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7 Ways to Maximize SEO on Your WordPress Site

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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

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

permalink-select

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

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

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Brandon Seymour

Brandon Seymour

Brandon Seymour is the Director of Online Marketing at BioTrackTHC and the founder of Beymour Consulting, an online marketing agency ... [Read full bio]

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