Let's Dive In And Optimize Your WordPress Site
First, I’m making the assumption that you’re reading this article because you either have a website in WordPress, and you want to make sure people can find it from the search engines, or you are about to embark upon, or are interested in building and launching a site in WordPress, which can be easily found via the search engines. If you don’t fit either of these categories, I encourage you to read on anyway so you’ll be converted to the glorious content management system (CMS) that is WordPress.
Another assumption I make when talking about search engine optimization: that you have truly awesome content, and not just because your mother says it is. If your content is written such that your average customer would understand and find it useful and enjoyable, then you’ve got awesome content. Notice the adjective: awesome. ‘Good’ just doesn’t cut it anymore. You’ve got to ROCK the content department. In order to do that, you really ought to have an awesome content strategy.
But after you’ve considered your content strategy, there are number of additional considerations to make as you build, tweak and optimize your WordPress site. Let’s dive in.
What Does WordPress Automatically Do For You?
WordPress handles canonical URLs properly, the way Google and other search engines like it, and the way most people would like it! Rather than appending ugly file names at the end of URLs like .aspx, .html, or .php, WordPress makes these URLs ‘pretty’ and makes them very simple. This is both user and search engine-friendly.
WordPress is also structured in such a way that it encourages theme developers to use clean, organized code. When search bots can easily crawl or parse your site, it means they can process it easily, and if they can process it easily, they’ll be more likely to continue processing it as you make changes, add pages, etc. There are still some things you’ll want to alter or add to WordPress, however, so don’t sit back and relax just yet!
What Will You Need To Do Or Add To WordPress?
First, install these two plug-in:
Now you’ll want to set your permalinks so they use the titles of your posts and pages. By default, WordPress will use its database query system, which populates the URLs of your pages and posts something like ?=359, for example. Each page and post has a specific number assigned. This serves the very practical purpose of quickly serving up pages and posting content from the database, but makes it more difficult for Google and your users to know what they’re looking at until the page fully loads. To make things easier on users and search bots alike, we recommend ‘pretty URLs.’
You’ll enable pretty URLs by going to ‘Settings’ then ‘Permalinks’ within the WordPress dashboard. When you arrive, you’ll see something like this:
Click on the structure you would like (the fewer directories before the title the better), and then click to save. A word of caution: if you have a ton of pages or posts (several hundred, or more), or if you intend to have a lot of pages or posts (i.e., you’ll be blogging more than once per day), then you may consider at least including the year and month in the URL as well. Otherwise, this structure will slow down your database queries, which slows your load time, which can also have a negative impact on search rankings, and it’s a big pain to go back and change this later.
Now we’re to the part where you’ll want those plug-in!
To make life easier for Google and friends, you should provide them with a sitemap. The best option for search engines is an XML sitemap, which is entirely unusable and invisible to your users, but makes things easier for the bots (and happy bots = more visitors!).
There is more than one way to create a sitemap, but here in WordPress Land, we enjoy plug-ins that automate things for us. Make sure you have the WordPress SEO by Yoast plug-in installed, then go to ‘SEO,’ then ‘Dashboard’ within the WordPress Admin dashboard. Here, if you haven’t done so already, you can enter the meta data to verify your Webmaster Tools accounts with the search engines. If you don’t have accounts, setup your Webmaster Tools accounts first, then verify using this tool or some other method.
By installing that plug-in, it will automatically generate an XML sitemap for you, and place it properly in the root directory of your site (http://www.mywebsite.com/sitemap.xml). But you’ll want to have things verified with Google and Bing to make sure they have accurate information. Within the ‘XML Sitemaps’ option of the plug-in, you’ll also be able to customize things even further if you need additional options.
If you have an existing site and need to alter your URL structure for some reason (for example, moving to WordPress from a ASP-based CMS, whose URLs generally end in .aspx), or if you are changing your domain name (rebranding, trademark dispute, etc.), you’ll want to make sure you redirect old URLs to the new location of those pages. The plug-in we are going to use only works for the domain on which it is installed, so you’ll have to either set up WordPress on the old domain for the sole purpose of redirecting, or you’ll want to get those redirects entered at the server level. This tutorial may help you if you have an understanding of PHP and system administration, but hire someone to do it right if you’re unsure on how to set up those redirects.
WordPress does not use file extensions in its URLs, so rather than http://www.mywebsite.com/about.html, that page will now be located at http://www.mywebsite.com/about/. This will cause a problem with search engines and anyone else who clicks on a link from a website somewhere else expecting to find that page. In order to make sure they arrive at the new location of that content rather than a 404 error page, you will want to set up what is called a ‘301 redirect,’ also known as a permanent redirect. There is another type of redirect called a ‘302,’ but we won’t get into that because we’re keeping things simple–302 Redirects are slightly more controversial and can cause some serious SEO problems if you don’t know why or when to use them.
301 redirects are usually performed on the server inside. This isn’t super easy though... so to make things easier for the uninitiated among us (myself included), we’ll use the Simple 301 Redirects plug-in to set things up. Just realize that if you need to redirect an old domain to a new domain, this plug-in won’t help you, and you should definitely perform those redirects on the server side to ensure permanency (in case something goes wrong on WordPress, which, though rare, happens on occasion).
Back to Simple 301 Redirects. First, go to ‘Settings’ then click ‘301 Redirects.’ Here you’ll find a place to enter the old URL as well as the new location. In the ‘old’ section, you’ll only need to enter everything following the domain name, but on the ‘new’ section, you’ll need to include everything, from http://www.mywebsite.com to everything following the domain name: /new/.
After you have them entered, click ‘Save,’ and within a few seconds your new redirect will be live and functioning!
Another aspect of optimization is meta descriptions. These will not help your rankings, as search engines largely ignore this data anyway (and have for many years). Search engines do use meta descriptions as the site description in search engine results pages like this:
These meta descriptions should be optimized with the searcher in mind. We recommend doing the following in your meta description:
- Use target keywords within a logical phrase or sentence structure
- Make sure it makes sense!
- Keep it under 160 characters, as anything beyond this will be cut off
To update the meta description on each page and post (which you should do!), go to the page or post editor for the page or post you would like to edit, and below the content editor you’ll find the WordPress SEO editor (because you installed the plug-in, right?).
If your title is optimized the only thing you’ll need to edit is your meta description. Simply find the field marked ‘Meta Description’ and enter the text you’ve developed for that page. Click ‘Update’ on the right side of the editor (usually a blue button), and you’re all set!
A Few Things To Check On:
Check Your Header Tags
Check your theme to ensure that you’re using H1 tags at the top of each page and post. The vast majority of themes will do this by default, but just in case, you may want to spot-check a couple of pages. The title of your page or post should appear as the H1 tag for the page. You can check this in Chrome by right clicking over the title, click “Inspect Element,” and in the window that opens at the bottom of the browser, you should see highlighted HTML code starting with <h1> and ending with </h1>. If it does, you’re golden. If not, have a developer check your theme and alter the page template file if needed.
Check Your ALT Text
Also make sure all images are using ‘alt text’ in the ‘alt attributes’ part of the page. This important for three reasons:
- Bots can’t view images, so they need alt text to tell them what an image is.
- Blind people who are using a Braille or text-to-speech translator while browsing will need alt text to tell them what an image is.
- If an image has problems (such as a plug-in or theme template messing up image settings, CSS or HTML not loading correctly, or images going offline due to a server error), you’ll need the alt text to tell visitors that an image should be there and what that image is.
To set the alt text, go to the Media Library, and go to the ‘Edit’ function of an image you wish to optimize. Once there, find the alt text field and enter your text. Keep it to only a few words because search bots, blind people, and disgruntled visitors won’t have the patience to listen to your thousand words describing a picture. They want a quick description so they can move on. If the image is relevant to your keyword, it doesn’t hurt to include the keyword as PART of the alt text, but do not shoot for exact matches in your alt text. Search engines want to believe you are optimizing for users, not bots, and exact-match-text is usually a red flag of over-optimization.
BONUS! A Few More Things To Consider:
Speed Up Your Site
Google also considers site load time as a small, but nonetheless important ranking factor. Joseph Scott, a friend of mine and an employee of Automattic, the company behind WordPress, has spoken long and often on this topic. Here’s a video of Joseph speaking at WordCamp Utah 2011 on the subject.
Hire a SEO firm to audit your site if needed to make sure you’ve got your ducks in a row. Even if you’ve done a lot of the work yourself, this is often a good idea to make sure you’ve got everything taken care of properly.
And last, but not least, produce AWESOME content.
Here are some additional resources:
- SEO for WordPress in the WordPress.org Codex
- WordCampSLC 2012 - I’ll probably be presenting
- If you’re in Utah, SEO.com sponsors a WordPress meet-up for users, developers, bloggers, and other interested parties. Keep up on the meet-up’s website.
- WordPress.org forums are usually a good place to find information for troubleshooting.