Essential Wordpress SEO Tips for Beginners & Advanced Webmasters
This is a guide I have put together covering the best WordPress SEO tips to help website owners and bloggers who don’t know how to optimize their sites or are making innocent yet problematic mistakes.
I can’t tell you how many websites, even established ones (not mentioning any names) that make some of the most glaringly obvious mistakes with their onsite SEO when using WordPress.
So let’s begin and look through all of the best practices for making your self-hosted Wordpress install SEO friendly.
Remove the Defaults
When you first install WordPress there are several defaults that are already set. Many webmasters even those with well-established sites are still making some of these mistakes so here’s what to remove.
Default Plugins — Depending on who you installed your WordPress website with (hosting company) you may have used an installer script that auto-installs several plugins that are of little use.
You can deactivate and leave them as they are if you are unsure, or delete them if you know what you are doing.
The “Hello World” plugin is a common example but specific hosts do install other plugins you may not need and may slow down your site if you keep them active.
Sample Page — This page is created by default when you install WordPress, many webmasters forget to delete it and since this page contains the same content as thousands if not hundreds of thousands of different websites on the internet, it’s probably not a good idea to keep it as a page Google can index.
I often check large websites sitemaps and find this still exists but these days I am not surprised anymore. So go to pages and delete the sample page as soon as you install WordPress, then it’s out of the way.
Hello World ‘Post’ — Similarly to the Sample page and while this is often something people do tend to remove it is still worth mentioning. For beginners the Hello World post that exists under ‘Posts’ when you first install WP.
I think it’s best to delete it and create a new post, or at the very least edit your permalink to represent your post title. Don’t even think of trying to rank for “hello world”.
Permalinks — This may or may not affect you but many WordPress installs set the permalink defaults to use the date structure, this means your posts have /YYYY/MM/ in the URL but this is only really useful for bloggers and even then only for those keeping a journal where the date really matters.
It’s far more SEO friendly if your post URL sits on the root domain 1 level up like this example yourdomain.com/your-post.
Go to Settings > Permalinks and select the “Post name” option and hit save changes.
Stop Abusing Tags (It’s still happening)
Now, this is one of my biggest pet hates. As a web designer I do a fair amount of rebuilds where I take a WordPress website a client already has, assess it, decide it needs a rebuild (95% of the time) and then I discover under Posts > Tags that they have hundreds of post tags many of which contain between 0–1 posts.
The problem here is two-fold.
Firstly, the purpose of a tag is pretty much the same as a category, they are for taxonomizing your content, that means organizing it into relevant groups and the end goal is to make it more user-friendly for your visitors to browse content from a specific topic.
So if you have tags with 0 posts or even 1–3 articles then these tags are redundant and not offering any benefit to your visitors.
Secondly, in the eyes of Google and other search engines, these would be considered very thin pages with weak content, even if you added a tag description and introduction but my guess is anyone abusing tags this way aren’t adding static content atop these archives anyway.
If you have 10 amazing pages and then 100 weak tag pages, guess what?
Your site quality is massively diluted. Approach it with a less-is-more philosophy when it comes to the number of posts or pages and focus instead on using tags only when absolutely necessary.
On this website I don’t even use post tags at all, none, zilch, nada! Using the categories feature is enough for my needs and even then the entire number of categories is a not so colossal ten.
WordPress SEO Plugins
So let’s talk about WordPress plugins that are useful for SEO. I spoke with an author of a magazine recently who asked for a list of all of the best SEO plugins, to which I replied, there really aren’t all that many ‘plugins’ to worry about, and ideally using fewer plugins means your WordPress website is more likely to load quickly which is good thing for SEO since Google likely devalues websites with horrific load times and the fact most visitors are impatient and may bounce.
There are however a couple of plugins that impact on-site SEO that I always install and both of them are free.
WordPress SEO Plugin — Yoast SEO
The granddaddy of WordPress SEO, formerly Yoast SEO, now known as The WordPress SEO Plugin this tool really sets the benchmark in the WordPress SEO world and as such deserves the appropriate name.
What does this WordPress Swiss Army Knife do?
- Gives you control over all metadata
- Post & page Onsite SEO analysis and ‘Focus Keyword’ analysis.
- Adds sitemap functionality
- Allows you to control indexing in groups or on a property by property basis
- Breadcrumbs functionality
- Custom Permalink controls
- Adds markup Schema for various SEO benefits. Includes social features, reviews, and content types.
- Track 404 Errors via Google Search Console (some features limited for free users)
- Access to edit robots.txt and .htaccess (for experienced users)
- Automatically canonicalizes URLs.
I highly recommend using WordPress SEO plugin and not All in One SEO plugin. I also recommend you don’t add any additional XML plugin like Google XML Sitemaps since this is already baked into WP SEO.
After you have installed the plugin, here are the settings I pretty much always change or adjust.
Having an XML formatted sitemap is an essential for any website. This is like giving Google the blueprint to your house, once you provide a sitemap of your content to Google Search Console / Webmaster Tools you are making it much easier for them to find their way around the content and see the relationships between your various pages and posts.
You can turn this option on using the WP SEO plugin by going to SEO and then XML sitemaps in your WordPress dashboard. After that, you will want to customize the sitemap to ensure it only includes the content you want it to.
But don’t I want all of my pages indexed?
Yes, in most cases, but there are plugins and themes that introduce custom post types that are meant for back end purposes but can be picked up by Yoast and automatically indexed. As such you want to make sure you check the sitemap section in WordPress SEO and uncheck any of these instances. You can also do the same for custom taxonomies if you have some of these in existence. Having every individual testimonial indexed as it’s own page is not a good idea, but can happen when a testimonial plugin uses a custom post type to function.
Titles & Metas (Noindexing)
When you browse to the Titles & Metas section of WordPress SEO you will find a tabbed page that allows you to control a few aspects of each content type and taxonomy available in your WP install.
Here we want to look to see if there’s any surplus post types or taxonomies worth noindexing.
On most installs, I will noindex tags, even though I seldom use them, but will keep them indexed if they are in use. There’s also a format taxonomy type that not many webmasters seem to use that you might also want to noindex.
Under “Post Types” I will usually noindex the Media / Attachments post type since I don’t feel it offers anything to the website and dilutes the quality of the site.
Since I also like to use Beaver Builder for the majority of my websites, this plugin introduces some post types and taxonomies that I definitely don’t want to have indexed such as “Templates” and if you run a one author blog there’s little point having your author archive indexed.
On the “Other” tab, I no index “Subpages of Archives” which is the /page/2 and page/3 of your blog index page and can lead to a lot of unnecessary pages being added to the index.
One last thing I remove is the data archives as these seldom offer any benefit to me but this isn’t something everyone would want to noindex if these pages are popular with your readers and you have been using this functionality for some time.
That covers it for the essential changes I make after installing the WP SEO plugin, the next step is to look at how you can use this plugin on an ongoing basis.
Content & Keyword Analysis
The feature most people are aware of and use with WordPress SEO is the content analysis tool that is available on any edit post or edit page screen.
This tool does several things but you can group them into two groups.
Onsite SEO Essentials — This analysis tool scans your content and other settings of the page as you fill them in and refreshes to show you what you are doing well and what you still need to look at doing based on a list of essential criteria that includes.
- The length of the content and reporting if it’s long enough or not.
- Does the post have internal links and at least one external link?
- Have you added a meta title and description
- Is the featured image large enough for other online services to care to include it in their indexing
- Do you have an image in the post and does it have an alt tag? More on this further down in our “content structure and HTML” section.
- If your post title length is good
- If your post permalink length is good
- If your permalink contains stop words like “and, the, or”
It also gives you lots of other pieces of information which change and evolve over time that helps you refine the quality of your article. For this reason there’s an advantage to writing articles directly into WordPress rather than using a document editor like Word.
The second set of content feedback it provides is relative to the focus keyword you specify in the analysis box. Simply add your keyword verbatim, trying not to use something that’s too longtail as it will see a low density but making sure to try it with a couple of keywords to get a sense for how you score for more than one search phrase. Focus keyword is the same as Primary keyword and as such should just focus on the main subject focus of your content.
These features include
- Are you mentioning your focus keyword enough and offers a % keyword density score
- Does your focus keyword appear in the essential locations? (Title, image alt tag, first paragraph of text, meta title, meta description etc)
- Are you linking your focus keyword as anchor text to another page or website? If so you should change the anchor text.
- Various other ever-evolving SEO checks and recommendations.
Here’s an example of how that analysis box might look.
Whether you run a WordPress website or use another content management system one area you will need to have full control of is redirects. Namely 301 redirects to point old dead pages to new ones, or to create short pretty links for sharing.
There are a few reasons you might need to use a 301 redirect
When an URL becomes redundant. Maybe you had a URL that ended with /best-guide-2017 and that is now outdated, you want to update it to 2018 but all of the traffic and backlinks are pointing to the old URL. So you use a 301 redirect and repair. Ideally, you might want to avoid making this mistake in the first place where possible and have a more holistic view.
If you do an audit and decide to remove 20 of your pages because they are no longer relevant, they are low quality or they just don’t offer anything to the site you may want to preserve some of the authority they have gained by either redirecting them to the most relevant page you are keeping or just to the homepage if you don’t have anything better.
You noticed an URL was indexed that shouldn’t have been. You might be doing a clean up with Yoast / WordPress SEO plugin and realize you don’t want to keep the author page indexed since you are the only author and it doesn’t bring anything to the site, so you remove it and 301 redirect the URL.
Best WordPress Themes
Another important aspect to consider when setting up your WordPress site is selecting a search engine friendly theme.
So what does a search engine friendly theme look like? Well it doesn’t look any particular way, but you want to find a theme that has the following attributes
Regularly Updated & Maintained
You want to check the last date the theme you want to use was updated, as a theme that was updated recently but not released recently has a better chance of having continued support and improvements to keep it secure and to ensure it benefits from new features added to WordPress core that could help you rank better in the future. It’s important to future proof your WordPress website and the most important step you can take in doing so is picking the right theme.
Okay so most people aren’t going to be able to whip up the code and work out if it’s high quality and designed for a fast loading experience but you can look for this when reading a websites sales pitch and feature list or when reading what others have to say in their reviews of a theme.
Recommendations & Reviews
You also want to shop around and look at reviews, reach out to other people you know who run WordPress websites and get their input, and look at websites of sites you like or are influenced by, look at their source code and press Ctrl + F and search for /themes and it will likely reveal the name of the theme they are using.
Which Theme is Best?
I’m not sure there is a best because some aspects are subjective and outweigh other features, it depends to some degree on your requirements.
The majority of the time I use the Genesis framework by Studiopress because it has a strong track record, it’s regularly updated, contains clean code, supports a child theme system, adds new features in tandem with WordPress and if course because it’s fast loading out of the box.
I do also like using BeaverBuilder plugin for easy control over page templates and designs, though that is more for productivity reasons than for SEO benefits.
Another important factor to consider is site speed, as I mentioned before keeping plugins to a minimum is essential at least if they do something on the front end and increase the loading time, however, there are a couple of plugins that can help you out.
Before we get into that, let’s talk about a few common mistakes I see people making that need to be discussed.
MASSIVE Images — Yes, at the top of the list the most common issue here is uploading images directly from an iPhone or Android with the notion they are low quality and may not even be good enough for the web.
Well, I’m here to tell you it’s 2018 and the typical photo size that a phone camera is capable of is about 5X the size of the typical screen width.
When that image is uploaded to WordPress (even if losslessly compressed) because of the sheer dimensions of such an image you end up with a 1–5mb image file.
That’s 1 to 5 megabytes and ideally, the maximum image size you want on a web page is around 100kb, that’s 100 kilobytes and 0.1 megabytes to put it into perspective for those that aren’t techy.
Some images I see on websites are 50X the file size they should be.
This makes your website very slow, makes Google dislike you and visitor bounce rates go through the roof.
Avoid causing a slow website by not resizing your images to a suitable size. The size exactly will depend on if you want it to span the full width of the web page or just the content width so you will have to check your own requirements and then react accordingly.
Typically though an image width of 1600px is more than enough to span the width of your website for most users while keeping the file size down.
VIDEO — I will keep this one short as there isn’t too much to say other than, don’t upload videos to WordPress and expect the playback to be good and for it to not kill your website speed. What you need is a video hosting service, something developed specifically for streaming video content at high speeds.
Fortunately, your best friends are YouTube and Vimeo, both of which are free for the majority of the available services and you can use these super fast video hosting services to your heart’s content.
Upload your video to YouTube, Vimeo or one of the other high-quality video platforms and then you will be able to copy the embed code or just the URL and then paste it into WordPress to display your video. Simple and while this doesn’t mean there’s zero impact on the speed it will be far less of a burden than self-hosting.
Unnecessary Plugins & Themes — When you are first experimenting with WordPress, and you are trying things out it’s tempting to use lots of plugins and keep switching themes, and there’s no harm in experimenting, in fact, I encourage it, I have spent years experimenting with this stuff and that’s why I’m here to save you the burden.
The problem is that I often log in to websites where the client has an issue and needs help only to find 3 or 4 plugins that all have the exact same purpose and as a result are adding unnecessary load on the website and also likely conflicting with one another.
If you play with a plugin and it’s not actually being used in the end, at least deactivate it, or consider deleting it.
Security tip — Inactive and unnecessary plugins still need to be updated, which quite frankly is a waste of time, if you don’t update them they may pose a security risk, so if you aren’t planning to use them again, take the additional step of deleting them.
WP Smush — This plugin allows you to losslessly compress image files as you upload them to WordPress or in batch if they are already in your media library.
This is definitely a plugin worth having installed. A popular alternative is the TinyPNG plugin, which despite the name also works on JPEG files too.
Hosting — I am a big proponent for using services like Bluehost, however, their services are more aimed at beginners and those with a very small business or someone looking to experiment with a new side hustle.
Unfortunately, the speeds are not always the best. For an established business, or a website that has already graduated past the incubation phase and is is a profitable online venture I would always advise finding the fastest hosting available.
My recommendation for the fastest WordPress hosting is WPEngine for a number of reasons.
- Extremely Fast
- Very easy to use
- An awesome staging server facility making it easy to make major changes without pushing them live
- Their support has always been excellent.
- They specialize in hosting WordPress websites so understand the ecosystem intimately (oo-er).
The only drawback is they don’t offer an email service, so you will either need to find an alternative such as Google Apps for Business or your domain registrars email services.
These services take the burden of loading all media files away from your server to their far superior content delivery network. This way your hosting just loads the absolutely essential files and database while the CDN delivers all of your media which leads to a much faster loading time.
Caching — There are various types of caching you can apply to a WordPress website however the approach you take will vary based on a couple of factors.
If you use a hosting company like WPEngine with high-end WordPress dedicated hosting then you will find they have a plugin blacklist, this is a list of plugins that either aren’t compatible, are known to be buggy or slow or caching plugins.
The reason for the latter is that WPEngine apply their own server-side caching so you don’t have to. Therefore if you host with a service provider like this you can likely skip this step but it’s worth contacting them to discuss and find out if there’s anything you can change or configure.
Depending on the theme or set of plugins you are using you might find one of the caching plugins works better for your setup. Popular options include WP Rocket, W3 Total Cache, and WP Super Cache.
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About the Author
David Alexander is a web designer and blogger and entrepreneur who has been making a living online for over a decade. David shares his experiences, trials and tribulations on Mazepress.
Originally published at Mazepress.com on February 2, 2018.