How to apply search engine optimisation to WordPress is a question almost all WP site owners ask – eventually. The options are many and varied and picking the right options makes a huge difference to SERPs (search engine results pages) outcomes.
So, what’s important in WordPress SEO? As a preface to the following paragraphs, I’ve been a WordPress fan since version 1.5 and have 17 years of experience in the installation of WordPress, themes and plugins. In particular, WordPress SEO services are my speciality, along with website development for clients the world over.
As a specialist WordPress SEO consultant, I can tell you that the default installation of WordPress does not lend itself well to good search engine rankings. That is because many of the essentials are not included in the core code. That’s only a minor problem, as a plethora of good SEO plugin extensions exist. The biggest problem is sorting through the misinformation, conflicting opinions and various offerings to arrive at a solid SEO platform. I have 10 WordPress SEO Tips that may also help you.
The Multi-Tool Approach
Here’s how I see it… There are some design themes and plugins that offer a multiplicity of tools and features, but this can sometimes make them a “jack of all trades and master of none” candidate. For the unsophisticated user, with no driving imperative to attain consistent Top 10 rankings, it may matter little…
My preference is to use a selection of the best plugins, rather than a multi-tool option because I want total manual control of as many contributing elements as is possible. To achieve my client’s objectives in a competitive niche, I usually need to extract every possible bit of traction out of every single page…
Built-In WP SEO Tools
WordPress does have some core functionality that could be classed as SEO-specific, or at least related… Among those are;
WordPress Permalinks (SEF URLs) allow the post and page file names to be output in a variety of ways depending on your needs. Most website owners people don’t understand the available options. From my perspective the only two that matters are Post Name (new since WP3.x) and Custom.
I tend to use Post Name, and not the Post Category to the URL, as per the illustration above. This ensures the post is at the top level of the site. If you add the Category Name, you do gain some keyword traction in the URL, but you push the post lower in the hierarchy. That’s never a great thing.
NB: If you have an existing site that is well-indexed and enjoys good rankings, you need to be very careful about playing with Permalinks. Take note of the existing structure, and test any change you make to see if the old file names are correctly rerouted to the new file names…
For example, you were using the “Default” setting http://www.mysite.com/?p=12 format and you switched to Post Name. You check that when you try and access the old URL for a given page, it redirects to the NEW page name. If not, you may need to add a 301 Permanent Redirection (for every page indexed by Google et al) into the .htaccess file – which is where the Permalinks mod_rewrite code is placed.
If you don’t handle this correctly, you will jeopardise your existing search engine rankings. Here’s a link to further reading on WordPress SEO best practices.
Often overlooked, the navigation structure is incredibly important to;
- overall site indexing
- ease of use of the website
- emphasizing the importance of primary pages
- providing keyword Anchor Text that tells SEs what the linked-to page is about
- transferring Page Rank internally via cross-linking
A good menu navigation system has some key components; it is independent of page names & headings, includes hyperlink titles, and where possible makes all pages accessible within 1 click of the Home page, and from any internal page. Effective cross-linking means visitors should not have to step backwards a level to get to another page or sub-menu level. Obviously, an extremely large website with multiple application components (WordPress CMS + forum + directory etc) can make that goal too difficult to achieve.
The WordPress “Menu” structures are a thing of beauty and a joy to behold, and few other CMS can match the sophistication or simplicity of implementing them. The WP menus can provide significant additional SEO traction when employed correctly.
Where a drop-down menu item has many pages, consider building a specific sub-category menu in order to display a “sibling” page menu in the sidebar. That helps viewers quickly step from page to page within a defined subsection.
The ability to have a Page Heading that fits the available space without necessarily dictating the Page URL is good The on-page Page Title as a separate element to the SEO Title is good. These set WordPress head and shoulders above competing CMS platforms.
You may now use a verbose Heading that would have previously ruined your Menu layout, and then edit the Menu item manually so it still fits within the top-level or drop-down menu constraints.
Page Slug / URL
The inbuilt Page Slug option has always existed, but few people use it to full advantage.
By default, it is generated by the Page Heading / Name, but you can and sometimes should amend it to include the specific keyword search phrase that is being targeted on the page.
Does your WordPress design theme support WP3.x menus? If not, its about past its use-by date in my opinion, because there’s so much more mileage to be extracted from the excellent navigation structure embedded in WP3.x.
Does your design theme include SEO bells and whistles, but lacks either;
- a structured update system for the theme that preserves your settings
- the ability to turn off the SEO elements so you can use a preferred/dedicated SEO plugin
As a freelance WordPress web designer, there are themes I regularly use. Those published under the Genesis platform were truly excellent in this respect. I also used WP Jumpstart theme platform for custom designs, before it fell by the wayside with the advent of the Gutenberg page editor. The core theme code in your chosen platform should be updated independently of the child themes. Updates can be handled by the WordPress core, plugin and theme system settings that notify you the moment a new version is available.
The ability to manually control the Titles and Descriptions is very important in the overall scheme of things. One of the best-known WP SEO tools is the All In One SEO Pack. There are a number of derivatives, copies and emulations that do more or less than the original AIO SEO Pack…
However, the default install on all my sites now is the Yoast SEO plugin because it has more features.
On a first install on an existing WP CMS or Blog, there is a bit of configuration required before the output gives Google relevant content to work with without content duplication. After that, you need to find the time to go through pages and posts to manually write compelling and helpful text content for these elements.
By default, the page title is generated by the page heading plus the Site Name if you do nothing… The AIS SEO default setting is Post Title Format: %post_title% | %blog_title%
However, its sub-optimal because the Page Heading is normally a little cryptic and constrained by space or aesthetics. Use the SEO Pack’s “Page Title Format” to its full potential as it’s one of the single most important SEO elements in any website.
I often REMOVE the | %blog_title% from the AIO SEO settings, and manually write all Titles for primary pages and posts.
The Title is usually constrained to 60 characters. Whilst you can add more, Google will only show 60-ish characters including spaces! Therefore, it’s important that the stuff you actually want people to see is at the beginning! That means making sure any generic “tagline” is short and at the END of the Title.
Similarly, Yoast SEO does not necessarily produce the ideal “out of the box” output…
Page Description Meta-Tag
The page description meta-tag is usually generated from the first paragraph of text on the page. Google will also “adlib” a description if you put nothing in the box… Neither outcome is optimal, given that what you want is an accurate description of the page content that impels a reader to click your link in the SERPs…
The Title is usually constrained to 150-ish characters. Whilst you can add more, Google only shows 156 characters including spaces. So again it’s essential that the stuff you actually want people to see is at the beginning! Inserting your targeted keyword search phrase at the beginning of the Description is the usual approach, to make it obvious to a reader that the page/post is indeed about what they were searching for.
The Keywords meta-tag is a complete waste of time. Its use is more likely to be seen as an “over-optimisation” indicator… Don’t do it…
Google XML Sitemaps
The major search engines agree on very little, but a historic consensus saw all SEs decide on support for the “sitemap.xml” format to aid in website indexing. By default, those major search engines all look in the robots.txt file for the link to your website’s sitemap. An oldie but a goodie, the stand-alone Google XML Sitemap plugin is still a good choice. However, if you decide to use Yoast SEO, that plugin has a built-in XML sitemap generator, so you get two a 2-for-1 deal there.
Many websites don’t have one of these crucial files, which instruct search engines where they should or should not go within your website. They are also the expected location for the path to your sitemap.xml in this line of text the bots and spiders look for;
Not having one generates 404 page not found errors, and basically shows all and sundry that it’s an unsophisticated and disorganised website…
Providing an HTML sitemap is a useful tool for a larger site, as it’s one way of giving people and search engines an overview of the site and a 2nd level access pathway. Some design themes generate a sitemap-style custom 404 Page Not Found error page. My HTML Sitemap plugin of choice is the Simple Sitemap.
Table Of Contents
If you have large pages with headings, the TOC Plugin can generate a Table of Contents on any page with headings AND generate a Sitemap page too…
Early last year marked a significant milestone in Google’s goal of rewarding the best content. One of the elements is “User Experience” and within that category is an acknowledgement of a site’s modernity. A key indicator of that is inclusion of Social Media content, or lack thereof. There are two ways to do that;
- FB Like and Google Plus +1 buttons that allow visitors to give you a vote of approval.
- Inclusion of links to your social media profiles; Facebook page, Linkedin, Twitter and YouTube accounts etc.
The three plugins I use most often are; FB Like, Google Plus Ones and Social Profiles Widget
How to SEO WordPress: Summary
The preceding is a brief introduction to what works with WordPress SEO and why it does so. That is only part of the story, of course… No matter what tools you have installed, if you lack a sound grasp of the Principles of Applied Search Engine Optimisation and experience in the practice thereof, progress will be modest without;
- Effective keyword search phrase research
- Allocating appropriate keyword phrases page by page
- Targeting keywords effectively within all possible elements
The Equally Crucial Off-Site SEO:
Approximately half of the weighting in Search Engine Rankings is actually Off-Site SEO! Search engines assess external verification of your site’s content by analysing the quantity and quality of inbound links to your website. The keywords in Anchor Text (link titles), in conjunction with On-Site SEO efforts, ultimately determine if and/or how well your site ranks for a specific keyword search phrase in the SERPs.
If you’d like some help with getting your WordPress website cranked up and generating more visitor traffic, feel free to contact me directly, using our Contact Form.
Page last updated on Thursday, October 12, 2023 by the author Ben Kemp