WordPress now powers more than 23% of the web and this figure is growing every day. This popularity makes sense. WordPress is easy to use (even for non-web developers), it’s flexible, and lets you manage and publish your own content using a fantastic choice of free and premium themes.
WordPress says that its websites are ‘optimised for search engines right out of the box’ and, for a more finely tuned approach to search engine optimisation, there are a host of excellent plugins. This week, we’re focusing on using Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin to ensure your WordPress website is geared for SEO success.
Throughout this blog, we’re assuming that you’re running a self-hosted wordpress.org website (not wordpress.com), have a single author and have installed Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin.
Understanding the basic structure of your WordPress site and why it’s important
Pages v. Posts
When building or adding to your WordPress website, you will have the opportunity to create new ‘pages’ or new ‘posts’. But what’s the difference?
A WordPress page typically has the following features:
- It’s one of the main, static pages on your website, such as the Home page, About page, Services pages or Contact page.
- It is not time sensitive.
- It has a unique URL and is only accessible from wherever you link to it (e.g. the main menu and calls to action).
- The name you give your page will usually determine its URL as you create it.
A WordPress post, on the other hand, can be identified by the following:
- It’s probably a blog article or something similar in nature, i.e. fresh content that is time sensitive or that offers customers additional information and insights into a specific topic.
- It is not your website’s Home page.
- People can find it on your website via multiple routes and URLs, and you help to make it findable by adding categories, tags, dates and authors.
- You can usually name your post as you write, and edit the URL.
Categories vs. Tags
As we’ve mentioned above, WordPress lets you use categories and tags to help people come to your website and search for all the content you have about a particular topic. But is the difference between a category and a tag?
Let’s step offline for a moment and think about how a library or bookshop manages its books. You may have whole aisles dedicated to ‘Biographies’, ‘History’, ‘Sport’, ‘Art’, ‘Cooking’, etc. In WordPress terms, these overarching descriptions are the categories.
However, to help you pinpoint the content you want, the books within each of these categories might be broken down into much more targeted descriptions. Let’s take ‘Art’ as a category – you may then be able to look for ‘modern art’, ‘Renaissance’, ‘postmodernism’, ‘watercolours’, ‘oil painting’, ‘self-portraits’ and so on. In WordPress terms, these are the tags.
Moving back online, although the post you’re looking for probably only sits in one category, there could be multiple tags to describe its content.
The other difference between categories and tags is that you should carefully define a few core categories your posts will fall under before you begin building your website. These will describe the overarching topics your blog articles will cover and should be based on careful keyword research.
On our SEO+ blog, for example, there are four main categories: Analytics, Content Marketing, Social Media and SEO. It’s advisable to only file a blog post under one category, or two at most.
Categories can typically be accessed via your website’s navigation, whether it’s via your main menu and/or a menu on the side bar.
Tags, on the other hand, can be created as you go along and you can use as many tags as you want to describe your blog. The only caveat is that you should not give a tag the same name as one of your categories.
On most WordPress websites, people usually access tags via a tag cloud or list in the side bar, a list of recent/relevant posts, or by clicking on the tags at the end of a post they have enjoyed.
Managing categories and tags in WordPress
Categories and tags lead us to one of the biggest SEO challenges posed by a WordPress website. Because a single post can be accessed via its category/categories, multiple tags, date, author, sub-pages, Home page, side bar, recent/popular posts feature – all designed to improve the user experience – there are potentially numerous URLs leading to just one page.
Unfortunately, if you allow Google to index each of these URLs, the search engine will see them all as separate and may deem that your WordPress site has duplicate content. This could harm your rankings and even land your website with a penalty.
Further down this post we’ll be looking at how you can tackle this issue.
Author Archives, Dated Archives and sub pages
Author Archives list all the posts written by each author on your website. If several people post to your site, this enables visitors to sort the content by author.
If you are the only author on your website, this means that people clicking on your Author Archive would see exactly the same list of articles as if they were to click on your main blog page. As a result, it’s a good idea to ‘noindex’ your Author Archives (see below to find out how) or use a 301 redirect so that people are automatically redirected to your main blog page. This is to help protect your website from a duplicate content penalty.
The Dated Archives enable your website visitors to search for articles by date – for example, looking for all the articles you published in a specific year or month. Again, these pages can look a lot like your blog’s main page and it would be better if Google doesn’t index them.
Sub-pages occur when there are enough articles under one category, tag, author, date or on your blog’s main page to run on to a second, third, fourth page and so on. A URL for a sub-page would typically look like: www.example.com/category/categoryname/page/2/
Again, we would recommend that you discourage the search engines from indexing these sub-pages.
Using Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin
Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin is the most comprehensive SEO plugin currently available for WordPress.org websites.
Once you have installed the plugin, you should see an SEO option in the left hand panel of your WordPress dashboard. When you first click on this, go to the General option in the menu.
There’s a helpful ‘Introduction tour’ option under the General tab that will walk you through the main features of Yoast and what you need to fill in on these four initial tabs: General, Company Info, Webmaster Tools and Security.
There’s no harm in leaving the ‘Tracking’ tick box checked to help the plugin developer research how Yoast is used.
Next, click on the Titles & Metas option in your SEO menu on the dashboard. This is where you set the titles and meta structure for all your post types, taxonomies, archives, special pages and for your Home page.
The General tab under Titles & Metas is for your site-wide settings. You’ll probably only need to decide your title separator, which is the symbol that appears between your post name and company name on the title tag of each web page.
Depending on the structure of your website and the theme you’re using, the next screen you may need to complete is the Home page tab under Titles & Metas. This is where you should complete the title tag and meta description for your Home page.
- Current best practice is that title tags should be a maximum of 50-60 characters, although 55 or less is ideal.
- Your meta description should ideally be 155 characters in length.
Your title tag is important as the search engine will look at this tag and give value to the keywords you use in it. You shouldn’t stuff it with keywords though – instead try to provide a clear, keyword-relevant insight into what the page is about (see the SEO+ Home page title tag below)
You should make each meta description tag a benefit-rich statement that entices people to click through to your website and accurately reflects what people will find on each page.
On the Post Types tab under Titles & Metas, you can create a template format for your website’s meta data to help save you time and be consistent when you create fresh content.
Do you want the title tags for your blog posts to automatically include the title of the post, the site’s name, an excerpt from the post, or your website’s tag line? If so, you can add code into the template to set your preference.
Click on Help in the top right corner of the screen to find out more about the basic and advanced variables that you can include in your template.
If, for example, you wanted the title tag for all your posts to follow the format of Post title | Website name, you would type in the following:
It isn’t essential that you complete these templates but it can help speed up the process of creating meta data for new posts and pages.
You will also notice that, on this panel, you can determine whether search engines are able to index your posts, pages and media (if you have a portfolio on your website this would also appear under Post Types).
You can decide whether to show the date of the article in the snippet preview and whether or not Yoast should hide the WordPress SEO Meta Box from the backend of each new post you create. Our advice would be to leave the ‘noindex, follow’ box unchecked as search engines should be able to index your posts and pages. We would also recommend being about to see and use the WordPress SEO Meta Box on each page and post.
Using the Taxonomies tab to protect against duplicate content
The Taxonomies tab under Titles & Metas lets you create templates for the title tags and meta descriptions of each of your category, tag, format or filter URLs. These templates work in the same way as on the previous tab.
This section lets you tell the search engines not to index your tags to help protect your site against a penalty for duplicate content. You do this by checking the Meta Robots ‘Noindex, follow’ tick box (see below).
A word of caution before you go ahead and make your tags or categories ‘nofollow’ to discourage search engines from indexing them – if you have an existing website with some long-published posts, check your Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools. Are there any categories or tags that are bringing in a lot of traffic to your website?
If so, it may not be a good idea to ‘noindex’ these popular tags. Instead, you may want to consider a different approach, such as choosing to only ‘noindex’ tags and categories that aren’t creating traffic.
To do this, you should click on the Posts option in the left hand menu of your WordPress dashboard (see above) and select either Categories or Tags, then go into the popular, traffic-driving tag and choose the Always index option, or choose less popular Categories or Tags and choose the Always noindex option.
Going back to the Yoast settings under Titles & Metas, you’ll find the Archives tab. Again, you have the option to create templates for the meta data for these and decide whether or not you want the search engines to be able to index your Author Archives and Date Archives. We would recommend making these ‘noindex’.
Finally, you’ll see the Other tab under Titles & Metas.
On this tab, we would recommend ticking ‘Noindex subpages of archives’ to prevent /page/2/ and other archive pages from showing up in search results and possibly appearing as duplicate content.
The value of keyword tags has greatly diminished in recent years. Some experts argue this box is still worth checking, while others say it has little influence. Certainly, Yoast’s words under the tick box suggest you might want to leave the box unchecked.
If you have a DMOZ or Yahoo listing, you will have a special meta tag for those that Google might index. If you don’t want that tag indexed, then you should tick these boxes. If you don’t have a DMOZ or Yahoo listing, ignore these boxes.
SEO and social media
The next option on the left-hand menu for Yoast is Social. Under this menu, you can interlink your website with your different social media platforms to help Google track your social media activity.
We found a great tutorial about using the Social tab here so we won’t cover the same ground. Needless to say, this is a great way to help maximise the SEO signals that come from your presence on social media.
Under the XML Sitemaps section of the Yoast plugin, you can control what URLs appear on your website’s XML sitemap:
Check the ‘Enable XML sitemap functionality’ box if you don’t use other XML sitemap plugins.
You can click on the ‘XML Sitemap’ option to find your XML Sitemap, which is designed for consumption by search engines to help them index your site.
If you have decided to make your tags ‘noindex’ (see above), then we would also recommend going into the Taxonomies tab under XML Sitemap and ticking that you do not want your tags included in your website’s site map. Under the Posts tab, you might want to exclude certain post types, such as ‘Media’, from your XML Sitemap too. Again, this will help you protect your WordPress website from the duplicate content problem.
Breadcrumbs, Permalinks and RSS
The Advanced section of Yoast is where you can manage the ‘breadcrumb trail’ on your website, Permalinks and your website’s RSS feed.
Breadcrumbs are essentially a navigational aid to help your website visitors understand their current location within the context of the entire website. They let users see the journey they took through the site and enable them to navigate backwards if they take a wrong turn.
We found a great article on the ManageWP blog about enabling your breadcrumbs.
Permalinks are a ‘permanent static hyperlink to a particular web page or entry in a blog’. When you first install WordPress, it’s important not to rely on the default permalink setting, which you’ll find on your dashboard under the main Settings menu as this uses the /?p=123 structure. Instead, you should choose the ‘Post name’ option for clean, simple permalinks that use the name of your posts and pages.
The Permalinks settings in Yoast help you fine tune your permalinks further by removing ‘stop’ words such as ‘for’, ‘in’ and ‘the’ from slugs or redirecting people from attachment URLs to the parent post URL.
To find out more about the Permalink settings, you might find this tutorial we discovered on YouTube helpful: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2BPEJMjChU
The RSS tab lets you add additional information to your RSS feed so that, if people republish your content, it will include a tag that links back to your site and credit you as the original author. This can help boost your SEO by giving you further backlinks to your website.
You can add any text you want to put before each post in your feed, as well as content to put after each post in your feed. In the example below, you can see that the content after each post credits our original post, our website and the author.
Time saving tools
The Tools section of Yoast gives you access to a number of handy features. For example, if you have been using another SEO plugin prior to installing Yoast, you can import all your data and settings from this into Yoast or export your Yoast settings into another website you’re setting up to save you precious time. This is done using the Import & Export Tool.
TheBulk Editor lets you edit title tags and meta descriptions for multiple posts and pages from a single point. Again, this is potentially a huge time saver that lets you fine tune your meta data without having to go into the backend of each individual post.
The File Editor tool takes you to an editable screen to change your robots.txt file (if you have one) or your .htaccess file.
Finally, under the main Yoast settings, the Extensions section lets you buy and manage some of Yoast’s Premium SEO extensions.
Optimising your local SEO settings using Yoast
At last, we come to one of Yoast’s most important features when it comes to maximising your SEO efforts: the local SEO settings. Once you have installed Yoast, you will notice an SEO panel at the end of each of your posts or pages in the backend of the website. The panel looks like this:
As you can see from the screenshot above, you can add the focus keyword or phrase for the new post/page, the SEO title and the meta description. Yoast will let you know if the title or description are too long; it will also show you a snippet preview so you can see how your meta data would appear on a search engine results page.
Once you have completed these fields, Yoast will also calculate how many times your focus keyword appears in the post and whether it is in key places that can help the search engines recognise what the article is about, e.g. the heading, page title, content, etc.
Next, click on the Page Analysis tab:
As you can see from this screenshot, the Page Analysis uses a handy traffic light system to show you what you have done well from an SEO perspective. Any issues that you should correct if you can will appear in red. The more green dots you have, the better for your SEO. Yellow dots show where there is room for improvement but they’re not the end of the world.
The default settings on the Advanced tab are generally fine but if you do need to set redirects, canonicals, noindex or nofollow for a specific page, then this is the place to do it.
TheSocial tab is where you can determine what title and description you would like to appear with your post when it is shared to Facebook or Twitter, if you don’t want to use the existing post title and meta description as a default:
One final feature of Yoast is that, when you click on theCategories option under Posts in the main menu, and then click on an individual category, you can overwrite the site’s global settings to add an SEO title, meta description, keywords, breadcrumbs title and more.
Making sure search engines index your site
If you have a WordPress website, especially if it was developed by a web designer on your behalf, it’s worth checking whether the settings discourage search engines from indexing your website. You can find this information in your Dashboard under Settings>Reading. If the Search Engine Visibility check box is ticked, make sure you untick it.
This box is sometimes checked by web developers when they’re building the site and the check box is left ticked as an oversight.
Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin
There’s no doubt about it, Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin is one of our favourite plugins and certainly hard to beat when it comes to optimising a WordPress website. Although it’s impossible to guarantee that your pages will secure a page one ranking for your chosen keywords, this plugin certainly steers you towards best practice and will help you do everything in your power to optimise your website.
Do you use the Yoast WordPress SEO plugin? Are there any features you’ve struggled with? Do you find the traffic light system helpful when you write new blog posts? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the Comments below.
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Hazel Jarrett, director of SEO at SEO+, is well-known in the SEO space, has won many awards during her 20-year career and has been published on various well-known sites. Through her services and training programs, her SEO strategies have generated 10s of millions of sales for her clients, earning her a big reputation for delivering the results that matter.
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