Hundreds of thousands of webmasters have created Google Webmaster Tools accounts for the sole purpose of receiving information on the status of their sites from the web’s search giant – and now, these loyal users have been rewarded with a series of changes designed to make the service even more effective.
On April 24th, 2012, Google announced an upcoming “spring cleaning,” which would involve various tweaks and updates to the company’s flagship website data toolset. These changes rolled out formally on May 7th, 2012 to a resoundingly positive reaction.
So, without further ado, here’s what’s been changed in the Google Webmaster Tools redesign, as well as how these tweaks will impact your usage of the site…
For starters, there were three major structural improvements that were carried out across the site:
- New dashboard – The latest version of Webmaster Tools earned a newly-designed dashboard with a widget-style structure that mimics the setup of the current Google Analytics release. The new dashboard comes pre-populated with three widgets (Crawl Errors, Search Queries and Sitemaps), though you can add customized widgets of your own or use this area to view other recent or prioritized messages about your site.
- New naming conventions and navigation – Beyond the dashboard, many of the key services offered by the previous Webmaster Tools version have been renamed and regrouped according to their primary function. The four categories by which the site’s tools are now organized include Configuration (things that you won’t change often), Health (whether or not your site is performing correctly), Traffic (how your site is performing in Google search) and Optimization (where you’ll find ideas on how to improve your site).
- New compact view – The final structural change to be included as part of Google’s spring cleaning is the creation of a new compact view, which allows you to view thumbnails of every site that’s being tracked by your account. As you might expect, this feature will primarily be useful to those webmasters who manage multiple sites from a single Webmaster Tools account.
In addition to these design and organizational changes, Google has used this renovation to remove a few unnecessary or underperforming tools, including:
- Subscriber stats – Because this information is also available within Feedburner (another Google product), the subscriber stats feature has been removed from Webmaster Tools to encourage participation with the company’s separate RSS toolset.
- Create robots.txt – In the past, Webmaster Tools offered a feature that allowed you to automatically generate a robots.txt file for your website. However, owing to the limited need for this file on modern websites and the low level of usage this feature received, it’s been canned from Google’s services. At this point, no alternative is being offered, though webmasters are encouraged to create their own robots.txt files using a plain text editor.
- Site performance – The site performance feature (previously found in the Webmaster Tools Labs section) is another function that got the boot in this revamp, again due to low levels of participation. Instead, users are encouraged to make use of the Site Speed feature in Google Analytics or Google’s PageSpeed service to obtain the same data.
So that’s what we’re looking at when it comes to recent changes to the Google Webmaster Tools program. Now, here’s what’s working – and what isn’t – with these changes:
- Easier to manage multiple sites – If you manage multiple websites through your existing Google Webmaster Tools profile, the program’s new compact view feature will make it easier than ever to view the status of your websites at a glance. Of course, if you don’t like the compact view and would prefer to view your results in the standard, expanded format, you can always switch back to this earlier option from within your account.
- Navigation groups based on common functionality – In addition, many users find that the revised navigation – which groups tools based on the common themes listed above – is much more intuitive to grasp and navigate. Although longtime users will likely need some time to process the name changes that occurred, they should ultimately find that these new groupings make more sense overall and improve the ease with which the program can be accessed.
- Cleaner visual aesthetic – Finally, although the visual appeal of Google Webmaster Tools doesn’t really influence its behavior, you can’t deny that the new setup is simply prettier to look at than the old version! Whether or not these design tweaks ultimately result in increased usage isn’t really the point here – instead, it’s simply nice to have an attractive, user-friendly portal with which to interact.
- Eliminated features cause functionality loss – Although Google has provided alternatives to replace two out of the three features that were eliminated from this most recent update (namely, the subscriber stats and site performance tools), the search giant’s recommendations don’t provide the same level of detail as the former tools. For example, the elimination of the site performance tool means that users will no longer be able to monitor site speed improvements over time – an issue that some users lament as the loss of valuable data.
- Some essential features still missing – Of course, no matter what Google does, there will always be users who wish specific updates had gone further. And it’s true – there are still a number of key features within the updated Webmaster Tools program that could still be expanding upon, including the way the service reports errors and penalties. But although many users have been quite vocal about desiring more detail whenever website penalties are assessed, the reality is that complaining about it isn’t going to bring about a release. Google will release this information if and when it feels like it!
- Some reported crashes on accounts tracking multiple websites – While this potential issue won’t affect every Webmaster Tools user, there have been limited reports of the program crashing when updating accounts that track multiple websites. “Mednet,” for example, was one user who reported this problem to the Google Webmaster Central blog, stating, “We have a large account with hundreds of sites in it. Since this update Webmaster tools seems to crash and we can’t use it. Thumbnails flash for a second and disappear and no sites are displayed.” Google has not released any notices in conjunction with this issue, though hopefully any ongoing problems will be resolved shortly.
- Data refresh rate is still slow – Finally, many Webmaster Tools users take issue with the fact that that the data provided by the program isn’t updated that frequently. In most cases, new data is only available on a day-by-day basis. With the current market trend favoring real-time web analytics, it seems possible that Google could increase the refresh rate of this service sometime in the future.
But regardless of whether or not you like these changes, the new version of Webmaster Tools has already rolled out. If you have feedback on any of the updates that occurred, Google recommends posting your questions or comments in the Webmaster Central forum.