pages they have bookmarked no longer exist. 
Why might some URLs return error messages?   There are many reasons but here are the most common:
  • Obsolete product removed from website so URL no longer resolves to valid product page.
  • URL has been changed during re-categorisation of the product catalogue and old URL has not been redirected.
  • Content page has been moved/deleted as content is considered out of date.
That's by no means an exhaustive list, but represents common errors on e-commerce websites. If a customer has bookmarked one of your webpages, if you then remove the page from your website how will they know? When they click the bookmark they will most likely be shown your 404 error page (which you should also customise to make as friendly and helpful as possible).   A popular solution is to add a 301 permanent redirect from the obsolete URL, pointing it to the most relevant active URL on the website.   When doing this try to deep link people and not just redirect everyone to the homepage. For example, if you sell an Olympus digital camera, if that URL no longer exists, redirect them to an alternative digital camera product page or to the Digital Camera category page.

Priority 2. Sitemap submission

The XML sitemap is an important component of SEO. It tells search engines what pages are on your website that should be indexed and it helps get those pages indexed quicker than if you submit manually, or wait for the search engines to stumble upon your pages during their cyclical crawls.

Ideally your XML sitemap should be run from a server-side script to automatically update and resubmit each team a new pages is created. If you don't know what this means, speak to your development team.

You submit your XML sitemap to Google via the WMT console. You can see if it has been successful by checking the status symbol in your dashboard. A green tick means relax, a red cross means it ain't working.

What to look out for:

  • Are you seeing sufficient URLs being indexed? i.e. if you have over 10,000 unique products on your website but only have 2,000 URLs indexed, you need to investigate and find out why.
  • When was the sitemap last submitted? If you have a process that auto-submits weekly but the last dated submission in WMT is 3 weeks ago, find out why.
If you think something is wrong, click on the "Test sitemap" button and check results. You'll soon see if it's not finding what you want it to.

Priority 3. Influencing sitelinks

Sitelinks are the additional text links that appear in organic search results for your website (see below).

Although you can't control what Google shows in SERPs (though you can influence through on-page SEO levers like content optimisation and off-page factors like link building), you can tell Google which pages you don't want it to show in the quicklinks.

Why would you want to do that? 

There are times when you don't want certain categories or global navigation links dominating sitelinks, preferring to make other areas of the site more visible to customers.

A good example is Sale/Clearance categories. Retailers want these in prime place during the seasonal sale periods but at other times will want people to access their main product catalogue.

To do this:

  1. Click on Site Configuration > Sitelinks.
  2. Add the URL you wish to demote and click "Demote".
  3. Check that the URL has been added to the Demotions list.

How are you using WMT?

I’d be interested to hear from other people and learn how they use WMT to keep a beady eye on web performance, so please drop by and add to the discussion.

If you don’t agree with something I’ve written, please let me know why as I’m always open to suggestions and advice.

James Gurd

Published 6 February, 2012 by James Gurd

James Gurd is Owner of Digital Juggler, an ecommerce and digital marketing consultancy, and a contributor to Econsultancy.He can be found on on Twitter,  LinkedIn and Google+.

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