WordPress SEO: A Best Practices Guide
WordPress

7 Ways to Maximize SEO on Your WordPress Site

One of the first decisions you’ll face when building a new website is figuring out which content management system (CMS) to use. There are quite a few CMS options available, but there’s one particular platform that reigns supreme, regardless of what type of project, budget or technical experience you may have.

That platform is none other than WordPress.

Currently over 74 million websites depend on WordPress, including CNN, Mashable, New York Times, Samsung, Forbes, and eBay, to name just a few. WordPress has made leaps and bounds since its initial launch back in 2003, and now larger brands are beginning to see WordPress’ true value in the marketplace.

But is WordPress a good solution if you’re concerned about SEO?

Well going by Rand Fishkin’s criteria for what makes a good CMS from an SEO perspective, I think it’s safe to say that the answer is a resounding yes.  WordPress offers a relatively intuitive user experience, making it easy for just about anyone to implement basic SEO best practices.

After several years of experience working as an SEO and web design consultant on quite a few different WordPress sites, I put together some actionable tips to help WordPress site owners improve their on-page SEO strategy and get a leg up on the competition.

Using WordPress.org vs. WordPress.com

WordPress offers two different platforms to build and manage your website – WordPress.com, which includes hosting and is essentially free as long as you abide by their terms of service – and WordPress.org, which is an open-source, self-hosted publishing platform, ideal for more advanced users.

The main difference is that on WordPress.com, you don’t have the ability to fully customize your themes, widgets and plugins. Additionally, WordPress.com has limited storage space and no FTP access. Don’t get me wrong, WordPress.com can be a great solution for smaller blogs and hobby websites, but if your business cares about SEO, you will probably want a little more control than WordPress.com has to offer.

WordPress.org, on the other hand, gives you complete control over your website. WordPress.org takes the simplicity of WordPress and makes it available as open source software.  The only catch to using WordPress.org is that you need to set up your web hosting and perform your own backups and routine maintenance. But if you’re willing to get your hands a little bit dirty, you’ll have a lot more options using WordPress.org.

Also, please keep in mind the majority of the tips in this post pertain specifically to WordPress.org.

Editing Your Permalinks Structure

Your permalink structure refers to the format in which your page URLs appear in the users browser bar. It’s a good practice to keep your URL structure as clean as possible, not only for the user experience, but also to help search engines crawl and index the URLs properly.

According to SEO guru and WordPress enthusiast Joost de Valk, the most SEO-friendly permalink structure would either be /%postname% or /%category%/%postname%/. For instance, you wouldn’t want a URL to a page about blue widgets to look like this: http://www.website.com/?p=N/. Instead, the url should resemble something like this: http://www.website.com/blue-widgets – or with the category included: http://www.website.com/products/blue-widgets.

According to Moz, a lot like title tags, keyword-rich URLs can influence search engine rankings. They also tell the user what the page is about. You can change your default permalink settings by going to your WordPress dashboard and selecting Settings > Permalinks, then select the “Post Name” option. In most cases, this works on existing sites too.

Meaning that if you have existing URLs in a different format, WordPress will automatically rewrite your .htaccess file. If it can’t, a message will display, recommending that you update your .htaccess file manually.
permalink 7 Ways to Maximize SEO on Your WordPress Site

Screenshot taken 06/24/2014 of www.beymour.com

permalink select1 7 Ways to Maximize SEO on Your WordPress Site

Screenshot taken 06/24/2014 of www.beymour.com

Choose a Preferred Domain

Most websites have two ways that you can access them. For instance, if you were to go to http://www.beymour.com, it will redirect to http://beymour.com (my preferred domain, without the “www”). In your Google Webmaster Tools dashboard, you can edit your preferred domain settings, by clicking on the gear icon in the upper right-hand corner and clicking “Site Settings.”

You’ll then see the “Preferred Domain” section, where you can make your selection. Here, the preferred domain you set will be the URL that Google and other major search engines use to crawl and index for site. It’s entirely up to you which version (www or non-www) you choose.

Although WordPress has a built-in setting capable of redirecting traffic to the preferred domain, it uses what is known as a “302” redirect – or a “temporary” redirect, which tells Google to keep both versions of the URL indexed. Crawling two version of the same site/content can confuse search engines, and even users.

Search engines prefer that webmasters use “permanent” redirects, also known as “301” redirects, whenever moving a URL permanently. You can do this on your WordPress blog by adding the following code to your .htaccess file.

# Begin 301
RewriteEngine On
RewriteCond %{HTTP_HOST} !^www\.[your-website]\.com [NC]
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ http://www.[your-website].com/$1 [L,R=301]
# BEGIN WordPress
<IfModule mod_rewrite.c>
RewriteEngine On
RewriteBase /
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-d
RewriteRule . /index.php [L]
</IfModule>
# END WordPress

Some themes and plugins allow you to edit your .htaccess file directly, from within the WordPress dashboard. However, if your theme doesn’t have this feature, you will need to access the file via FTP. Some hosting providers, like Go Daddy, have FTP file managers built-in to the website dashboard. Alternatively, you can use a FTP client like FileZilla to make your edits.

Authorship Implementation

If you run a blog on your WordPress site, and you still haven’t setup Google Authorship, than you’re missing out on a lot of potential SEO value.  Authorship is Google’s way of organizing content according to the author of the post. One huge benefit of authorship is that if you do it correctly, your author image and byline could appear next to your post in Google search results.

authorship beymour 7 Ways to Maximize SEO on Your WordPress Site

Screenshot taken 06/24/2014 of www.google.com

Studies have shown that rich snippets, such as the author photo and byline can increase click-through rate by 150 percent. One of the benefits of building your site in a WordPress framework is that WordPress plugins make it fairly easy to add Authorship through the use of plugins.

You can then test to see if your Authorship is working using the structured data testing tool. Just make sure that if you decide to implement Authorship, that you only use it on posts – not pages.

For instance, if you write a review of Lord of the Rings, it would make sense to add Authorship, since the page can be attributed to a human being. The same goes for blog posts. However, you wouldn’t want to use authorship on a business page, like “About our Company” or “Our Services.”

Keep this in mind when configuring SEO WordPress plugins because some of them apply authorship to all pages on your site, if not setup properly.

Use SEO-friendly Themes and Plugins

Right out of the box, WordPress has a lot of built-in features that are specifically designed for SEO. WordPress also uses a relatively clean code base, which helps to reduce page load time. Although there isn’t much evidence to support the theory that site speed has any direct impact on SEO, there’s a still a strong correlation between Time To First Byte (TTFB) and sites with higher rankings.

Being that Google has always had an obsession with site speed, chances are page load time will inevitably become an increasingly important search ranking factor. That’s why webmasters need to be extra careful when using certain themes and plugins that could potentially hurt their rankings. What’s even more messed up is that some of the worst offenders actually claim to be “designed for SEO.”

Here are some SEO considerations when using WordPress themes and plugins:

  • Responsive Design – One of the most important things you can do to improve your website’s performance is to make your website mobile-friendly. Responsive design optimizes the website for a wider range of devices (e.g. mobile, tablet, etc.). Certain themes and plugins use non-responsive code, which hurt a site’s SEO. Roughly a year ago, Google announced  that “misconfigured” or non-mobile-friendly sites could see a drop in rankings. Although the demotion only pertains to mobile search results, as mobile grows in popularity, it will become a bigger problem.
  • Micro-Data Support – This is a major plus, specifically when you use Schema. Webmasters use Schema markup to help Google, Bing, and Yahoo gain a better understanding of the semantic intricacies of the content itself. Major search engines use this data to refine search results and provide a more targeted and relevant search experience. WordPress themes and plugins that support Schema can streamline the process and, in some cases, eliminate the need for any manual coding.
  • Plugin Compatibility – Some themes don’t support certain plugins, and some plugins don’t work well with other plugins. These conflicts can cause issues with your sitemaps, robots.txt files, .htaccess files and even create duplicate page elements, like h1s and page titles, which goes against SEO best practices.

Block Pages Using Your Robots.txt File

Most WordPress sites generate certain pages that you may not want search engines to crawl and index. Usually these page types include archive, tag, and admin-level pages. In a nutshell, pages that either aren’t geared towards users or pages that could be deemed as duplicate content should be blocked.

For instance, let’s say you have a “Thank You” page that loads after each contact form submission. It wouldn’t make much sense to send direct traffic to this page, so why give it the chance to rank in search? Or you might have a tag page for “blue widgets”, but also a category page under the same name. Being that the content on each of these pages would be more or less identical, you could run into duplicate content issues.

That’s what your robots.txt file is for. You can add specific URLs to your robots.txt file to ensure that Google and other major search engines don’t index the content. Robots.txt files are especially helpful when optimizing WordPress sites, since WordPress tends to create a lot of these redundant types of pages by default. The robots.txt file can be a great tool for SEO, as long as you don’t abuse it. Google’s head of web spam Matt Cutts warns that you should refrain from using your robots.txt file to optimize Googlebot’s crawl.

This is the line of code you would add to your robots.txt file is you want to block all search engines:

User-agent: *
Disallow: /[relative page url]

And this is the code you would use to block only Googlebot:

User-agent: Googlebot
Disallow: /[relative page url]

Use WordPress SEO by Yoast

A lot of the best practices I mentioned in this post can be streamlined by using an all-in-one SEO plugin. Since there are so many different SEO plugins available, I would recommend reading up on each one to see what features are included, how many reviews it has and most importantly, whether or not the plugin is compatible with your current version of WordPress. One of WordPress’ most popular plugins and my personal favorite for SEO is Yoast’s WordPress SEO plugin.

This plugin allows you to auto-generate xml sitemaps, analyze posts and pages for keyword density, edit meta data, clean up permalinks and access your robots.txt files without any extensive coding knowledge. This plugin is in no way a substitute for SEO – it’s simply a supplemental tool that helps you apply your SEO strategy with ease.

WordPress Makes SEO Easier

There are quite a few factors to consider when building and maintaining a website. One of the most important factors is making sure your site ranks well in search engines. WordPress is only one of the many CMS options available. I’ve used Joomla, Drupal, Umbraco, Orchard, and a variety of custom platforms. In my experience, WordPress has been the most SEO-friendly. These tips represent only a handful of the many ways you can leverage the SEO benefits of WordPress.

 

Featured image by Flickr user nbachiyski

BrandonSeymour 7 Ways to Maximize SEO on Your WordPress Site
Brandon Seymour is the Director of SEO at BodyLogicMD and the founder of Beymour Consulting, an online marketing agency specializing in SEO, content marketing and web development.
BrandonSeymour 7 Ways to Maximize SEO on Your WordPress Site

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35 thoughts on “7 Ways to Maximize SEO on Your WordPress Site

  1. Kind of bummed that Google is removing the photos from the authorship markup. Do you still think it will be worth the time?

    1. Hi Thomas,

      I agree, it does suck that Google is dropping authorship photos. I still think there is a lot of potential benefits of using authorship though, especially since Google has stated that they will use author rank for in-depth articles.

      The removal of the author photo doesn’t really SEO as much as it does CTR. And according to Google’s John Mueller, CTR is expected to see a minimal impact (although I disagree).

      1. When Mueller writes he doesn’t see an impact on CTRs after the authorship update, all i can read is “Bullshit”.

      2. On another point authorship helps prove ownership of content; by ensuring that your content is assigned to an author you can help prevent spammers from stealing it and getting the benefits of your hard work.

      3. Definitely calling BS on the Mueller’s statement about minimal impact on CTR. It is well documented organic search listing’s with Authorship had higher CTR than standard listings…and organic has higher than Paid listings. It is also in no way a coincidence this change is on the heels of Google making their Paid listings more visually’ attractive. Lest not us forget they are a business…and will continue to work the odds in their favor.

  2. All points are really good and notable but could not understand why are you advocating for Google Authorship? This article is written on 30th June ’14 and Google officially declared that they are abandoning Authorship and all it’s supports on 26th of June this year. Now this is not that important and why a webmaster stick to them when Google declared that clearly. Do you see any chances of it’s rebirth in near future?

    1. Hey Soumya,

      I actually wrote this article on June 24th lol – the editorial process just takes a few days.

      As for Google abandoning authorship, it was my understanding that Google is not getting rid of authorship completely, but instead just removing the photos and circle counts from the SERPs. Now this COULD be a sign of Google slowly phasing out the initiative altogether, but for now I think authorship has plenty of value.

      Here’s a good article that talks about some of the benefits of Google authorship, now that author photos are disappearing: http://www.forbes.com/sites/steveolenski/2014/06/27/what-is-the-true-value-of-google-and-twitter-authorship/

      1. First of all thanks for the reply and clarifications. I think, you are right. It may be just the removal of the picture and the circle but internally Google may continue to use those signals. It sounds logical and thanks for the link share, Brandon. Thumbs up.

      2. If Google is getting rid of “Authorship” or not, is arguable. I personally believe they are repeating what they did with the Page Rank thing.
        Probably that’s how they do it, at Google. At one time, they make you believe, this is it, and then after a while, they get bored and switch the priorities. I hate that.

  3. Don’t forget about optimizing your photos as well! When posting photos, people should try to optimize their them to increase their SEO success. Give the photo a proper name that describes what it is in a few words. If you have a photo of a car, instead of IMG382.jpg, try RedPorsheConvertible.jpg. Also consider changing the ALT TEXT of the image to give it further relevance when people are searching. Back to the car example, have the ALT TEXT be: Porshe convertibles, [model of the] Porshe, Sports Cars, etc, whatever you deem appropriate. This will be a simple, but effect way to increase your rankings in search!

    1. Great point, chatmeter! Img titles and especially alt tags are a quick and easy win for SEO, but still many webmasters neglect to use them properly (if at all). WordPress actually makes image optimization relatively simple. with tools like the media uploader, which allows you to manually enter the alt tag, and image compression plugins, like smushit that compress images so that pages load faster.

  4. Great article. I use WordPress SEO by Yoast and it is by far my favourite plugin. It makes everything so much easier, I really like the bulk title editor service that the plugin provides.

  5. It’s true that a lot of people are using wordpress for thier blogs. Because it’s fast and simple. According to my experience i have learnt that using plugins and other stuff will make more running process and crush your server.

    – I am not using yoast, i am manually adding meta description to my homepage and always write great description at the begining of the post, so Google will show it as description.

    – Disable comments, so you won’t get any spam bots to your site after you rank at 1th page at Google. Comments don’t have influence at SEO.

    – Be careful with your robots and structured data. Blocked urls, and errors in structured data will decrease your ranking.

    – Use themes that have score over 90 at Google PageSpeed Insights.

    1. All good points, Hein. I agree in most cases with the part about the comments, but sometimes comments can boost engagement for posts and articles. I was asked to write a guest post for a pretty big site and the editor specifically asked me to choose a topic that would cause a stir in the comments. Although there may not be concrete evidence to support the claim that comments boost, SEO, I don’t think there enough evidence to rule it out either. Just my opinion, but I think the “freshness factor” can certainly influence rankings. Coincidentally, I was thinking about writing a post about it.

  6. Amen to the closing “WordPress makes SEO easier” – yes it does! Actually using WordPress makes a lot of stuff easier with SEO as compared to using other CMS. During my initial blogging days, I never knew setting a preferred domain in Google Webmaster Tools helps with SEO.

    Implementing Google authorship helps a lot with improving search engine presence and also to increase authority. Even though Google has removed pictures, it still does help with growing authority in the niche and creating a strong online presence.

    Thanks for the simple, yet wonderful tips Brandon!

  7. Thanks Brandon for sharing this incredible and very informative post. I was not aware about 301 Redirect and have added the code to my .htaccess file

  8. Finding SEO friendly themes is critical. If not, you’d better learn some minor coding. SEO Yoast will definitely make tagging and site map management mush easier. Great post!

  9. Great beginners article! and since you touched on page speed, I would recommend using W3 Total Cache combined with MaxCDN as a content delivery network. Really easy to implement on your site and there are plenty of tutorials online to help. You can also pay the W3 Total Cache team a small fee for them to configure the plugin for you site. Bang! speed!

  10. You’ve developed a solid list but the topic has been done to death in many ways.

    I’d like to see better information provided to visitors on conversions vs traffic. You can have all the traffic in the world and “optimised” content but if it doesn’t read well and the site doesn’t function well then conversions will be low.

    I think in terms of SEO too much focus is placed on rankings and traffic and we need to spend more time on conversions and functional websites with strong call to action and solid copywriting skills.

    I’ve seen many client’s using Yoast but they might use the keyword as “mobile” when theyr’e talking about the benefits of mobile apps in their industry. Of course they get a green because mobile is mentioned through out. Shows that their needs to be more education around the tools provided rather than just point and shoot.

    1. I agree. On-site engagement metrics, like time on page, bounce rate, pages viewed per session and of course conversion rate are a big part of SEO. As I mentioned, these are only a “handful of tips” and there are plenty more, in-depth strategies for WordPress SEO.

  11. Thanks Brandon Seymour !
    1. I’m thinking only with a web blog need authorship make up, but the news web do’nt use.
    2. @Brandon: With Permalinks Structure, can i need config ?
    – mydomain.com/%category%/%postname%/
    or
    – mydomain.com/%postname%/
    Thanks !

  12. Great article Brandon … I think since you wrote this Google has just changed the rich snippets showing the pictures for Rel=Author tag. So it still may be good to implement Google Authorship for your website, but the uplift in Click Through Rates may now not have the same effect without the author pictures showing in the search results. Google changes things so often it’s hard to keep up some times.
    About site speed, I agree it is very important for sure.

  13. Great post. Theonly thing I would personally change is the Yoast WordPress SEO plugin. If you are a beginner this plugin can fool you into thinking your page is optimized. I am surprised other SEO experts have yet to pickup on this. I wish I could post images on my comment to show exactly what I mean. I have had several new clients tell me they optimized their page with the Yoast plugin. When I look, the title tags and meta descriptions are completely wrong even though it shows a green SEO check light.

    Try this: Type in a focus keyword and leave the title tag and meta description blank. It will say: Say your focus keyword was found in…..Yet I have no title tag or meta description added. The plugin is automatically picking up the page heading as the title tag description and the meta description is being picked up from the first paragraph on the page. This is no bueno for many reason:

    1. the headline may have a broad keyword term and the plugin will automatically recognize it as a title tag. a beginner will think it is correct because the plugin gave the user a green yes.

    2. It is automatically picking up the first paragraph. It does not take into account the number of characters and because the sentence was was not focused on an attention grabbing description for the searcher, it does not make sense. Here is what it picked up for my client: “auto accidents every year in the United States. The injuries these victims sustain can have devastating, long-term effects on their lives. Unfortunately, ca …” This is in no way correct yet it gave my clients description a green yes.

    Now keep in mind the fields for title tags and descriptions are blank yet it is saying it is good. You would not believe how many clients I have had to fix this issue on. I recently spoke at WordCamp CT and when I asked who was using the plugin , 90% of the audience raised their hands. When they all looked at what I just explained, they were shocked because they all thought it was fine because the plugin gave them a green SEO light saying it was OK.

    So either many SEO professionals have not noticed this or I am the only one to pick up on this. Then again I have been doing SEO since 1998 and usually put an SEO plugin through a variety of test before using it. I will stick to the simple but extremly effective All in One SEO plugin.

    Thanks,
    Ale Miranda
    SEO Analyst
    Marknet Group Inc

      1. That is great for us but for the person who does not really know SEO, this can be very deceiving. He should either fix that issue or get rid of the feature. It is unreal how many website owners show me what they have done based on the keyword checker. Just in the last month alone I have had over 15 clients think that because the checker gave them a green light, they had an optimized website. There are other issues with the plugin but I will leave it at that. One day I will have to write a blog post about my findings.