What if I told you that one of the most valuable SEO tools was sitting right under your nose?
Or that you already had access to it?
And that it was free?
Well, if you’re like most SEOs, that’s exactly what’s going on right now. (And before you think I’m climbing up onto my high horse, the sad truth is that I’ve been guilty of the same in the past.)
Have you guessed it yet? No, I’m not talking about Google Analytics. It’s that other one. That’s right.
Google Webmaster Tools.
I know, you’re probably sighing and heading straight for the back button. But hear me out. There’s some seriously important data in there, and your other tools are, at best, just scraping that data and dumping it into a pretty GUI.
Don’t get me wrong. The other tools are important, sometimes crucial, but the one thing they can’t possibly do better than Google is tell you exactly which queries you’re showing up for, with what average ranking, with how many impressions, and with what click through rate.
Let’s talk about how to make the most of this neglected tool.
Image Credit: Christian Senger
Why Obscure Rankings Matter More Than You Think
Here’s something most tools, including Google Analytics, won’t tell you. Your website is constantly showing up in search results for extremely obscure keywords. We don’t usually notice them because none of the individual queries send very much traffic.
Now, as you probably already know, the vast majority of search queries are obscure. In fact, about a quarter of them are brand new each and every day. Most good sites will see the majority of their search engine traffic coming in for obscure queries. But since that’s all “not provided” these days, you probably attribute most of those visits to the keyword in your title tag.
If you’re informed, you already know all that, and you’re doing what you can to optimize your site for those long tail queries.
But here’s what you might not realize. All those obscure keyword rankings are important even if they send no traffic.
Let me explain.
A very important part of an SEO’s job is to improve visibility in the search results. While changes in your obscure keyword rankings don’t have much impact on your traffic, in aggregate they tell you a lot about what Google thinks of your site.
If you start to see your rankings dropping for a statistically significant number of obscure keywords, that’s something you should be paying attention to. It means that something you did (or didn’t do) is causing Google to rank others in front of you.
My experience tells me that Google is a lot less cautious with those obscure keywords than it is with the major ones. It may even be testing user responses to the changes in order to learn something about your site.
So when you see a lot of obscure keywords drop in the rankings, it could mean your main keywords face a similar fate.
While I’m a strong believer in the idea that SEO works best when it overlaps with content marketing, CRO, and various inbound marketing strategies, I still believe an SEO’s job is to understand something about search engines.
Obscure keywords are more sensitive to changes on your site than major keywords are. When their rankings go up consistently, it means you’re doing something right. When they go down consistently, it means you’re doing something wrong.
And that means a lot more than most of the chatter you’ll hear inside the SEO echo chamber.
Every keyword research tools has its share of problems.
Google’s Keyword Planner isn’t going to give you access to all of the potential search queries. It’s only going to show you the ones that it, through some algorithmic process, has deemed to be commercially viable for advertisers. And the exact match search figure isn’t going to tell you very much about the actual number of queries you’ll turn up for, especially in the wake of Hummingbird.
All the other tools suffer from the simple problem of not having access to Google’s search queries. The data comes from other platforms, usually ones that are heavily skewed toward technical and marketing niches. That means that while they can certainly help you discover new search queries, they’re also going to be bad at estimating traffic potential.
Webmaster Tools, on the other hand, helps you uncover the keyword opportunities right under your nose.
Here are the kinds of things you should pay attention to:
- Keywords with a lot of impressions but low traffic. These are opportunities just waiting to happen. It means that you already have the rankings you need. All you need to do now is beef up your click through rate with a more targeted page.
- Keywords with a decent number of impressions despite very low rankings. While these are probably competitive terms, a decent number of impressions with low rankings means that you don’t necessarily need to have great rankings in order to earn a lot of search referrals. It’s definitely worth investing a bit in these keywords, assuming you weren’t targeting them already.
- Queries with high click through rates, assuming there are at least enough impressions for the CTR to be more than a fluke. Even if these aren’t sending a lot of traffic, these visitors are heavily qualified and probably more valuable than usual. Give them a dedicated landing page and you might be surprised with the results.
- Queries with low click through rates, again assuming that there are at least enough impressions for the figure to be meaningful. The obvious reason to pay attention to these is the fact that you can increase your traffic simply by improving your CTR. Less obvious is the fact that a low CTR can have an impact on your rankings.
These methods do more than help you find low-hanging fruit. They also help you identify keyword opportunities that you simply wouldn’t find in any keyword tool.
Stay On Top of What Matters
It’s easy to neglect or even look down on Webmaster Tools, in part because it’s a free tool. Remember: this is the only place where you can get official ranking and CTR data, straight from Google itself. While other tools can be important, especially for competitive analysis, nothing beats Webmaster Tools for a direct pulse on your site’s performance in the search engines.