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In Defense of Webmaster Tools

Insights // May 20, 2014

 

After previous criticisms, Google’s January updates substantially increased the accuracy of information provided in Webmaster Tools. With its corresponding rise in popularity due to Analytics keyword data being replaced by “(not provided),” how do we assess the validity of Webmaster Tools data? Is it a valuable resource to track keyword metrics for organic search performance?

In spite of these changes, many SEOs across the Web have been advising their readers not to use Webmaster Tools due to its inaccuracies when compared with Google Analytics data. While Webmaster tools has its limitations, I believe much of this criticism is unfounded. When used properly, Webmaster Tools can provide a great deal of valuable information that would otherwise remain hidden.

To begin with, the perceived inaccuracies stem from the way that Webmaster Tools collects data. Google, in fact, offers an array of reasons why WMT data may be discrepant when compared to data from Google Analytics. The most relevant to our purposes is this one:

Webmaster Tools aggregates query information, and displays search queries once the count of each query reaches a certain threshold. Your logs may show a particular query as having a high rank for a certain day or period, but that query does not appear in on the Search Queries page. If the query continues to be a top referrer, however, it will move to the top of our aggregate results and will appear on the Search Queries page.

In other words, WMT doesn’t report every search query that leads to your site. Queries that receive a low search volume but still result in clicks may not be accounted for in the data, either due to lack of popularity relative to other search terms or by falling below some threshold set by Google. Google also won’t report keywords that it believes reveal personal data about the searcher.

Thus, we might reasonably expect WMT to accurately report the traffic from popular queries while missing a substantial portion of long-tail traffic. Still, let’s examine the data rather than take it on faith. Afterward, I’ll give two examples of ways I use Webmaster Tools on a day-to-day basis to examine visibility and performance in organic search. Each exemplify just a small fraction of the tool’s possible uses.

How Inaccurate Is Webmaster Tools, Anyway?

First, let me explain my methodology.

In Webmaster Tools, I navigate from the Queries tab to the Pages tab and find the URL I want to compare. I then adjust the filter to include all traffic, not just the web traffic that it defaults to (warning: if you navigate from Queries to Pages, it resets the filter to ‘web’). Then I pull the Click numbers from Webmaster Tools (not impressions, which instead measure the number of times pages from your site appear in the search results), because clicks are what send searchers to your site. In other words, clicks should equate to organic traffic.

In Analytics, which measures traffic from all sources, including organic search, I navigate to the Organic tab within the Acquisition drop down. Then I create a quick advanced filter to only include traffic from Google search.

(All data points in these examples are for the same web property; they represent two different URLs within that domain. This property generates approximately 650k visits per month.)

Because both tools are trying to measure the same thing, we can compare the two data sets and see how well they correspond to one another. The first landing page I am plotting is a very broad category page. In theory, the only terms that would rank this URL would be higher volume broad terms and variations of those broad terms (misspelling, spaces, etc.). I chose this particular category page because it would largely be unaffected by the limitations in the quantity of long tail variations that Webmaster Tools reports on. (In this domain’s case, long tail variations of those main terms rank URLs deeper in the site, which we’ll get to in my second example.)

If Webmaster Tools is wildly inaccurate, then the chart below would show no definitive correlation in weekly movements between the two reporting tools.

Ron1

Even though there is definitely some discrepancy in the number of visits vs. the number of clicks, the data points are relatively close. More importantly, we see the general trend of movement matches between the two tools. When initially seeing how the information compares visually, it’s interesting to see how similar the data points actually are. This confirms that the data shown within Webmaster Tools is relatively accurate.

Next, let’s look at a high-volume URL that lives deeper within the domain. It is a sub-category page associated with the main page being tracked above. I chose this landing page because it would be the ranking URL for long-tail variations of keywords, and I wanted to see how Webmaster Tools handles this kind of data.

ROn 2

You may have noticed I needed to provide a separate Y-axis so I could show the two graphs in the same area. (The left axis is Webmaster Tools; the right is Analytics.) Not only are the data points nowhere near each other, they aren’t even following the same trends.

That confirms that Webmaster Tools is likely missing the vast majority of long-tail query traffic, as suggested by the information provided in the Webmaster Tools query support page.

So, does this mean that Webmaster Tools is useless? Far from it.

Why? Because of the first chart. The data provided by Webmaster Tools seems to be relatively accurate in this graph; however, as the second graph demonstrates, it is limited, failing to capture certain types of queries. But limited data is still better than no data.

Imagine looking down at a field through an empty paper towel tube. You can still see a small part of the total picture, but there is a large amount of information you are not seeing outside of that section.

So use the data that you have, because you can get some very good insights into that missing piece in Analytics created by (not provided): what terms are generating traffic, and how those terms are performing for your site.

So how can we use Webmaster Tools?

Use Clicks to find out where traffic is coming from.

You are looking at your Google Analytics report and are pleasantly surprised to see a massive increase in traffic for one of your custom organic-to-landing-page segments. You go to look at the keywords associated to the bump and you see “not provided” is representing 90% of the keywords.

This is when I jump over to Webmaster Tools. I pull up the Search Queries report and immediately move over to the Top Pages tab. I adjust the date range to the period I’m interested in, and set the filter to include ‘All’ (remember, it’s defaulted to just web traffic). I search for the URL that saw the large influx of traffic in my Google Analytics segment.

I then pull up a second tab and go through all the same motions, but I set the date range to the previous month. This allows me to make comparisons between the two data sets and find out where the traffic is coming from.

When looking into the landing page associated with the jump in traffic, I see movements shown in the attached screenshots.

Month 1:
Ron 3

Month 2:
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What I see is an increase of 6,312 in the number of clicks associated to a single term. On top of that I noticed big movements for other terms that appear to be variations of that term. If you are using a keyword tracking tool, you can look back through the ranking movements for these time periods. If you don’t, you can get an idea of how the term is moving by looking at the average rank of the term within the keywords tab of Webmaster Tools, or just do an incognito Google search to see where you are ranking.

For this term specifically, we recorded rapid movements from page two into the bottom half of the first page within a month-over-month period. One thing that we know is that when a term jumps from page 2 to page 1, there is a significant increase in impressions. We also know that the closer terms get to the #1 search result, the more people click on the result. The combination of these two things happening in a month’s period is why we saw such a large improvement in visits for our landing page.

This is the type of information that makes Webmaster Tools a valuable resource in your SEO tracking reports. While tracking average rank of terms is important and shows you partial visibility, WMT shows you how well you are capitalizing on that visibility. Do you need to enhance your meta elements or title tags to better capitalize on your rank positioning? If your URL is ranking 1 for a term but you are only converting clicks on a small percentage of those impressions, Webmaster Tools will provide you with the information necessary to improve your CTR.

Use Impressions to show early wins in relation to keyword movements.

This is my go-to tool when giving deeper insights into the early impacts of keyword movements for specific terms. One thing to understand in regards to keyword movements is that the impact on traffic is gradual and slow. When you are holistically building authority to your site or specific pages, it takes time for that huge volume head term to move into top positions of the search results. You generally don’t go to bed ranked #64 and wake up at #1. It takes time for that authority to be built naturally.

So how do you show early wins for focused terms?

Impressions!

Jumps in impressions are associated with early keyword movements. Specifically, when they begin jumping onto the second and first pages. I’ve provided a real world example of this movement in action (client name and term blurred for anonymity.) Also, keep in mind that seasonality also plays a role in the visibility of your domain. In the graph below we saw large spikes around Black Friday and Cyber Monday. These movements were expected, because this particular client is an online retailer, and again shows that Webmaster Tools does an effective job of recording that movement.

November:
ROn 5

This is a screenshot of Webmaster Tools drilled down to a head term we have been targeting for several months. When looking at our keyword tracking tool, we see that the term remained on the second page of results for the majority of November. Towards the end of that month we saw the term jump into the first page of results, and we see a spike in impressions during the same time.

December:
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The second screenshot shows the same data, but for the month of December. From our keyword-tracking tool, we see that the term remained steady on the first page, with some minor fluctuations back and forth, and as a result we see a 284% increase in impressions for that month.

These movements were in direct correlation to a high-volume keyword we recorded moving in rank from the second page into the first page. When looking at the dates we also see specific movements surround the days seeing jumps in Webmaster Tools and the dates the term moved from the second to first page.

We could then specifically communicate the increase in visibility for the brand surrounding that term and look at the possibility of adjusting our community outreach efforts to further move that specific term up the results page in order to obtain a larger market share of that search traffic. The brand could then look at putting a bigger focus on the specific landing page so they can take advantage of the influx of traffic coming in through that page. All of these conversations are initiated by the data recorded in Webmaster Tools.

Conclusion

As SEOs, we should be using every tool at our disposal to evaluate how effective our strategies are. It’s true that Webmaster Tools has clear limitations. However, if you approach it with an understanding of those limitations, it can provide valuable insights into keyword data lost to [not provided]. In other words, looking through a paper towel tube is still better than being blind.