Getting started with WordPress SEO

SEO, short for Search Engine Optimization, is an integral part of online marketing. It refers to the steps you can take to ensure that your website is not only indexed by major search engines – such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing – but also that it ranks well in the Search Engine Result Pages (SERPs).

SERPs contain both organic and paid results. Depending on the term you search, you’ll often find that the first few results on the page are actually ads which have been paid for by businesses who want their pages to be seen first. Featured just below that are the results that the search engine has determined to be most relevant to your search term, based on its algorithm. Generally, it’s easy to differentiate between the two result types. Good SEO helps with improving organic SERP rankings.

Every search engine has what is known as crawlers, which are bots that “crawl” the World Wide Web, assessing every web page according to the specific set of criteria a search engine has for indexing web pages and deciding whether or not it will be indexed.

As a content management system (CMS), WordPress and its overall structure is conducive to creating an SEO-friendly site. It allows users to easily create HTML pages with elements like various kinds of tags, hyperlinks, descriptions, and other criteria that search engines look for when deciding whether or not a page should be indexed, and determining how it should rank compared to pages with similar content.

While WordPress is considered one of the most SEO-friendly CMSs right out of the box, that doesn’t mean you can create a few pages and expect to immediately show up on the first page of Google. Its overall design, intuitive backend, and text editor may lend itself well to SEO, but there are still several things you will need to consider and a lot of work you will need to do to make your WordPress website index and rank.


WordPress SEO themes and optimizing the look and feel of your site

Clarity of design can be easy to overlook when thinking about SEO. To the uninitiated, SEO is all about content and keywords, but if your website is slow and hard to use, it will likely be penalized. Here are a few things you should think about when designing your WordPress site.

Themes

One of the first things you’ll do when creating a WordPress site is choose a theme. While it might seem like any old theme will do, some care and consideration should be taken: some themes are more SEO-friendly than others.

There is a multitude of free, high-quality themes available but always make sure to read reviews about that particular theme and who exactly created it. Has it been created with security vulnerabilities in mind and will it be upgraded for future WordPress updates? Are its coding standards up to date (something you can find out using this resource)?

These may not be things you immediately think about when considering SEO, but it’s all important. If your WordPress site has security deficiencies or isn’t compatible with popular browsers, search engines will penalize you accordingly.

Responsiveness

Another factor to bear in mind when choosing a theme is how responsive it is. A responsive theme is one that has been designed to change depending on the size of the screen its being viewed on. Many websites created today are designed with a mobile-first mentality. This means that designers and developers consider how a site will look on a mobile device first and foremost, before even thinking about how it will appear on laptops and desktop computers.

This is because more people than ever browse the Web using mobile; 52.4 percent of global web traffic in 2018 came from mobile devices, according to Statista. Furthermore, mobile-friendliness is becoming a key consideration for search engine rankings.

The most important thing to do when choosing a theme is your research. As mentioned before, check out reviews and feedback and the history of the creators of the theme in question. You’re also best off sticking to finding themes in the theme directory of WordPress.org itself, or through reputable theme marketplaces like Theme Forest or Elegant Themes. Many managed WordPress hosts provide hundreds of free themes as well.

Speed

Considering your website speed and individual web page speed is also a factor in how well your site will rank. There are many things that can contribute to slowing your site down. For more in-depth information, read our article on optimizing your WordPress site.

Here’s the TL;DR version:

  • Hosting: For most starting out, shared hosting is the cheapest, most viable option. However, shared hosting can play a large part in slowing down site speed if there are too many other websites being hosted on the same server. Namecheap’s EasyWP managed WordPress hosting is three times faster than other alternative managed WordPress hosting options.

  • Caching: Using a plugin like WP Rocket or W3 Total Cache can speed up page load time on your WordPress website by creating static versions of content, rather than building a dynamic HTML page which has to be built from scratch each time.

  • Too many plugins: There is going to be a lot of talk of plugins in this article, and there is no denying their importance. However, less is more when it comes to plugin installation. You should also consider each plugin carefully and what you would like to achieve with it. Haphazard installation may result in plugins interfering with each other and slowing the site down. It’s also important to make sure a plugin has good reviews and is regularly updated – another factor that can affect load time.


Optimizing the structure and layout of your WordPress site

URLS and permalink structure

You may have never given any URL you’ve visited a second thought, but when it comes to your WordPress site, permalink structure matters. For the absolute beginners out there, URL stands for uniform resource locator and it is the address you type into the browser’s address bar to take you to a specific site. A typical URL features a protocol, domain name, and top-level domain. For example https://www.yourwebsite.com.

Permalink is a combination of the words “permanent” and “link” and refers to URLs of pages of a WordPress site. There is a default setting for WordPress permalinks, but this can be changed in the backend, as well as in the text editor for individual posts. Before you publish any posts or pages, you should decide on a permalink structure for your URLs and stick to it, hence the “permanent” aspect. While permalinks can be changed later, this isn’t advised as you run the risk of diminishing traffic to your site if you don’t properly redirect to the new permalink.

There are six options for changing your permalink structure in the dashboard’s settings. These options include:

  • Plain;

  • Day and Name;

  • Month and Name;

  • Numeric;

  • Post Name;

  • Custom Structure;

For most sites, post name or custom structure are the ideal options.

An example of how the plain setting would look is https://www.yourwebsite.com/?p=123. This reveals nothing about what this webpage is about. With the postname structure, the URL will contain the name of the post. Something along the lines of:

https://www.yourwebsite.com/your-post-name

When it comes to the structure of permalinks, ones that are short, descriptive, and straightforward are conducive to better SERPS. It’s also best to avoid stop words, such as “and” and “the” in your permalinks. They’re not important and will only serve to lengthen the link unnecessarily.

SSL certificates

An SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificate is what ensures the connection between a user’s computer and a website is encrypted. This is signified by an https prefix at the beginning of a web address, which you may have noticed before, even if you didn’t know what it meant. In the earlier days of the World Wide Web, SSL certificates were optional and largely used by e-commerce websites, banking sites, as well as myriad other sites where sensitive data, like financial information, was handed over.

These days, search Engines look for SSL certificates because online security and privacy is becoming more and more of concern. As such, a growing number of sites are getting SSL certified to give their audience added peace of mind. Therefore, getting an SSL certificate for your site is crucial for SEO; without an SSL certificate, your WordPress site won’t get indexed.

Header tags

We’ve mentioned HTML a couple of times already and we’re going to touch on how it is used in relation to SEO. For those who aren’t in the know, HTML stands for Hypertext Markup Language, the standard coding language used to created web pages. With HTML, “tags” are used to introduce various structural or semantic elements to a web page; how the web page looks and what its elements convey.

Semantic elements communicate specific information about a web page’s content to the web browser. For example, when a browser comes across an H1 tag, which is a top-level heading, it will know to treat the information contained in that tag as the most important on the page. Other examples include the H2 tag, which indicates a second-level heading, and the <p> tag, which defines paragraphs on a page. The correct utilization of semantic markup is integral to SEO.

For both search engine crawlers and your audience, header tags are essential for distinguishing the content of individual pages. Headings inform crawlers of what kind of content you have, while aesthetically, breaking it up into sections, making it easier to read than a giant wall of text. On an HTML website, like your WordPress site, this is done with the aforementioned HTML header tags, which can be easily inserted to every page by the WordPress editor.

The following are the main header tags you will come across:

  • H1: This is the most important of all the header tags, as H1 signals what the most important text on a web page is. It comes second only to your page’s title in terms of what search engines look at. When someone searches for a certain phrase or keyword, search engines will examine the H1 text to determine whether or not it is relevant to their query.

  • H2: The second most used header tag, H2s are helpful subheads that can be used to divide the text into sections.

  • H3, H4, H5, H6: Lesser used, but still important, these subhead tags can be used to create additional sections within the H2 subheads on a WordPress post or page.

It is recommended that you only have one H1 per page, and it should be placed at the top of it. From a design standpoint, there’s nothing wrong with several H1s on a page, but it’s typically considered more effective to give precedence to one keyword or phrase rather than several, otherwise, their value will be diminished.

Breaking up the text in such a way that makes it more readable, which is also important when it comes to usability – another area search engines look at when determining how your page should rank.

The importance of categories

Categories and subcategories are key when it comes to properly structuring your WordPress website. Not only are they critical for good user experience, but they also provide another way for search engines to make sense of what your site is about.

Categories the content of your site into segments so that users can easily find the information they’re looking for. As such, categories should be limited and they should have a specific focus. Your website structure won’t be any easier to navigate if every single page or article has its own category.

Category archive pages can be just as important, if not more important, than individual posts and pages. According to Yoast, category pages are akin to landing pages. Resultantly, they should be used as an opportunity to emphasize the focus of your site to search engines.

This is why proper categorization is important. It is also why you should try stick to putting each new post in one category, if possible. Posting an article in more than one category means that it will appear in several category archive pages on your site, and it will also have more than one URL. Having the same content across multiple URLs could result in your site being penalized by search engines for having duplicate content.

You can avoid such penalization by limiting categories, or implementing a no index meta tag in a page’s HTML code, which informs search engines that you don’t want a duplicate page to be crawled. Many SEO plugins provide an option for you to no index a page easily.

Speaking of website navigation (for users and search engines alike), categories and subcategories that make sense are essential for good breadcrumbs.

Breadcrumb navigation, which usually appears near the top of a web page, indicates the path which users took to get to the current page they’re browsing, making them aware of where they are located within the website’s overall structure. It can look something along the lines of:

Home > Category > Subcategory > Post

As a more concrete example, let’s imagine you want to create a book review website. Your breadcrumbs might look something like:

Home > Book Reviews > Science Fiction Reviews > I, Robot Review.

Use tags sparingly

WordPress categories and tags are terms which are often used interchangeably, but they really shouldn’t.

According to WordPress, categories are intended for a “broad grouping of post topics”, while tags should be used to describe a post in more detail. Try to remember this when coming up with tags. The general rule of thumb is that if the term is already a category, then it shouldn’t be a tag too. Otherwise, there will be both a category page and a tag page with duplicate content, which will confuse search engines.

Sitemaps

A sitemap is exactly what it sounds like: a map (generally in list form) which displays the layout of a website. While some websites still include sitemaps to help users navigate a site, we talk about sitemaps and SEO we’re most likely referring to XML sitemaps, which are a little more complicated, but important if you want to give search engines more specific information about your site and its URLs.

A type of extensible markup language (XML) document, an XML sitemap features the URLs of all the pages of your site, as well as further information, such as how these URLs relate to each other, and if and how often they have changed or been updated and when. Having an XML sitemap doesn’t mean that your site will be automatically indexed or ranked by SERPs, but it will give search engine crawlers access to every page on the site that they may not otherwise find if your site’s internal linking isn’t up to scratch.

XML sitemaps can be created through an online generator, while WordPress has a number of plugins that will do it for you.

Internal and external linking

The internal linking structure of your site is paramount to getting your WordPress website to rank. Search engine crawlers basically travel from web page to web page through hyperlinks, so if the pages on your site aren’t linked to each other, there is a chance they won’t be found.

Internal linking can be implemented through navigational links, including a list of related posts at the end of a page, as well as including links embedded in content. Furthermore, by including relevant, external links on your site, crawlers will also be able to determine how the content of your site and its individual pages relates to websites of a similar nature.


Optimizing WordPress content for SEO

Keyword research

If you’ve heard of SEO, then it’s likely you’ve heard of keywords. Keywords refer to the words users type into a search engine’s search box to find particular content on a web page. In the context of SEO, the aim is for your content to rank highly for a particular keyword, so that users can find your content and click onto your website.

While it’s certainly important to ensure your content contains keywords so that it has a chance of ranking, it isn’t the be all and end all of optimizing your content for SEO. Less is more. Keyword stuffing –the act of including a plethora of keywords in your content, regardless of relevance – is old hat. You don’t want just any visitors on your site. You want the right visitors.

You can use tools like Google Keyword Planner and SEMrush to find out what keywords you should be targeting in your content.

Focus on writing on quality content

In its content guidelines, Google stresses the importance of optimizing your content for users and not for search engines. This will hopefully help you resist the urge to hyperfocus on keywords. If you focus on writing long-form, comprehensive articles, chances are, the keywords you should be targeting will appear naturally. Do your research. Make sure your content is readable: keep sentences and paragraphs short while breaking up the page with those all-important header tags mentioned above. Your informative content won’t be informing anyone if they can’t even read it.

Lastly, stick to a schedule. There is no magical formula for how often you should update your content, but it should be updated regularly at least. However, it should be stressed that posting frequency does not affect search engine relevance, but it is more of a branding consideration.

Getting in Google’s Answer Box

You may have noticed Google’s “answer box” at some point in your Google search adventures. If you have ever asked a question as your search term, the top of the results page may have featured a box that attempts to answer that question. Having your content appear in the answer box is known as ranking no. 0. Because the answer box doesn’t necessarily pull from the content featured in the number one position of Google, it’s seen as a great opportunity for SEO marketers to increase their position in the SERPs.

Figuring out content that has the potential to rank no. 0 works much the same way as regular keyword research. Once you have you have figured out keywords you should be targeting, fashion them into a question you think your audience would ask and test whether or not that particular Google query has an answer box. Examine the content currently featured, and see how you can improve upon it. For instance, is it missing a step? Is it too wordy or difficult to read? Is there a way for you to create something that’s succinct but informative? This is an opportunity for you to really flex your expertise. Also, make sure to include the question somewhere on your page as an H2 to make it easier for Google to notice.

Optimizing images

The importance of images can be easy to overlook, but you’re missing a trick if you don’t optimize your images for SEO. Images included in content should be visually appealing and feature alt text. The alt text describes the content of the image to search engines and it also helps visually impaired readers make sense of what is on the page.

How you name your images is also important. It shouldn’t be uploaded with whatever filename your phone or camera have given it, but should be renamed to something descriptive and relevant.

The size of the image should also be taken into consideration. Think about pixel size and file type, as if an image is too big, it will have a longer load time. The JPEG file format is often the image file type of choice for WordPress websites and blogs.

Titles and meta descriptions

The title of your web page is another important factor when it comes to appearing and ranking in SERPs, as it helps search engines determine what your page is about. It is defined in a HTML document by the <title> tag. The title is the first thing users will see, not only in SERPs but also if your article is shared on social media and it is also displayed in the tab of a web browser. Therefore, it’s important that a good title be succinct, relevant, and contains your top targeted keyword.

The meta description of a post or a page is a description of what that post or page is about. In SERPs, it’s the few lines of text (about 160 characters, but Google often changes this) displayed below the URL. Meta descriptions aren’t used by search engines for ranking purposes, but they can help lead to a better click-through rate if they are well written and informative. If you don’t set a meta description, the search engine will pull a couple of lines from the text on your page which contains the keywords the person was searching for.

The best way to approach a meta description is to write it yourself. If you leave it to the search engines you run the risk of them pulling a sentence that doesn’t reflect the depth of your piece, and searchers might opt to skip over it.

Write something that accurately sums up what a reader can expect, ensuring it contains the focus keyword. Try to make it somewhat actionable rather than just merely describing what’s on the page. Invite the reader to click and make it worth their while. If they can find out more about your area of expertise by clicking on your page, tell them they can “learn more” by doing so. Most importantly, try to make it stand out from the meta descriptions of your competitors. Give users a reason to click on your web page over theirs.

To sum up, a good meta description should:

  • Be 160 characters or less

  • Be accurate

  • Contain your focus keyword

  • Use the active voice

  • Contain a call-to-action

  • Be unique

Adding title tags and meta descriptions might be a little complicated if you are a complete coding novice, but SEO plugins, such as Yoast and All in One SEO (which we’ll talk more about in a bit) add functionality to your WordPress backend which will allow you to easily add an SEO title and a meta description to every web page.


The importance of user engagement and WordPress SEO

It’s all well and good to write a long, well-researched, keyword-rich article that’s both informative and entertaining. But the fact of the matter is, the internet is noisy and saturated with websites and content about everything you can imagine. A user might read your article and never give your site or blog a second thought again. That’s why you need to make it easy for your audience not only to share your stuff but also to comment and subscribe for regular updates.

Comments

Comments can be a great way of engaging users, but there are certain factors you should bear in mind. There are a number of commenting systems you can implement on your site, but Yoast recommends that you stick with the original WordPress commenting system, as others can be slow to load, and, as we mentioned before, site speed plays a big part in SEO. You should also be prepared to monitor comments carefully, as comments that aren’t relevant to the topic at hand can also affect SEO.

Subscribing

Giving users the opportunity to easily subscribe to your site is as easy as adding subscribe buttons and forms in key areas of your site. There are even plugins that will do this for you. Getting them to subscribe might be a little more tricky. Maybe your quality content will be enough, but it never hurts to have an effective lead magnet and call-to-action. For example, if you have an online store you could offer a discount, or if you have a blog in which you talk about your area of expertise, you could offer a free webinar or whitepaper.
However, you decide to frame it, giving users the chance to opt-in isn’t something any WordPress website can afford to skip.

To learn more about email marketing, read our article on the subject

Making content shareable

Good content deserves to get read. And what better way to go about this than making it easily shareable on social media than with the aid of social media share buttons that stand out. While social media sites are not relevant to search engine algorithms, good content is likely to get links from other websites, which plays a big part in how your page ranks.

Like everything with creating a website, you should think about the placement of your share buttons. It’s probably not a good idea to have the buttons at the very bottom of a web page as skimmers may never get there, and you also shouldn’t place buttons where content is already cluttered. You probably don’t need them on your About page or Homepage either.

While there are more and more social media sites popping up these days, it’s best to limit the number of social media icons to three or four – if there are too many choices, your user may not make any at all.

Analytics

Whether you have an online store or a blog, measuring your success, or lack thereof, is very important for establishing what’s working and what isn’t. An analytics service, such as Google Analytics, will let you track metrics like transactions, audience demographics, social media engagement, how long users tend to stay on a specific page, and much more. Using an analytics service will give you hard data and help you determine what actions should be taken next, rather than taking a shot in the dark and hoping for the best.

How all this can help with off-page SEO

This is all part and parcel with your overall SEO strategy. Doing just one of the above won’t help. Simply adding social media buttons to your site won’t ensure that your SERP rankings will be boosted, but it will help. Making it easy for your users to engage, subscribe, and share your content will boost your site’s authority and trustworthiness and contribute to improving your SERP ranking.

Combined with quality, long-form, informative content, these strategies are likely to result in natural link building, which is when another web page links back to your web page – a crucial element of every SEO strategy. The more high-quality websites linking to your website, the better.


The Best Wordpress SEO Plugins

We’ve mentioned plugins a few times in this piece, but what exactly are they? Essentially, they’re small pieces of software that bring new functions and features to a WordPress website.

There is a wide range of plugins available across the web, some better than others, but several will help in tackling the SEO techniques mentioned above. Some target specific areas, while others have been designed specifically with SEO in mind.

When choosing plugins for your site, you should also take into consideration whether or not this particular plugin is compatible with others you have already installed. It’s always best to go with a well-known, reputable provider that provides technical support and consistently updates and revises their offering.

Here are some plugins you should consider installing to get your WordPress site optimized with a minimum of fuss.

WordPress Schema Plugins

Schema refers to shared microdata vocabularies. In the context of SEO, these are standardized tags that websites can add to their HTML to provide additional information to search engines, informing them exactly what your content is about. This information is also referred to as rich snippets.

As an example, for regular search engine results the layout is generally page title; URL; meta description. When rich snippets are enabled, there will be an extra line in there, just below the URL; for instance, a star rating.

While they won’t automatically boost your search engine rankings, rich snippets will help with improving your click-through rate, as users can more easily determine how relevant your content is to their interests.

Adding schema markup up to your WordPress site can be complicated without much coding knowledge. Luckily, a number of plugins will do it for you, including:

  • Schema: Schema is a free plugin that will automatically add schema markup in the JSON-LD format to your WordPress site, which is Google’s favored schema format. It has minimal settings but the functionality can be extended if required. Google markups it supports include company logo, contact numbers, and social media links.

  • WP SEO Structured Data SchemaThis plugin will help with easily adding schema to your site, such as star ratings, events and event times, breadcrumbs, and an embedded site search box.

  • All In One Schema Rich Snippets: This plugin covers a variety of schema types, including products, services, events, reviews, and recipes.

XML Plugins

Earlier in the article, we discussed why having an XML sitemap was helpful for SEO. Here are some plugins that will create one for you:

  • Google XML Sitemaps: Rated as one of the top WordPress plugins, this plugin creates sitemaps specifically aimed at crawlers from top search engines Google, Bing, Yahoo and Ask.com, and it also notifies each one every time you post new content on your site.

  • Google Sitemap by BestWebSoft: This plugin automatically generates a sitemap for your WordPress site and connects with your Google Webmaster Tools account.

Email Marketing Plugins

As mentioned previously, email marketing isn’t an obvious focus for an SEO strategy as, say, keyword research and a well-structured layout, but it will help get more eyeballs on your site, which should help boost search engine rankings. Here are some plugins to help make it easy to engage your audience:

  • MailChimp for WordPress: This plugin requires that you already have an account with MailChimp, a marketing automation and email marketing platform. It brings MailChimp functionalities to your WordPress backend so that you can easily add elements like sign-up forms and subscribe buttons to your site.

  • Email Subscribers & Newsletters: A newsletter plugin that allows users to add subscription boxes to WordPress sites, send updates, and schedule newsletters to subscribers.

SEO Plugins

Instead of installing a whole host of individual plugins, why not focus on one that will do it all for you? While a dedicated SEO plugin will never cover all of your SEO needs, they certainly come close. Here are our top recommendations:

  • All in One SEO Pack: Over a decade old and with 50 million downloads, All in One SEO is definitely a WordPress plugin you can trust. Key features include XML sitemap support, automatic meta tag generation, and title optimization for search engines. It comes in a free and premium version and has been translated into 57 languages.

  • Yoast SEO: When it comes to SEO plugins, the Yoast WordPress SEO plugin is the most ubiquitous, and it’s not hard to see why. Coming in a free and premium version, the Yoast plugin covers the most important aspects of SEO, from site content to structure. Key elements include content and SEO analysis, full control over your site’s breadcrumbs, internal linking features, a page analysis tool, and advanced XML sitemap creation. Yoast can analyze any page on your site and inform you of its readability, the effectiveness of its meta description, keyword density, and many other ways it can be improved. Yoast makes recommendations so that you can focus on producing great content rather than getting bogged down in the analysis.

While extensive plugins targeted specifically at SEO can certainly improve your site’s ranking, you can’t just install Yoast and expect your site to be number one in SERP rankings. As you’ve probably come to realize, there is still a lot of work that goes into optimizing your WordPress site for SEO. But having a dedicated plugin will certainly complement your SEO strategy.

Conclusion

If you’re launching a WordPress website or blog and want it to be SEO ready, following the tips outlined in this article will give you a headstart and a solid foundation for making future content findable across major search engines. While there is a lot you can do yourself with research and the right tools, having an SEO expert to hand, whether on staff or a freelancer, is never a bad idea.


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