WordPress SEO, is it easy or hard? For many, being on the first page of Google may sound like wishful thinking, some will even tell you it can’t be done.
We’re here to tell you different. You can stand out in search engine results pages (SERPs) and we’re here to tell you how.
In this post, we’ll explain what Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is and how it works, simplify what’s involved in jump-starting your WordPress SEO, and then show you how to optimize your site content, hierarchy, images, speed, and more for better search rankings.
What Is SEO and How Does It Work?
SEO is the process of making a website more visible in search results in order to increase the quantity and quality of organic or free website traffic.
The first step in getting a complete understanding of this subject is to answer the question: How does Search Engine Optimization work?
Here’s the answer:
Google has a list (or index) of websites that it shows in search results. Because this list is ever-changing, it would be impossible for humans to manually maintain it. So, Google uses computer programs known as web crawlers to systematically browse the Internet and update the list.
These crawlers not only gather information – they organize it. This way, when you perform a search you can have millions of results in a split second.
According to Google, these crawlers pay special attention to new sites, changes to existing sites and dead links. What this means is that you don’t necessarily need to tell Google about your website in order to appear in search results.
Actually, most sites you see listed in results aren’t manually submitted for inclusion, instead, they’re automatically found and added by crawlers that are constantly searching (or crawling) the web.
But why should you care about this? It’s because keeping in mind how search engines collect data about your site can help you rank higher. That’s the first lesson here: search engines will reward or even give your site a demerit, automatically.
Getting Started With WordPress SEO
How is SEO in WordPress different from SEO on other platforms? For one thing, it’s easier to manage, as you’ll see here.
To start, you’ll want to inspect your website: performance, settings, all of it. Resolve as many issues as you can. Here’s a brief look at the most important things you should remember to check:
In this section we look only at a couple of settings because they have a direct bearing on your WordPress SEO. But it’s still a good idea to also run through your other settings such as your homepage, discussion settings etc.
Make sure that your site isn’t being hidden from search engines. In your WordPress dashboard, go to Settings > Reading. Scroll to the bottom, to where it reads Search Engine Visibility, make sure the box “Discourage search engines from indexing this site” is unchecked.
Permalink as you might be able to tell, the name is derived from the term ‘permanent link’. That said, it might not surprise you that permalink settings should almost never be changed on a live site. Making it important to think carefully about which option you’ll pick here.
Navigate to Settings > Permalinks to choose a permalink structure for your site.
There isn’t any single “best permalink structure” favored by search engines, rather you’ll want something that is logical, easy for you and your visitors to understand and matches your content.
A popular structure that is easy to understand and use to organize content is the Post name structure.
Once you’ve decided on a basic permalink structure, you’ll also have the option to set custom structures for your category and tag URLs on this same page under the heading Optional.
You might be anxious to jump straight into deleting stuff and optimizing assets, but not yet. First let’s get a feel for how your site is doing at the minute.
This will help you measure the success of your efforts later on.
There’s no easier, more reliable way to check website performance than using Google’s PageSpeed Insights.
Pro Tip: Before you begin making changes to your site, it’s usually a good idea to create a backup. And if you’re on a live site (with actual traffic from visitors), we recommend creating a staging site.
PageSpeed Insights usually won’t work on staging environments or locally hosted sites. But no worries, you can use Lighthouse – the same technology Google uses to audit your site, to measure changes there.
On its developer site, Google has even more tools and information to help you build high-performance websites. We talk about some of those recommendations in the optimization section of this post where site speed is considered further.
Nearly every theme these days is responsive to mobile devices, or at least claims to be. In our experience, some of these themes aren’t actually that. So here’s a link you can bookmark and use to test your theme or site using another tool from Google: https://search.google.com/test/mobile-friendly.
Tell Search Engines About Your Website (Customize Search Appearance)
First of all, establish whether your site is already indexed by your favorite search engines. All you have to do is type your domain name into their search bar and hit enter. If you get some results then you’re on their list (index).
If not, you’ll want to submit your site to that search engine. You can find the right page for submitting your site to be indexed by searching something like “Bing webmaster tools” or “Google webmaster tools”.
As eager as we all are to appear and rank well in results, it’s unlikely that anyone would want every single page on their website appearing in search results.
That’s where noindex directives come in. You can explicitly instruct search engines which pages to leave out of search results in HTML or in an HTTP header by using noindex in a robots meta tag. This is the proper way to keep pages out of search engine results pages, not using a Robots.txt file as some tend to think.
What is a Robots.txt file?
A Robots.txt file is a way to tell search engines whether they can or can’t access certain parts of your site. Then why not use it to keep pages out of results?
The reason is that without a noindex directive, your page could still end up being indexed without crawlers ever visiting it. This could happen for instance, if other pages point there with descriptive text.
As such, you’re better off using this file for its intended purpose: managing/limiting crawler requests to your site.
Whether you’d like to use noindex directives or a robots.txt file, you’ll either need to be very competent with code or use a plugin.
By now, it’s probably becoming increasingly clear why many people use SEO plugins: Communicating with search engine crawlers or bots is only possible if you have some reasonable programming ability.
Optimize Your Site
Improving your site content, hierarchy, images and speed will make users happy. We know what happy users will do, share! And guess what? Search engines will notice that.
We start with content because as the old adage goes “Content is King”. There’s no point having a website that loads in 0.1 seconds but has nothing on it (a blank page). Same applies to having your site load in 3 seconds but only to do so with poor content (as good as a blank page).
That said, the most important thing to optimize, and the thing you should spend most of your time optimizing is content.
The best way to optimize your content is to put yourself in the shoes (or glasses) of your readers. With every piece of content, think about what your users expect to get and try to deliver on that.
For example, if there are already a hundred articles on WordPress SEO, and there are, why would anyone spend time reading one that isn’t unique, isn’t easy to understand and doesn’t cover what was missed in the hundred articles prior?
That said, every piece of content on your website should be unique, easy to read, comprehensive enough and match the expectations of your audience.
No wonder, search engines tend to favor posts that:
- Use distinctive titles (Unique)
- Don’t use very long titles and paragraphs (Easy to read)
- Have 300 words or more (Comprehensive)
- Link to more valuable content (Expectations of audience)
Use a secure (HTTPS) connection rather than an insecure (HTTP) one. This is because search engines tend to give a certain amount of priority to sites that use a secure protocol.
Www or non-www for SEO?
Unlike whether you’re using HTTPS, crawlers don’t care if you use www or non-www on your site. However, like many things in the “SEO world”, you’ll want to avoid needlessly changing this.
Especially considering that Google essentially considers www.yoursite.com and yoursite.com as different websites. However, a small advantage of non-www versions is that they are shorter, which can make for better sharing.
One of the easiest things you can do to improve your site’s chances of ranking higher in results pages is adding breadcrumbs to your website.
What are Breadcrumbs?
Breadcrumbs are a secondary navigation system showing a user’s location relative to the homepage on a website or web app.
Pro Tip: Learning about and getting started with breadcrumbs is easy with the help of this astonishingly straightforward guide: How to Add Breadcrumbs to Your WordPress Website.
How do search engines feel about breadcrumbs?
Search engines recommend using a breadcrumb navigation trail whenever possible because it helps them better understand the role each piece of content has on your website.
Apart from giving search engines the warm fuzzies, you’ll at the same time help visitors quickly find the content they want, it’s a good old-fashioned win-win.
It’s easy to associate image optimization to things like compression, resizing and lazy loading and that is what optimizing images is about.
However, when it comes to SEO, optimizing images is also about providing plenty of information (giving context) about those images to search engines and doing so in a way that they can understand.
This includes improving image file names, captions, alt text, descriptions and more. That said, each image on your site will usually need some individual attention.
Although this process can be somewhat automized with the help of some image tools, a lot of the time you’ll still need to check individual images.
Here are a few tips about Image SEO:
- Informative file names. Tree.png is better than Image-1.png.
- Use HTML for images you want indexed
This list obviously isn’t conclusive and let’s face it, remembering everything on a long list with every upload may be challenging.
That’s where SEO plugins come in. Good SEO plugins remind you to check the images that require your attention so that your image SEO is on point.
There are also a few plugins that deal only with “Image SEO”, you may want to search that term in the plugins directory if that sounds like something you would be interested in.
If optimizing images sounds like a lot of work and you’re wondering whether it’s worth it, the answer is an absolute yes.
That is, yes it is involving and yes it does pay off! Some sources even claim that image searches account for more than a one fifth (⅕) of organic traffic from Google.
But keep in mind, it’s not all “ups” when it comes to using SEO plugins, more on this in our post about the best SEO plugins for WordPress.
If you’re looking to increase your dividends even further,
Improving your site speed may sound rather daunting, but there’s one underrated action that can give you a massive boost in a few minutes.
Use a theme that uses the best coding practices. Usually we find a theme we like, it’s got some nice demo content, so naturally we install it and then try to optimize it so our website loads faster.
This isn’t the best way, it wastes a lot of time. Once again, nearly every theme claims to be fast, so you’ll want to test every theme that catches your attention rather than decide on a theme and then try to optimize it.
Another underestimated thing is updates. Make sure your plugins and themes are up to date and delete any unused plugins.
Especially important since WordPress runs on PHP, make sure that you carefully select which version of PHP to use with WordPress.
It’s also a good idea to carry out WordPress database optimization to delete orphaned data from time to time.
Of course, these are only the basics but they can make a massive difference to your site’s overall and search performance. For a more in-depth look at site optimization, check out these 12 WordPress performance tips to make your website blazing fast.
Mobile-Friendly Is Search-Friendly: Search Engines Prefer Mobile-Friendly Websites
As tempting as it was to flood this section with statistics about mobile searches, we opted not to do that, realizing that many of them would soon become outdated, that’s how quickly mobile searches are on the rise.
Here’s one stat we couldn’t ignore, if you thought that most people performing mobile searches are in transit, think again: over 75% of mobile searches occur at home or at work. Remember, these are locations where desktop computers are likely to be at hand.
So a big percentage of people search on mobile devices. It only follows then that they open their favorite results on mobile devices. And that’s why search engines emphasize websites being made mobile-friendly.
You might also want to see this guide for tips on how to choose a WordPress theme.
Best Practices/ What to Avoid
If we attempted to recount all the things you should do and avoid doing to rank at the top in SERPs, time would fail us. And if it didn’t, it would certainly fail you.
So here are some fairly simple, very beneficial ways to stay on the right side of those crawlers on their way to your site right now:
What you should do:
- Always check, bad SEO practices carry a high penalty.
- Use Schema markup for rich results (Check out the best way to add schema markup without writing code).
- Use Image Sitemaps.
You’ll want to avoid:
- Paying for traffic. Many services claim to send “real” traffic but they will send bots. And that will harm your SEO, adversely.
- Linked/Being linked to by bad sites. Again, many services claim they can give you “SEO juice” through backlinks on sites with high domain authority (DA). You’ll want to be very careful, or even better, avoid these.
- 404 Errors by using 301 Redirects (Check out the complete guide to 301 redirects in WordPress)
Choosing an SEO Plugin
Communicating with search engines requires a fair amount of code. You’ll want to hire someone to write that out for you (on the regular) or use an SEO plugin.
As with many areas in WordPress, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to SEO plugins. You may already even have a particular one in mind.
What are some important things to look out for when choosing a plugin for WordPress SEO? Which is the most user friendly SEO plugin?
There’s no need to roll the dice here or try every single one of them. Find out the best WordPress SEO plugin to match your needs in record time.
WordPress SEO is hard. But like many hard tasks, there’s a reward. Getting on the first page of search results is not impossible after all.
Keep in mind that Rome wasn’t built in a day, avoid practices that are bad for SEO, keep working on those best practices and you will get there.
This article covered what SEO is and how it works, showed you how to get started with WordPress SEO and then covered how to optimize your site content, hierarchy, images and speed for better ranking.
We even looked at the importance of having a responsive website along with the need to avoid practices that will hurt your SEO.
If you haven’t already done so, you’ll want to see how you can pick the best SEO plugin so you can rank higher sooner rather than later.
A good SEO plugin will get you even better results alongside a good SEO friendly theme. Interested?
Check out Astra, the most SEO friendly theme today.