The Complete Guide to WordPress SEO

December 14, 2016

You’ve embarked on the adventure of successfully creating and publishing your new website using WordPress, the world’s most popular web publishing platform. Congratulations! Now it’s time to polish it up and improve your site’s ranking in search engines.

The idea of optimizing your WordPress for SEO is often viewed as an overwhelming and somewhat intimidating process for new WordPress users, but don’t worry, Planet WP has got you covered. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover the WordPress SEO best practices to optimize your site and improve your site’s ranking.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION TO WORDPRESS SEO
BASICS OF WORDPRESS SEO
OPTIMIZING YOUR CONTENT
WORDPRESS SEO BEST PRACTICES

Introduction WordPress SEO

Right out of the box, WordPress is relatively SEO-friendly, meaning it does a good job of allowing each page to be indexed and generates code in a format that follows the general underlying SEO best-practices.

WordPress only handles SEO well, but not great; as such, there is still significant opportunity to further improve your website’s SEO. Fortunately, maximizing your SEO efforts will go a long way.

Follow this guide and implement the best practices we suggest and you’ll be well on your way to generating the organic traffic your website deserves.

It’s worth nothing in this introduction that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for SEO; moreover, it is best to view your SEO efforts as training for a marathon rather than a sprint. This means that SEO should be engrained in all aspects of your website activities – at all times.

Thankfully, all of this can easily be done with the WordPress platform. In addition, SEO plugin solutions can help ease the pain and quickly help you get your site where you want it to be. You won’t drastically improve your site’s ranking overnight; however, be persistent and before long you will reap the benefits of a fully-optimized website.The

What is SEO and Why is it important?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. When we refer to optimizing your site for SEO, we are referring to the strategy used to optimize your website’s code and format, making it easier for search engines to locate the relative content on your site.

By having an SEO-optimized website, your website will likely rank higher in search engines, resulting in an increase in organic traffic and site recognition.

There are many reasons why SEO is important. Despite the naysayers, search engines are still the biggest source of traffic for most websites.

As such, websites compete for higher ranking and placement in search engines. Those with the SEO-know-how and ability to optimize their website will reap the benefits associated with increased visibility.

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Basics of SEO – Crawling & Indexing

To fully understand the basics of SEO, it’s best we begin by first addressing how search engines operate. This consists of two primary functions: 1) crawling and indexing and 2) providing the searcher with an answer to their query.

Before a search engine can respond to a query with suggestions of where content is located, the website and its content must first be found.

To locate relevant content on over a hundred trillion web pages, a search engine deploys search engine spiders, also referred to as bots or crawlers, to find relevant information and build lists of words found on each site – a process known as web crawling.

Crawling is where it all begins and for that matter, it never ends. Automatic bots quickly and frequently scan sites and compile a list of everything presented on the site, including page titles, headers, keywords, images, linked pages, and much more.

After a website has been crawled, it is then indexed. Essentially, the Internet is like an ever-growing library with billions of books and no organized filing system.

Search engine spiders crawl through mass amounts of content and index pages based on their information and location. As a result, upon a search inquiry the search engine is then able to return the most useful and relevant results to the user.

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WordPress Visibility Settings

Now that you have a general understanding of how search engines work, you’re ready to start optimizing your WordPress site. The first step is to ensure that your content is visible to search engines so they can index your site.

Wait… why wouldn’t your site be visible to search engines? WordPress comes with the option to hide your website from search engine spiders (and their ability to index your website) in the case that you want to make changes to your site before releasing it to the public.

Log into the admin area of your WordPress site and navigate to Settings > Reading from the left-side navigation menu. Scroll down to the last option entitled “Search Engine Visibility” and ensure that box next to “Discourage search engines from indexing this site” is unchecked. If unchecked, your site will be visible to search engines, which is definitely what you want.

Just because your site is visible doesn’t mean it will rank high in search engines. Search engines use complex algorithms when scanning, indexing, and evaluating relevant content on websites.

This is where SEO optimization comes into play; that is, taking control of what is visible to search engine spiders by making strategic changes to your website’s code and format.

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WordPress SEO Plugins

Plugins are software solutions that extend the functionality of your WordPress site. There are many SEO plugins to choose from; with that said, you’ll definitely want to select one that offers a complete SEO solution for your WordPress site. At Planet WP, we prefer the Yoast SEO plugin.

In this guide, we’ll be using Yoast SEO merely for example references and illustrative purposes. Again, the purpose of this guide is to provide you with a general overview of SEO best-practices to ensure you’re off on the right foot to fully optimizing your WordPress site. Nevertheless, the Yoast SEO plugin may help simplify many of the tasks associated with SEO.

If you’re brand new to WordPress, check out our Installing Plugins video tutorial for detailed instructions on installing and activating plugins.

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Set a Preferred Domain

Search engines don’t have a preference whether your preferred domain is set to www.yoursite.com or yoursite.com. However, it is important that you decide on a preferred domain and stick to it; subsequently, you can set it up to match in the Google Search Console.

For example, at Planet WP you chose to do away with “www.” and set it up accordingly in the Search Console. By default, even if you were to type in “https://www.planetwp.com” you will still be taken “https://planetwp.com”.

Although the domain takes the visitor to the same location, search engines recognize these as two completely different sites. You can select which preferred domain from within WordPress by going to the Settings > General screen from the left-side navigation menu. Under the WordPress Address (URL) and Site Address (URL) fields, type in how you would like to have your domain listed.

Next, you’ll want to make sure your preferred domain set correctly in the Google Search Console. When logged into the console, you can check this setting under Site Settings > Preferred domain. We’ll provide with step-by-step instructions on how to set up a Google Search Console later in this guide.

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XML Sitemaps

The XML Sitemaps protocol is a formatted file that lists all of the URLs for your website. XML Sitemaps are used to inform search engines about all the pages on your website; as a result, this allows search engines to crawl your website more intelligently.

If you’re using the Yoast SEO plugin, setting up XML sitemaps consists of simply enabling it in the XML Sitemaps Module. Simply navigate to Settings > XML Sitemaps and ensure that the toggle button under XML sitemap functionality is set to ‘Enabled’.

Enabling sitemaps allows search engines the ability to quickly and easily find new content since every time you publish a new page or post the new sitemap will automatically be submitted to Google or Bing.

To better understand sitemaps, after enabling them, you can check out what your sitemap looks like by going to:

http://yoursite.com/sitemap_index.xml

(replace yoursite.com with your own domain)

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Sign up for a Google Analytics Account

As a website owner, it’s important that you understand how and why your website is performing the way it is by analyzing certain metrics, such as how many people are visiting your site, what drove them there, and how they’re interacting with published content.

The great thing about WordPress is that you don’t have to be an SEO professional or marketing managers to analyze performance metrics. Whether you’re a small business owner or have a personal blog, you too can monitor your website’s performance directly from your administration Dashboard. Simply sign up for a Google Analytics account and install Google Analytics in WordPress. Best of all, it’s completely free!

With Google Analytics, you’ll be able to make educated decisions about the future direction of your website. For example, you may find that certain content is bringing in more traffic than you imagined, thus providing you with valuable insight into what type of content to create next.

Creating an account and installing Google Analytics on WordPress is easy. For detailed instructions, check out How to Install Google Analytics on Your WordPress Site.

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Create a Google Search Console Account

Next, you’ll need to set up an account with the Google Search Console, formerly WebMaster Tools. By having an account and registering your site, Google will show you the data they’ve aggregated, such as search terms for your site, how it ranks, and the amount of traffic generated by user’s clicking on your website’s listing.

This information is inherently valuable for evaluating and improving your website’s SEO. With the Search Console, you can ensure that Google locates your website and shows it for the correct search queries.

The Search Console also display errors that Google found when crawling the site, giving you the opportunity to correct them so that all of your pages appear in the search results. You can even set it up so that Google notifies you by email each time it identifies important issues with your site.

Once you become familiar with the various webmaster tools, the opportunities are endless. For example, after creating a new blog post or page, you can identify what search terms led people to your website’s listing and utilize that information to focus more on results that ultimately increase traffic to your website.

Adding your website to the Google Search Console is fairly straightforward. For detailed instructions, check out step-by-step instruction in How to Add your WordPress Site to the Google Search Console.

If you’re using the Yoast SEO plugin, there is a section that allows you to connect your site directly to the Google Search Console and add/verify your site from within WordPress.

Click on SEO from the left side navigation menu and select Search Console. You can authenticate your Google Search Console account by clicking the “Get Google Authorization Code” button. Enter your authorization code and press the “Authenticate” button.

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Permalink Structure

The next step is to create SEO-friendly URLs by changing the default permalink structure. Permalinks are permanent URLs to individual posts and pages, or categories and tags, on your WordPress site.

By default, WordPress assigns a permalink using the query string format that includes a question mark and a unique ID number. These are commonly referred to as ugly permalinks. Not only are ugly permalinks unrecognizable to your viewers, they are also useless for search engine spiders.

As you might have guessed, a pretty permalink is the ugly permalinks counterpart and used to describe a URL that is constructed in a way that makes sense to those who view them. Rather than having incomprehensible parameters for your permalinks, you can easily create well-structured, readable, user-friendly, and most importantly, SEO-friendly URLs simply by changing the default permalink structure from within the Settings > Permalinks settings screen.

To being, navigate to the Settings > Permalinks screen from the left-side navigation menu.

To create a custom structure, you can enter the structure tag or a combination of structure tags. There are a total of 10 structure tags to choose from, including the:

  • year [%year%],
  • month [%monthnum%],
  • day [%day%],
  • hour [%hour%], minute [%minute%], and second [%second%],
  • post id [%post_id%],
  • post name [%post_name%]
  • category [%category%], and
  • author [%author%].

Regardless of your structure tag selection or combination thereof, always make sure that you end your custom structure with the %post_id% or %postname% structure tag to ensure that your permalinks point to an individual post. For simplicity and SEO-purposes, we recommend that you select the ‘Post name’ option.

For an in-depth overview of permalinks, check out our Understanding Permalinks video tutorial.

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Optimizing your Website’s Content

Now that you’ve set up the framework for your website’s SEO, it’s now time to start optimizing your website’s content. Installing an SEO plugin alone won’t do you much good, but it will help you identify the parts of your website that you should focus on when optimizing your website.

Throughout this section, we’ll discuss the important factors that impact your site’s ranking in search results, explained how and why the are important, and show you how to maximize your content to make your website SEO-friendly.

Title Tags and Meta Descriptions

Essentially, title tags are just what you expected in that they define the title of a page. The title tag is intended to be a relevant, accurate, and concise description of the content included with the page or post, which is why it is so important for user experience and search engine optimization.

In fact, title tags have long been considered the most important on-site factor for SEO. In simple terms, the title tag tells the search engine what the page or post is about.

Title tags are also used on search engine results pages (SERPs) in the 512-pixel display that provides the user with a preview snippet of the page and also appears in the browser and external websites (including social media sites) as its linked anchor text.

The second important part of a SERP is the meta-description, which is the 160 character description listed under the title in the search result field. The description itself doesn’t have a huge impact on your ranking, but it is especially important in increasing user click through rates from search engine results.

Meta descriptions provide you with the ability to write a compelling description that attracts the user to click your site’s link. It’s important that you employ keywords effectively and create a description that is relevant and unique.

If you’re using Yoast SEO for WordPress, you have full control over how your title tags and meta descriptions are displayed. Best of all, you can view a snippet preview within each page and post. By clicking the ‘Edit snippet’ button, you can edit the slug and customize your meta descriptions.

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Heading Tags

Just as the name implies, heading tags are the tags assigned to your headings and consist of <h1>, <h2>, <h3>, and so forth. Heading tags have a top-down hierarchy, with the most important tag being the <h1> heading tag followed by the subsequent subheading tags, namely <h2> through <h6>.

Ideally, you should always at least have one (and only one) <h1> tag. This should be the title of your page, post, category, or tag. In addition, the <h1> heading tag should always be a basic description of the content and include the most relevant keywords that represent your content.

For SEO purposes you should always follow the top-down ordered structure as search engines frown upon broken heading structures. For example, having a <h1> tag followed by a <h3> tag is not ideal for on-page SEO.

Heading tags have a big impact on SEO and usability of your site. Search engines are able to establish relevancy by comparing the header tag to the page content alongside check consistency between the header and other parts of the page.

Creating heading tags is very easy within WordPress. When editing a page or post in the WordPress Visual Editor, simply select the text and click on the Paragraph drop-down menu; from there, you can select which header tag you want to assign to the highlighted text.

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Content is King

A big challenge that website owners, bloggers, and content marketers struggle with is writing compelling content that is optimized for search engines while still appealing to viewers. Just as there is a science to copywriting, there is also a science to optimizing content for SEO. We refer to this as SEO copywriting. SEO copywriting is the art of creating relevant, useful, and compelling content that appeals to the viewer and adds value to your site. Of the various elements that consist of SEO copywriting, the content itself is the most vital part.

To master the art of SEO, you must frequently post fresh and relevant content. Search engine spiders feed on fresh content and relevant keywords.

Those search spiders are hungry, so the more content the better. Longer articles full of rich content will outrank shorter articles any day. If your article is longer then you likely went into great detail on the subject and were able to answer the viewer’s original search query.

To put this in perspective, 500 words simply isn’t enough; you should shoot for around a minimum of 2,000 words since the average word count of top ranked searches is 2,416 words.

Short articles, less than 200 words, or pages that are full of links or obvious SEO writing will be flagged by Google as “thin” content. Google now punishes websites that have thin content, so it is imperative that you put in the extra work required to make your articles the appropriate length. As a rule thumb, only publish articles that are equal or greater than 500 words.

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Image Optimization

Let’s face it, images are central to web content. Attractive graphics enhance your website by giving it a visual punch and serve as the stimuli for a call to action.

Yet surprisingly, your visitors aren’t the only ones that look favorably at content that includes images; so do search engines. Effective use of images can provide SEO benefits and be a big contributor to your site’s ranking.

Yet for some reason, one of the most common overlooked parts of WordPress SEO is image optimization. Search engines understand that images add quality to the content being displayed and therefore reward you with better rankings. Better yet, adding the right types of markers to images, such as writing good alt tags, title tags, and captions alongside proper placement and positioning of your images can earn you even more SEO brownie points.

On the flip side, mismanagement of your images can negatively impact your SEO efforts. Let’s not forget that images take up a significant portion of bandwidth used by modern websites and eat up server space, likely resulting in increased page load times. Nevertheless, that’s where SEO optimization comes into place. Ensuring that images are the correct dimensions and compression your images using the appropriate format can contribute to speedy loading times. In addition, setting up a Content Delivery Network (CDN) with WordPress will reduce your load time and increase overall website performance.

We cover all of this in our Complete Guide to Optimizing Images in WordPress.

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WordPress SEO Best Practices

Optimizing your content is always the first step; however, improving your search ranking has many moving parts. As a website owner, there are additional best practices that you can implement to optimize your site as a whole and increase your search ranking. Below is a list of best practices that will not only improve your SEO score but also increase the performance and usability of your WordPress site.

Get More Link Juice

In the SEO realm, “Link Juice” refers to the amount of positive ranking factors passed to a site via links from internal or external sources. Every great website that has a high PageRank has a lot of link juice evenly spread throughout their site, with a good number of links from credible sites pointing its way.

Interlink Pages and Posts

One must-do strategy to spreading your link juice is to create an SEO-friendly site architecture using internal links. For example, you want to create a site structure that has a minimum amount of links (preferably no more than three) possible between the home page and any given page. Not only does this allow search spiders the ability to crawl through your pages, it also allows link juice to flow throughout the site, thus increasing each page or post’s potential rank.

Web publishers often make the mistake of only concentrating link juice on certain parts of your site, for example just on the home page, with little to no link juice dripping into those deeply nested pages. By effectively interlinking your pages and posts you can obtain deeper links, which is what Google wants to see. To learn more, check out our expert advice on Controlling Internal Link Juice.

Use NoFollow Tag for External Links

Link Juice doesn’t just flow within your site but also flows through external sites. A general rule of thumb is to always ensure that you are getting more link juice from external websites than you are shelling out. It’s equally important that you preserve your link juice by not passing it on to others.

The simplest way to do this is to add the rel=”nofollow” tag to external links. This nofollow attribute instructs the search engine spiders not to follow the links, thus preserving your link juice.

A normal external link looks like this in HTML:
<a href=”http://yoursite.com”>Your Site</a>

An external link with the nofollow attribute looks like this:
<a href=”http://example.com” rel=”nofollow”>Example Website</a>

If you’re new to WordPress and/or unfamiliar with code, simply install the Title and NoFollow Links plugin. This plugin incorporates the option to add rel=”nofollow” to external links from within WordPress through “Insert Link” button found in the Post Editor. As such, every time you create a new link you’ll be provided the option in the insert link popup to apply the “nofollow” attribute. Gotta love them WordPress plugins!

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Aim for Speed

The faster your website loads the better. Research shows that faster load times result in higher ranking and conversion. Website users place a lot of value in speed; as such, so do search engines — which is why Google takes into account how fast your site loads as part of its algorithm to rank pages.

One predominant way of speeding up your site is to leverage browser caching to your advantage. We encourage installing a caching plugin, for example, W3 Total Cache, to help increase your site’s performance and reduce download times.

Web browsers cache a lot of information, meaning they store parts of your site so when visitors return to your site they don’t have to wait for the browser to reload the entire page.

The W3 Total Cache plugin does more than just cache information, it also minifies and compresses your site’s code resulting in bandwidth savings, improved web server performance, and much more. If fully (and properly) configured, the plugin boasts a potential 10 times improvement in overall site performance, which surely helps with site rankings, not to mention user experience.

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ENSURE YOUR SITE IS SAFE AND SECURE

The security of your WordPress site should always be a top priority. As a website owner, it is your responsibility to protect your customers and their information.

To no surprise, search engines also have the responsibility of protecting their customers. For this reason, if your site is hacked it will experience a huge drop in search engine ranking. In addition, if Google detects malware, phishing, or other suspicious activity, they will blacklist your site and warn potential visitors that your website has been compromised. One can only imagine the immediate impact this has on traffic and your site’s reputation.

Securing your WordPress site isn’t as difficult as it is often perceived. For detailed instructions on implementing security strategies, check out our in-depth guide to Securing Your WordPress Website.

Make the Switch to HTTPS… Now!

HTTP, which stands for HyperText Transfer Protocol, is the protocol over which data is transferred between the client’s browser and the website they are connected to. We’re all familiar with the term HTTP; after all, every web address starts with it.

Since the dawn of the Internet, HTTP has done its job; unfortunately, it’s about as secure as a diamond at a cat burglar’s convention. Data transmitted over an HTTP connection is dangerous and vulnerable to being intercepted by third parties, especially on public wireless networks or compromised routers.

HTTPS is the secure counterpart to HTTP – it literally stands for HTTP Secure. HTTPS uses the SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) protocol to encrypt communications and ensure that data travels securely between the client and the server.

In 2014, Google announced they would begin using HTTPS as a ranking signal when displaying search results; meaning those sites using HTTPS encryption are rewarded with an SEO boost. Shortly thereafter, Google took internet safety to a new level and began punishing a site’s search ranking that is still using the HTTP protocol.

Now, nearly two years later, Google just announced that effective January 2017 Chrome internet browser will display a security warning message on all HTTP sites that deal with passwords.

If you’re still running a website on HTTP, it’s time to make the switch to HTTPS. This isn’t an easy task, but your friends at Planet WP will take care of the entire process for a marginal fee. Ready to switch… contact us.

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Additional WordPress Resources

The world of SEO is quite complex; however, implementing the SEO tips and tricks outlined in this guide will naturally push your website up the rank and help generate the organic traffic that your WordPress site deserves. While even some of the subtle changes to your website can make a big difference, no single SEO factor will guarantee search engine ranking. However, SEO factors working in combination is what leads to fully optimized WordPress site.

If you’re ready to take your SEO skills to the next level, check out our Definitive Guide to WordPress SEO video training series.

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11 Comments on "The Complete Guide to WordPress SEO"

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Jere Cassidy
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Thank you, Thank you for this post on SEO. Even though I have been blogging for a while I still have not mastered this.

chanakya niti
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Thanks for this great post

Alissa
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This was such a helpful post!!

Vaishnavi
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Amazing read on wordpress SEO. Sound tips and advice for beginners and awesome reminders for any wordpress website owner. Love this!

Sauumye
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SEO is really important. I personally love Yoast SEO & Google Analytics

A.Antovska
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Thank for this informative post! I bookmarked to check it again. I am not sure that understand all about SEO.

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