Registering With Google Webmaster Tools

All website owners should register with Google Webmaster Tools. The benefits of registering your site(s) with Google’s webmaster console are simple but valuable to any site owner. You will receive information on Google’s view of your website — including configuration problems you may otherwise not know about, information on how your site is performing, set index and crawl settings and you will receive communication from Google on search quality issues. In addition, more features are added regularly. Google is the current leader in providing access to tools and information for site owners in this way, but any other search engine’s or aggregator’s tools (Bloglines offers Publisher Tools to manage your site’s feed characteristics as they appear on Bloglines) should be utilized as well.

Registering

To participate you require a Google account. If you already have a GMail account or an account with Google for one of their other services, simply sign on at the Google Webmaster tools page. If not, use the Create Google Account link on the page to setup a Google account.

Add a Site

Once you sign in, you need to add a site to your account. You can add more than one site, so if you have multiple sites you can manage them all under a single Google account.

Google does not allow anyone to add a site to his or her account. You must claim the site and prove ownership by being able to modify the site in a manner Google provides. To get started, enter the URL (http://www.mysite.com/) of your site in the text field and click the Add Site button. The site will be added but not verified, which means very limited information on the site will be provided until verification is complete. To verify the site, click the “Verify your site” link.

Verify a Site

On the verification page, you are presented with two choices to verify the site: Add a Meta tag or Upload a HTML file. I find for most users uploading a file is the easier method. After selecting an option, the steps required for verification are displayed. For the HTML file method, copy the filename and create a blank or dummy text file on your local PC. Then using your upload method, copy the file to the root of your web site so the file can be accessed with the URL found in the instructions. If you are using the Meta tag method, edit your site templates or files to insert the Meta tag required. Both the file and the Meta tag must stay in place to maintain verification. This allows a domain to change hands and the new owner to revoke verification from the old owner by removing the file or Meta tag.

To complete the verification process, click Verify. If successful, you will return to the site dashboard page with a successful verification message. If there is a problem, a message describing the problem will appear. It may ask that you wait for the verification process to complete due to connectivity problems with Google’s verification agent. Otherwise, check the file name and Meta tag are correct and accessible anonymously from your browser.

Once you have verified the site you can explore the tools and statistics available on your site. There is a lot of information that is very useful, including query stats that display your search query result position for recent search queries. I will post more on using the Google Webmaster console in a future post.

Getting a Site Indexed

Something I have learned the past few years while talking to friends and clients regarding new or existing web sites is the lack of understanding of how search engines index your site’s content and how that content shows up in search results. Of course that is the basis of the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) industry, of which I am not a big fan (that explanation is for a later post). A recent post by Matt Cutts of Google on the changes in the frequency of index updates is very interesting and displays how far the industry has come in just the last 7 years.

Matt states that in 2000 when he joined Google there was a 3-4 month period where they did not update their index at all and another search engine went for over a year without updating their index (perhaps one of the casualties of the search engine shake up). This would mean that no new sites or new content from existing sites would show up in searches until the index update. It was mid-2000 when Google started regular monthly index updates, driving the search engine industry to provide accurate and fresh results for searchers.

Since then Google has been improving their index updates to the point where things can appear in the index only minutes after being posted. Of course, other search engines have had to follow suit. This is where I appreciate Google’s focus on their search customers (although content owners love fresh results as well).

Changes in technology have helped Google reach these new levels of freshness. Instead of Google spiders having to crawl each site daily (which is impossible for them to do when they are indexing billions of sites) sites can ping Google when they have updates. This is possible now with the rise of RSS and sitemaps. Sites do not have to be a traditional blog to utilize these techniques either.

In the past, clients would bring new projects and expect a site to be created and launched in two months, as well as indexed by all the major search engines with a high result on key search terms on launch day. When I explained that sites had to be submitted for crawling by the search engines, and then there was a waiting period before they would be added to the index and available in search results, for a total wait time of 4-6 months, it often opened up their eyes to the search engine industry. Many wanted to pay to be included in the index and listed as the #1 result but after some explanation, they would understand the reality of the web. As all were small organizations or individuals, I stressed the importance of focusing on their content and doing what they could with the search engines but not obsessing over their initial rankings. Some dropped their site project with this news; others went forward and discovered their wait for a crawl and to show up in the index was not as detrimental as they thought it would be. Now it seems very easy to set up a site with feeds and sitemap pinging capabilities and you can be discovered and indexed in days or hours. Then you can immediately work on building content and incoming links from valuable resources (not link exchanges) to increase your visibility.

Some more good general advice is provided in a Google Webmaster Central post on getting indexed (English at bottom) for the Portuguese market, but it is relevant to every site. The top two points are critical – Be a subject authority (write good content people are looking for) and keep the search engines informed of your site updates, which are hopefully frequent. If you are not checking off these two points, then all the other optimization will do little to gain and maintain visitors, no matter how high you get your site to rank.

Writing Great Content

There is no formula to great writing. At least I am not able to define a set of easy steps to follow to create great content for a site as I am still learning the ropes. I do know that the act of writing is very intimidating to many owners of small business and personal websites. Before ever putting a pen to paper, they face writers’ block. Obtaining the confidence to get started involves understanding what you are looking for in the result. Setting a framework of what you want to say allows you to start filling in the holes easily.

A recent issue of A List Apart contained two articles on content and writing. The first, on anorexic writing, reinforces some important points.

  • A site’s heart is in the content and you need the heart before you can build the body (design).
  • Avoid “copy”, marketing speak full of buzzwords. Give your content a personal touch with emotion and spirit to connect with your reader.
  • Use alt text for images that describes the image in an emotional context instead of impersonal descriptions of the image.
  • Speak to the individual, not to a mass crowd.

After reading this article, you may be even more paralysed to start writing. It can be difficult writing for a small business, non-profit or small civic organization site when it lacks a personal connection for the writer. The tendency is to eliminate any personal connection in the words and stick to an adjective-ridden listing of what we already know, or worse, political speak to answer the question without actually answering it. We fall into this tendency because a vast majority of what we see in any marketing material follows this methodology.

So why should flowery adjectives and pats on your own back that your “products are the best” be avoided in your content? Because they do not answer your visitors’ questions. How many times have you gone to a site wanting to find specific information about a product or service, ready to commit if you could only confirm a compatibility or price or size option only to be unable to do so? For me it has been plenty. Small organizations cannot afford salaries to staff call centres to support customer queries, so your web site is your competitive advantage. Making sure all information is easily available on your site is how your exploit that competitive advantage.

Instead of trying to convince visitors of your goal with self-proclaimed greatness, why not show them? Think about the differences you would like to highlight between you and your competitors. Then explain it. Maybe it is your service and after-sales care. Maybe it is your location. Focus on whatever is your differentiating factor; a small town may highlight lifestyle and economic factors versus the big city. Avoid explaining you are great in these respects (a relative and biased opinion), but explain indirectly with examples and commentary. The easiest way to accomplish this is to create a personal connection with the reader.

Writing personable content that is intended for strangers is a difficult thing to do for non-writers. It can be very uncomfortable exposing yourself that way. But a personal, emotional style connects the reader with you, allowing them to feel and identify with you and your writing, opening them up to trust what you are saying when it does not read like the standard marketing mis-truths they are used to.

Accomplishing a personal connection does not require you to write a personal journal or blog. Your site copy can contain that personal touch. First, speak to the reader. Explain your passion, your successes and where you are heading. This may be the reason for starting your crafts store and your plans and dreams for the future or community news and changes. Let the visitor feel your passion and excitement about new endeavours such as new products, goals reached or events. This is further explained in Copywriting for eCommerce on vitamin.com.

The second A List Apart article on better writing brings up the key questions about your visitors: who are they, what do they want to know and what do they want to do. This will help you decide what content is required and what the personality of your site should be. A site for men will have a different personal connection than a site for women. Expanding your questions list to ask how you want visitors to feel and how you would converse with them face-to-face allows to define further your style and goals for your content. Once this framework is established, it becomes much easier to fill in the holes.

Finally, nothing is a substitute for practice. You may throw away your first draft completely. As you write more and firm up the voice for your site, your writing will improve and the connections you make through the web will be the result.